With 2018 consigned to history and holiday season break all but over, most business leaders and boards of directors are turning their attention to what the year ahead (and beyond) holds. Even a cursory glance reveals a plethora of issues that may have an impact on business continuity and, potentially, continuance.
Consider these indicators:
And that's just the start.
As is usual at this time of the year, business and governance commentators have stuck their collective necks out, promulgating a variety of predictions given the indicators (as real or imagined as each indicator may be); each behaving as if they possess levels of predictive insight beyond what a reasonably educated person might be able determine by tossing a coin. But do they? They cannot all be correct—in fact, none may be.
The challenge for boards, of course, is working out how to respond.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that boards have become confused by what's going on around them. Increasing numbers have grown quite tired of 'conventional wisdoms' and so-called 'best practices' (plurals intentional). Some have responded by taking defensive positions, and others are boldly trying things without first understanding the contextual relevance.
My response to enquiries from boards is straightforward: open your eyes to the possibilities, think and act strategically, but don't be impetuous.
Helping boards respond well typically involves sharing insights from research and practice; facilitating discussions; and providing contextually-relevant and evidence-based guidance. To this end, I will be travelling extensively again in 2019: the following international trips are confirmed in my diary, and more are pending:
If you would like to discuss options to lift the effectiveness of your board in 2019, please get in touch. I look forward to hearing from you.
The 2018 edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum was convened in Vienna, Austria this week. This post summarises insights from the second day (click here for insights from Day 1). I didn't take as many notes on the second day, preferring instead to sit, listen and dwell on what was said. (I also missed a couple of sessions, one to finalise my own preparations to speak; another to spend time privately with a two inspirational thinkers.) However, there were, for me, two speakers that really stamped their mark on the day, as follows:
Hermann Hauser, director of Amadeus Capital Partners and chair of the European Innovation Council, delivered a strong message, arguing that humanity is on the cusp of an inflection point (moving beyond evolution to design thinking) that has the potential to 'change everything' in the reasonably near future. He identified four significant disrupters:
The implications of these disrupters are, frankly, rather daunting. Synthetic biology offers the prospect of defeating disease, but at what cost? Quantum computing has the potential to render electronic security systems useless. One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to realise the massive implications for commerce, banking and warfare. Researchers and technologists are committed to bringing these capabilities to market. But at what cost to humanity? The ethical implications are not insignificant. Recognising this, Hauser suggested that the state has an important role to play, to ensure appropriate regulatory boundaries and safeguards are established. But it must act quickly, before the genie gets out.
Martin Wolf, chief economics editor of the Financial Times, spoke passionately about the role of the state; in his view, the single-most important institution in human history. I first heard Wolf speak a few years ago. He left a strong impression on me then, and did so again as he spoke. Addressing the question of how states can 'work better', Wolf named several important roles that the state 'must' fulfil par excellence:
Such roles need to be implemented with aplomb. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to anarchy, in Wolf's view.
My speaking and advisory tour of several European cities got off to a great start on Sunday evening. The first port of call was Stockholm. Liselotte Hägertz Engstam, an established director and board chair in the Nordics, hosted a seminar at Tändstickspalatset; a great venue. The theme was [the] Board's role in innovation strategy and governing new digital business models. Some 35–40 directors and board chairs with just over 100 board mandates between them, gathered to hear two speakers, namely, Stephanie Woerner and yours truly. The following paragraphs tell the story.
Digital business model and board contributions
Stephanie Woerner, a Research scientist at Sloan School of Management in Boston, explored value creation in the digital economy. She observed that many (most?) corporations were somewhat lumberous, offered rather average customer service and, tellingly, were ill-equipped to take advantage of emerging 'digital opportunities'. As such, they are at risk of losing out to younger, more nimble businesses. Woerner identified six questions that companies need to resolve if they are to compete effectively in the digital economy:
Then, Woerner spoke about digital savviness, making two points along the way. First, 62% of directors claim to be 'digital savvy' (and, presumably, ready to tackle emergent challenges), but only 24% are indeed savvy. Second, the presence of three digital savvy directors is sufficient to drive improved [financial] performance outcomes. With that, I sat up. How might a quantitative analysis be a reliable predictor of a contingent outcome? A person at the table I was seated at was similarly exercised. She interjected, asking what the term 'digital savvy' meant. "Great question. We used the experience and qualifications of board members as a proxy." Woerner went on the explain how this has been arrived at: a keyword analysis of resumés (searching for words such as technology, CIO, disruption, software). The presence of such words on a resumé was deemed sufficient to categorise someone as being digitally savvy. You could have heard a pin drop.
While Woerner's assertion (that boards need to be knowledgeable of emerging technology trends) is intuitively reasonable, the underpinning research appeared to be flawed. Others seemed to agree, suggesting it is more important for directors to have a curious mind, read widely and ask probing questions. Notwithstanding this, Woerner's core point was on the money: boards need to get up to speed with technological innovations and the opportunities they present.
Making a difference, from the boardroom
I spoke second, the task being to both build on Woerner's comments and add some insights of my own. I started by acknowledging today's reality, that change seems to be the only constant. Woerner set a great platform so there was no need to labour the point, except to say that directors need to work hard to keep up. Importantly, contemporary recommendations including so-called 'best practices' provide little assurance of better board practice much less improved firm performance.
An important duty of all boards is ensure the future performance of the governed company. If boards are to make a difference, they need to make informed decisions about the future direction of the company, and verify whether desired performance outcomes are actually being achieved or not. Four crucial questions that boards need to ask were tabled, these being:
After suggesting some practical considerations, I introduced the strategic governance framework, an option for more effective contributions (as revealed from my doctoral research and subsequently lauded by both practicing directors and scholars around the world).
The seminar presented two perspectives, namely, that directors need to become a lot more digital savvy if they are to contribute effectively in the boardroom, and that effectiveness is a function of director capability, board activity and underlying behavioural characteristics of directors, not what they look like.
Board readiness to lead well in the emerging 'digital' world is a concern—made worse given boards tend to pay much more attention to historical performance than wrestling with the [largely unknown] future. This is the elephant in the room. 'Digital' is but a symptom, I suspect. If boards are to have any hope of influencing firm performance, what they do in the boardroom (i.e., corporate governance) needs to change.
In a couple of weeks, I'll be in England and Europe, for the third and final time this year. The schedule includes attendance at two conferences, delivery of two keynotes and a bevy of meetings, as follows:
While the schedule is fairly full, some gaps remain for additional meetings (in London).
If you would like to meet, please get in touch. I'd be glad to discuss any aspect of boards, corporate governance or effective board practice; explore a research idea; or respond to (future) speaking or advisory enquiries.
In business, as in life, the task of exerting control is commonly perceived as being one of exercising limits; of saying 'no' and imposing constraints. Such perceptions are well-founded. Check these verb usages of 'control', lifted straight from the dictionary:
If you have spent much time in boardrooms, you'll know that director behaviour tends to be consistent with these definitions, more so if the chief executive is ambitious or entrepreneurially-minded (the two attributes are not necessarily the same). When asked, board justification for exercising caution is straightforward: to keep the chief executive honest and to keep things 'on track'.
Such an understanding—holding management to account—seems admirable. Monitoring and supervising management is one key task (of four) of corporate governance after all. But does a strong hand actually lead to better outcomes? More pointedly, how might the exercise of restraint and limits advance the purposes of the company (noting the board is responsible for ensuring performance goals are achieved)? Such conduct is analogous to applying the brake when the intention is to drive on. A growing body of academic and empirical evidence suggests that a strong hand, like increased compliance, may actually counter-productive.
Rather than persist with what is demonstrably a problematic approach, it might be more fruitful for boards to consider another perspective. What if control is re-conceived in positive terms (namely, constructive control), whereby the board's mindset is to provide guidance (think: shepherd or coach) by ensuring the safety of the company and steering management to stay focused on agreed purpose and strategy? Might this deliver a better outcome?
Emerging research (here, but contact me to learn more) suggests the answer is 'yes'. Strongly-engaged and strategically competent boards that display high levels of situational awareness as they debate issues from multiple perspectives and make informed decisions in the context of the long-term purpose of the company can make a difference. Constructive control is one of five important behavioural characteristics of effective boards identified in this research.
After a longish hiatus—nearly four months—Musings is back. Thank you to regular readers and supporters who have asked about the radio silence. The explanation is straightforward: a busy period of speaking and advisory engagements, research and board work left precious little time to ponder.
But that is history now. My intention is to pick up where I left off in early August, by posting on topical matters and emerging trends; challenging orthodoxy and, importantly, exploring how boards might become more effective in their pursuit of high firm performance and sustainable wealth creation.
Thank you for your interest in Musings. Your feedback and commentary is appreciated.
What can Plato, a philosopher who lived over 2400 years ago possibly teach the leaders of modern companies? After all, the modern form of company only came into being in the last few hundred years, two millenia after Plato died. As it happens, when it comes to strategy and decision-making, Plato can teach us a lot—a point made by the author of this article. Here's an excerpt:
Plato likened the guidance of a state to the navigation, piloting, and crewing of a ship at sea. The analogy holds for the strategist and a war effort. The strategist is the navigator with skills that few others have but he may not always be the captain who leads the crew, those that must actually carry out the strategy. Strategy is not responsive to constant or wild adjustments; the hand on the rudder must be subtle and steady; the mind behind it focused on the north star of the political end state. It is for this reason that one could expect that the navalist’s mind more easily grasps the nature of strategy than that of the continentalist. For centuries, ship’s captains engaged in strategy both military and diplomatic with little guidance and no recourse to seek more just by the nature of communications and the distance that a ship could carry them.
This is one of the best summaries that I have read in a long time. Though written in the context of naval strategy and referring to Plato, the roles and tasks described here are directly applicable to companies and boards. The author writes that strategy (strategos: the art of command) is something developed at senior levels, with the long-term purpose (north star) in mind. The captain's job is to implement the strategy. Teamwork between the strategist and the captain is both expected and crucial.
The correspondence to companies and boards is stark. 'Guidance' (first sentence) corresponds to governance (kybernetes: to steer, to guide to pilot), for example. The senior-most decision-maker is the board of directors; the chief executive is 'the captain'. In naval terms, the best chance of making progress towards the 'north star' occurs when the strategist and captain collaborate closely—and so it is with the modern corporation.
From entering the business lexicon less than quarter of a century ago, 'corporate governance' has come a long way. Prior to 2000, the term was rarely mentioned in business discussions much less amongst the general public. Boards and directors directed the affairs of the firm, and that was it. Now the term is ubiquitous. Its usage has changed over time as well: from describing the functioning of the board of directors, the term is now used to describe all manner of corporate activity, much of which bears little if any semblance to the board or governance at all.
The proclivity to use the terms 'governance' and 'corporate governance' has trickled down from big business to now infect family-controlled firms. Well-intentioned but inappropriate usage—notably advisers (typically, but only accounting firms) making assertions such as "You need governance"—has had unintended consequences. When attention is diverted away from running and overseeing the business to "implement governance" (whatever that means or entails) without justification, costs have a tendency to go up not down, and a whole new set of problems including confusion, consternation and strained relationships often follow.
Over the last two decades, I've had the privilege of working with the directors and shareholders of hundreds of family-controlled firms, ranging from 'mom and pop' operations to much larger (multi-hundred million dollar) enterprises. Awareness of (and interest in) governance has become palpable, more so if a director has just read an article or heard a talk from an expert purporting a 'best practice' governance solution. Yet directors know that a single answer rarely works everywhere. Context is crucial in business; every situation is, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. As a consequence, the universal application of a formulaic 'best practice' solution does not make much sense. Recognition of this gives rise to many questions, especially from the shareholders and directors of family-controlled firms. Here is a selection of the more frequently asked ones:
These questions are typical of those that have been front-of-mind for the directors and shareholders of the family-controlled firms that I've interacted with in recent months. Curiously, questions about social interaction, boardroom behaviour and family dynamics (the human dimensions) are asked far less often. This, despite the board being a collective of directors—people—who are required to work together in the best interests of the firm. Boards that resolve these so-called 'soft' questions tend to be more effective. But more on that next time.
This article is the first of three on the topic of 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The second, which explores undue influence and the impact of family dynamic is available here. A final instalment, which will make suggestions to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late 2018. Boards wanting to discuss matters raised in these articles should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
Netflix has been in the news a bit lately, aided no doubt by public interest in its rapidly increasing 'reach', meteoric rise in its stock price and membership of a new generation of behemoth—the FAANG club. Now, the actions of the board of directors have seen Netflix become even more newsworthy, principally a consequence of this article published in Harvard Business Review. The board of directors operates quite differently from many others and, indeed, conventional wisdom. Could this be a contributing factor in Netflix's success?
Conventional wisdom, supported by both agency theory and 'best practice' recommendations of directors' institutes (in the western world, at least), suggests that 'distance' (a clear separation between the board and management) is important if boards are to objective in decision-making. The listing rules of most stock exchanges specify that at least two directors must satisfy established independence criteria at all times. Independence is de rigeuer, even though no consistent link between director independence and firm performance has ever been identified!
Back to Netflix. Two researchers, David Larcker and Brian Tayan of Stanford University, gained permission to investigate how the Netflix board keeps up to date and informed, a prerequisite of effective decisions. They found that the Netflix board does not embrace conventional wisdom. The full research report, from which the HBR article was derived, is available on the SSRN website.
The Netflix approach is based on proximity not distance. The approach has been adopted to help directors resolve a fatal flaw present in most boards: Five out of every six directors do not have a comprehensive understanding of the business being governed. Specific measures in place at Netflix include:
The combined effect of these measures has been profound: directors are much more well-informed than they would have otherwise been. The handicaps of lack of transparency or hard-to-assess information are removed. The perennial problem of information asymmetry that besets boards globally has been, it seems, solved—in Netflix's case at least.
Standing back a little from the Netflix case, several learnings are available for boards, as follows:
Many boards and directors do take their role and responsibility very seriously. But, sadly, a significant number do not display appropriate levels of commitment. If boards are to become more consistently committed to the cause—the pursuit of high firm performance and longer-term value creation—they could do a lot worse than take a page from the Netflix playbook and the advice shared here. If you want to learn more, including scheduling a discrete briefing to explore how a mechanism-based understanding of corporate governance can contribute to improved board effectiveness, please get in touch.
The chattering class has been very active of late, responding vociferously as case after case of corporate failure and misstep has come to light. Carillion plc and the venerable Institute of Directors (both UK), AMP (Australia) and Fletcher Building (New Zealand) are the latest examples that have resulted in consternation and angst.
That seemingly strong and enduring organisations continue fail (or have significant missteps) on a reasonably regular basis is a cause for much concern; the societal and economic consequences are not insignificant. Many commentators (primarily, but by no means exclusively, the media) have responded by berating company leaders (the board and management specifically), placing 'blame' squarely at their feet. This is a reasonable: ultimate responsibility for firm performance lies with the board after all.
Calls for tighter regulation and stiffer codes abound. Yet the geographical spread of these failures implies that local statutes probably aren't a significant contributory factor. The responses of the boards have been telling: some have circled the wagons (a demonstration of hubris?), others have cast out the chairman or chief executive (diverting blame elsewhere?), and some individuals have simply walked away.
At this point, it would be easy to join the chattering class; to stand on the margins and berate all and sundry. But let's not go there. Instead, let's try to identify repeated patterns of activity may have contributed to the situations, in search of learnings. Several things that stand out:
The role of the auditor: Most if not all of the firms mentioned above were attested by their respective auditors to have been operating satisfactorily. Yet they were not, clearly. Whether the auditors were in cahoots with management or the board, failing to discharge their duty to provide an accurate assessment or, even, inept remains to be seen. Regardless, something is amiss. To date, few commentators have called out the audit profession as being an accessory (Nigel Kendall is a notable exception).
Business knowledge: Remarkably few of the directors of the companies identified here seem to understand the business of the business they were governing. Many directors are recruited for their technical skills (notably, legal and accounting expertise), but few if any have any significant experience in the sector that the business operates in—research by McKinsey shows that one director in six possess such knowledge. How any board can make informed decisions when most of its directors do not understand the wider operating context well is perplexing—it would struggle to detect important though weak signals, much less understand the implications of them.
Board involvement in strategy: The boards of all of the firms identified here relied heavily on management to prepare strategy. Directors backed themselves to ask questions in response to proposals when they were presented. While most directors are capable and well-intentioned, such a heavy reliance on management is unwise. If the board is not involved in the development of strategy in some way, as many researchers and commentators recommend, the likelihood of the board understanding what it is being asked to approve and subsequently providing adequate steerage and guidance is low.
If boards are to learn from the failure cases noted here (amongst others), the first and, frankly, most pressing priority is to mitigate apparent weaknesses and focus on what matters. My research suggests that high levels of firm performance are contingent on several factors including:
Some commentators have suggested that the success of the board is entirely a matter of luck. I disagree. While outcomes are not guaranteed, my doctoral research and experience shows that boards can exert influence beyond the boardroom, including on firm performance, but only if they focus on 'the right things'. Unless and until boards start taking their responsibility for the performance for the company seriously the hope of much changing remains, sadly, dim.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.