GE, a company with a strong history of success including a reputation of being the world's best-run firm, has hit turbulent times. Profit forecasts have dropped by half in the past two years, with the inevitable knock-on effect on the share price. It seems that the size and complexity of the business, and probably some poor decisions in the past, is proving to be a challenge for the board and its ability to fulfil its duties.
Consider the following indicators, reported in an article published in The Economist:
How the GE board can make meaningful decisions given these indicators, much less lead the firm intentionally into the future, is hard to imagine. Sadly, this is not a unique case. Wells Fargo, Wynyard Group and, most recently, Carillion are examples of companies that have suffered through poor reporting, weak engagement and the seeming inability of the board to make courageous decisions.
Fortunately, boards finding themselves in a similar situation are not without options. If they are prepared to retake control of the firm they govern (which will probably require some decisive actions; brevity and clarity of reporting being necessary but insufficient) and take an active interest in its strategic future, then the likelihood of actually making a difference is greatly enhanced.
I had the distinct privilege of attending the 9th Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna this week. Approximately 500 people attended the two day forum held in Aula der Wissenschften (Hall of Sciences). The programme included fifteen plenary sessions and a parallel session (four tracks). The very full programme was run to time; a Swiss watch operated with Germanic efficiency, in the birthplace of Drucker.
Many global authorities in strategy, innovation, entrepreneurship and related addressed those in attendance (and many more utilising the live feed option). Presenters included Richard Straub; Angelica Kohlmann; Jenny Darroch; Hal Gregersen; Roger L. Martin; Anil K. Gupta; Bill Fischer; Rita Gunther McGrath; Sidney Finkelstein; Tammy Erickson and Carlotta Perez, and more. The forum produced many insights; the following commentary merely a portion lifted from my 28 pages of notes:
Richard Straub, President of the Peter Drucker Society, set the scene by noting that Drucker, a man genuinely interested in the bigger 'why' questions, maintained a strong focus on business performance. He avoided cookie-cutter 'solutions', a reflection perhaps that such solutions don't work within the dynamic and social context of modern organisations. Straub went on to say that management is most accurately conceived as a liberal art [to be understood holistically], not as a social science that can be reduced to constituent elements.
Lisa Hershman, DeNovo Group, posed the question, "How do we generate growth and ensure more people participate in it?" This was not a veiled call to embrace left-leaning socialist ideals and anti-business practices, but rather a clarion call for 'inclusive capitalism'. (I've been using an equivalent term in speeches in the last couple of years: 'capitalism with a heart'.) Hershman noted that around half of the young people in the United States say they prefer socialism over capitalism. This, she said, is a clear indication that something is wrong. Business leaders have become too focussed on themselves and shareholders, to the exclusion of others. This collapse of confidence needs to be addressed by business leaders. If it is not, companies are likely to find it increasingly difficult to recruit motivated and capable young people. Why? Because they are not interested in working for poor leaders who they do not believe in, much less aspire to.
Jenny Darroch, Dean, US Peter Drucker School, explored the essence of an effective business and societal ecosystem. She described five key interests (characteristics), namely, a functioning society, where all can participate; recognition that management is a liberal art, not a simplistic of formulaic process; that self-management is important, because neither the state nor business 'owes' people work; that performance [actually] matters; and, 'transdisciplinarity' (i.e., looking beyond the immediate context, sector, role, team) is crucial. These comments set a solid platform for what was to follow.
Hal Gregersen, MIT Leadership Center, spoke on the important topics of community and communication. He asserted that isolation is the number one enemy of innovation. The world is far too complex for one person acting alone to be effective. Leaders that sit in their office and wait for input are far less effective that the best leaders, who actively seek to reduce (to zero, if they can) barriers in pursuit of the best possible information to understand current reality and what might be possible, so as to inform effective decision-making. The best leaders also encourage dissent, inviting people to both ask and respond to uncomfortable questions, because they want to discover what is wrong and what can be improved. Asking the right questions and, importantly, getting authentic responses (but not necessarily simple answers) depends on being in the right place (read: with staff, customers, in the market) and inviting people to challenge the status quo.
Roger L. Martin, Rotman School of Management, built on Gregersen's comments by observing the prevalence of certitude (that sense of 'being right' common amongst leaders especially so-caleld alpha males and queen bees. Rather than stridently asserting preferences and blindly applying models (which are often wrong because they are simplifications of reality), Martin recommended that leaders reframe their statements as follows. "I'm modelling the world, but my model is incomplete. What can you add?" Great leaders pursue multiple models, combining and building to make something better (note, a better solution not a compromise). According to Martin, this always leads to better outcomes.
Several speakers addressed the question of whether growth is actually an imperative. No speaker spoke against growth or its optionality. Rather than almost assumed the answer is 'yes', and moved quickly to consider how growth might be achieved. Anil Gupta, for example, noted that China is responsible for 27 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and India 6.6 per cent. He opined that if India is to grow out of poverty then growth must be coloured—green—to avoid killing the very people it seeks to lift out of poverty. The recommended route is to industrialise, but to do so with smart technology to avoid the avoid the environmental mistakes (and their negative consequences) experienced by China and others.
Martin Reeves, Boston Consulting Group, added that while growth is necessary, it is beomcing increasingly elusive. As a consequence, companies operating in developed nations need to change their focus. Rather than growth at any cost, companies need to discover and pursue the right type of growth. Invoking Aristotle, Reeves observed that companies that embrace both economic and social goals (oikonomic companies) do better in the long term. Specific recommendations (boards and directors, take note) include:
Allyson Stewart-Allen, International Marketing Partners, and Julia Hobshawn, Editorial Intelligence, sounded a warning, arguing that the unfettered pursuit of connectedness—networking in pursuit prosperity, health and whatever else—has a dark side: info-besity. An over-reliance on social media networks have the unwanted effect of starving people of what actually matters: deep socail connections. People are human beings, not human doings, and social connections matter much more than activity masquerading as social connectedness. Pointedly, sustainable relationships and business sustainability is dependent on people, and their interaction and curiosity not social media. I found myself thinking, "Isn't this obvious?". Maybe so, but a quick glance around the room suggested maybe not: almost everyone within eyesight has their eyes down, using a smart device as the speakers continued.
Joseph Ogutu, Safaricon, and Haiyang Wang, China–India Institute, provided insights from a developing nation perspective. Whereas many Westerners perceive social disparity to be limited in developing nations, the reality is somewhat different. Disparity between people groups in developing nations is actually higher than in developed nations. Further, many African nations have de-industrialised since gaining independence. The speakers made strong calls for developing nations to embrace manufacturing as a means of achieving the economic growth needed to lift millions out of abject poverty. While many entrepreneurs and investors stand ready to fund initiatives, local communities need to pursue partnerships, lest they suffer new forms of dependency.
Steve Blank, entrepreneur, and Bill Fischer, IMD, observed that the pressures faced by chief executives in the twenty-first century are different from those in the twentieth century. Then, if CEOs met the expectations of their boards (however expressed) and responded to competitive pressures, then they were reasonably safe in their role. But things have become more complex since the turn of the century. Two additional forces have emerged, namely, activist investors (read: corporate raiders) and disruption. If CEOs are to respond well to this new reality, they need to become comfortable with ambiguity and chaos. Helpfully, Blank and Fischer offered four additional suggestions to enhance leadership effectiveness in the twenty-first century:
Rita Gunther McGrath, Columbia Business School, introduced the forum to a tool to help leaders and investors undertsnad the future growth prospects of any given company. The 'ImaginationPremium' is, simply, a ratio of a company's market capitalisation and value from operations. If the imagination premium is high (but not too high to become hype—Tesla), the sustainable growth is likely. Conversely, low ratios suggest growth is unlikely. The extreme case of a ratio less than 1 suggests shrinkage.
On strategy, innovation and disruption. Several speakers outlined cases to demonstrate that a coherent, longer-term strategy is actually more, not less, important in times of change and disruption. They noted that well-formed strategy, not detailed plans (often, incorrectly, called strategic plans), helps lift the gaze of both leaders and staff above immediate technologies and disruptions, to focus on purpose, the customer and longer-term goals.
General observations. Standing back a little, the investment to attend was well-spent. To be amidst giants, and chat with some of them (all were accessible and none pretentious) was a privilege and an honour—I learnt a lot. The only disappointment from my perspective concerned the speaking roster. While about 20–25 per cent of the speakers were world-class (both content and delivery), a similar percentage were disappointing. The lesser speakers either repeated what others had said, or their presentations were thinly-veiled sales pitches. Upwards of ten attendees, including some speakers, voiced similar concerns in private. My hope for future editions is that the organisers review speaker candidates more closely, to ensure a consistently high standard. Stepping beyond that, the general calibre of the forum (organisation, content, delivery) was very high. My intention is to return to Vienna in November 2018, for the the 10th edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum. Hopefully, I'll be able to share the platform, offering some insights relevant to the theme.
Unlike previous editions of the EIASM corporate governance workshop that I've attended, the 2017 keynote session was delivered by three luminaries, not one. W. Lee Howell, Bob Garratt and Tom Donaldson—men of considerable gravitas in their respective fields—led the keynote session together. Each spoke separately, and a panel discussion followed.
Lee Howell opened the session with a telling quote: "Being right too soon is socially irresponsible" (Heinlein). This quote, a reference to impetuous decision-making on the basis of seemingly-strong (and sometimes quite weak) evidence, notes a common weakness amongst strong leaders, more so in complex environments. Though not named explicitly, Howell's opening comments carried strong implications for those advocating diversity in boardrooms and other structural 'remedies'.
Howell followed by describing the efforts of the World Economic Forum (the Davos meeting in particular) to improve decision-making quality in the face of rapid change, technological advancements, globalisation and high levels of cultural and social complexity. He said that WEF is intentionally pursuing four priorities to achieve the desired outcome—these being
Howell's comments set the scene. Though provocative in the minds of some, the assertion that business is not independent from government and civil society was generally accepted across the largely academic audience. The implications for boards are not insignificant.
Bob Garratt spoke next. He opened with a strong critique—that corporate governance as we have known it is dead. Though aimed more so at the practitioner, regulator and director institute communities, this opening gambit had the effect of capturing the attention of everyone in the room. The implication, of course, is that if the understanding of corporate governance is somehow wrong, then much current research may actually be futile—a point that Garratt and I have discussed and are in strong agreement.
Whereas corporate governance was conceived as a term to describe the effective work of the board of directors as it seeks to drive business performance, Garratt noted the demise of the term, to now one closely associated with the task of compliance and the associated activity box-ticking (though this is generally denied by directors when they are interviewed). In an oblique reference to his new book, Garratt asserted that the rot must be stopped. Continuing, he noted four international trends that boards need to respond to if the value creation mandate that they can and should be pursuing is to be realised—specifically,
The third speaker was Tom Donaldson. He mounted a challenge to boards and directors, arguing that they need to embrace 'second order values thinking' as a means of moving beyond short-termism, hubris and self-centred decision-making. The critical difference between first order and second order values is that first order values tend to be non-intrinsic, whereas second order values are intrinsic. Interestingly, most management theorists think in terms of first order values.
Donaldson closed with a strong challenge. Noting that boards of directors are uniquely positioned to act on the basis of intrinsic values, openly and without double-speak, Donaldson called on boards to embrace an inclusivity, meaning to act beyond pure and unadulterated self-interest. A strong call, one Peter Drucker and Henry Mintzberg would both have endorsed.
Together, these three speakers' comments had the effect of shining much-needed light on the ills of normative board practices (read: corporate governance). Helpfully though, the speakers did not stop their criticism of board practice. They suggested possible solutions, and supported them with strong arguments. Directors and directors' institutes could do far worse than to investigate these ideas and test their relevance and applicability.
Just over twelve months ago (6 January 2016 to be exact), I wrote this muse, a reflection on both the state of corporate governance and the usage of the term. At that time, confusion over the use of the term 'corporate governance' was common, and the profession of director was shadowed somewhat by several high profile failures and missteps. The blog post seemed to hit a nerve, triggering tens of thousands of page views and searches within Musings; many hundreds of comments, questions, debates and challenges (including some from people who took personal offence that the questions were even asked); and, speaking requests from around the world. That many people were asking whether corporate governance had hit troubled waters and were searching for answers to improve board effectiveness was reassuring.
That was twelve months ago. How much progress has been made since?
At the macro level, seismic geo-political decisions; the rise of populism and the diversity agenda; and, risks of many types, especially terrorism and cyber-risk have altered the landscape. Also, new governance codes and regulations have been introduced to provide boundaries and guidance to boards. Yet amongst the changing landscape something has remained remarkably constant: the list of corporate failures or significant missteps emanating, seemingly, from the boardroom continues to grow unabated. Wynyard Group and Wells Fargo are two recent additions; there are many others.
Sadly, companies and their boards continue to fail despite good practice recommendations in the form of governance codes and (supposedly) increasing levels of awareness of what constitutes good practice. This is a serious problem: it suggests that, despite the best efforts of many, progress has been limited. Clearly, ideas and recommendations are not in short supply, but what of their efficacy—do they address root causes or only the symptoms? And what of the behaviours and motivations of directors themselves, and the board's commitment to value creation (cf. value protection or, worse still, reputation protection)?
That the business landscape is and will continue to be both complex and ever-changing is axiomatic. If progress is to be made, shareholders need to see tangible results (a reasonable expectation, don't you think?), for which the board is responsible. If the board is to provide effective steerage and guidance, it needs to be discerning, pursuing good governance practices over spurious recommendations that address symptoms or populist ideals. How might this be achieved?
An important priority for boards embarking on this journey towards effectiveness and good governance is to reach agreement on terminology, culture, the purpose of the company and the board's role in achieving the agreed purpose. If agreement can be reached, at least then the board will have a solid foundation upon which to assess options, make strategic decisions and, ultimately, pursue performance.
The level of interest in board effectiveness and good governance outcomes seems to be growing, or so it seems if the number of advisory, speaking and workshop enquiries that have arrived in recent weeks is any indication. Already, 2017 is shaping up to be busier than last year!
My first trip to the UK and EU for 2017 is scheduled for mid-March. The programme is starting to take shape, as follows. Commitments include speaking engagements (topics: the board's role in value creation, emerging trends and findings from my latest research), workshops (board capability development), advisory meetings and a training course.
If you have a question or want to set up a meeting, please get in touch.
EDIT (30 Jan): My diary is now nearly full—the only remaining opportunities to book a meeting are in London. If you want to meet, but not in March, or if you want to discuss the possibility of an engagement in the future, please register your interest. At this stage, it is my intention to return to the UK and EU in June and September.
One of the great joys of the holiday season is the opportunity it presents to let the mind wander, both to relax and recharge after a busy year, and to draw strength for the year ahead. Whether out walking, chatting with friends, completing personal projects or, more simply, sitting and reading, the time and space afforded by the lull in both business activity and the associated flow of correspondence is one to be savoured.
Amongst the books and papers that I have read in the past two weeks, the edited summary of a speech by Admiral James G. Stavridis at the National Defence University convocation in 2011 stood out. (Stavridis retired from the US Navy in 2013. He is now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.)
Stavridis offered the class of 2012 three keys to successful leadership in the 21st-century: read, think, write. The straightforward though wide-ranging message contained some real gems, applicable to leaders from many walks of life, especially those involved in demanding and fluid environments. Here are a few of the standout comments:
"The quintessential skill of an officer [leader] it to bring order out of chaos."
"Reading is the rock upon which you will build the rest of your career."
"We must think our way to success in incredibly complex scenarios."
"After you read, and think, I would argue you must write. Writing ... is essential in communicating what we have learned, as well as allowing others to challenge our views and thus make them stronger."
"Diversity of capabilities, capacities, and responses to any challenge should be seen as a strength, not a weakness, but only if action and tools can be used synergistically."
Stavridis said that collaboration, an innovative mindset and a preparedness to move quickly in response to emergent opportunities are crucial attributes if leaders are to meet and successfully overcome complex situations. The keys—of reading, thinking and writing—provide the foundation. However, a comprehensive approach is still needed: to bring together and synergise the talents of a variety of people from many different quarters, because no one person has all the insights let alone answers.
The parallels between the military examples mentioned by Stavridis and the business context are striking. If military campaigns are to be successful, generals must understand complex and fluid situations, deal with emergent opportunities and challenges, and make decisions promptly. Similarly, company success is contingent in no small measure on the effectiveness of the board as a decision-making team.
Despite the seemingly unending demands that press in, the most valuable asset in the director's arsenal remains: namely, the gift of time. How will you use it to your advantage in 2017?
This is the third update of several to summarise observations from the 33rd Governance Institute of Australia National Conference being held in Sydney this week. Here are the links to the first and second updates. (The final update, covering the second day, will be published tomorrow.)
This update includes observations from the late afternoon session.
The session was dominated by a panel discussion on the topic of culture and why it matters. John Price and Judith Fox, both of whom had addressed the conference earlier were joined by Peter WIlson (Chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute) to discuss this important topic.
Fox and Price quickly established the strong correlation between positive organisational culture and company performance, although they did so through the 'back door': asserting the poor culture often leads to erosion of value. While this assertion is intuitively accurate, the next statement caught many in the audience off guard. The statement was, and I quote, "Good governance frameworks lead to good culture". Really? I looked forward to hearing how this might be. Sadly, the claim was not substantiated—the audience was left hanging. I was hoping for something more substantive than a straightforward claim. Fortunately, Wilson provided it—his comments caught the audience's attention.
Wilson tackled several myths of culture head on, reminding the audience that culture and performance are different; that a good culture is not a reliable predictor of high company performance (although the opposite is more reliably true as Fox and Price made clear); and, that culture can actually be measured, despite assertions to the contrary. Wilson backed up each of these claims with stories and/or evidence, all of which had strong practical undertones. Most notably, Wilson called out the importance of the board to set the 'tone at the top', and to insist (through reporting and walk-throughs) to ensure that the 'mood in the middle' is consistent and not, as is more common a 'muddle in the middle'.
Beyond the panelist's comments, my thoughts wandered to the title of Garratt's helpful book The fish rots from the head several times throughout the session. If the board is not leading by example, it is not leading at all.
You must give newly appointed Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer Tim Sloan credit. No sooner had disgraced former CEO John Stumpf left the building, Sloan delivered a speech to all employees to apologise for the scandal that had beset the company. That Sloan delivered an apology is a good first step on the path towards redemption (the company boasts a long and proud history), even though "we're sorry for the pain" appears to be an apology for the angst employees faced rather than the fake accounts action itself.
Two things are especially notable in this case:
That Stumpf's (and now Sloan's) boss has both remained silent and appointed from within is very telling.
(Note to the Wells Fargo board: If you want to talk further, in total confidence, here are my contacts details.)
Former sharemarket darling, Wynyard Group, was put into voluntary administration this week. The announcement was made via a notification to the share market and notice on the company website.
The company was highly-valued, well-funded and governed by seemingly capable directors. Its products, software systems to assist in crime fighting, were seemingly in demand—evidenced by strong revenue growth since an IPO in 2013. Milford Asset Management, a shareholder, valued the company at nearly $120M at the time of the IPO. But Wynyard failed to make money, then or since. The result was inevitable: the company became caught in an ever-deepening hole that, in the end, was too deep to climb out from. When last traded, the notional value of the company had fallen to less than $40M. Now that the liquidator is involved, the residual share value is (close to) zero.
What went wrong?
Whereas some failures reported this year appear to have been grounded on hubris or fraudulent behaviour, such motivations do not appear to have been significant at Wynyard Group. The failure appears to have been more straightforward. Indicators have been visible for some time as well. Ultimately, the actions (or inaction?) of the board of directors need to be placed under scrutiny.
The company's business model was characterised by infrequent high-value sales (read: a lumpy revenue profile). The company also employed lots of highly-capable software engineers and other technical specialists. Effective cash management is crucial in such companies. Superficially, the company appears to have been carrying too much cost, suggesting that it took on expense too far ahead of the revenue curve. The company does not appear to have had a backup plan to be activated if revenue expectations were not realised (in either the expected timeframe or manner).
The market seemed to know there was a problem (track the share price over the last 18–24 months), yet the situation was allowed to continue seemingly without any major corrective action being taken. The company burned through over $140 million of shareholder funds. It's little wonder that the investors became bitter.
Why were the problems not addressed by the board much earlier? Was the board (which included several high-profile directors, three of whom resigned in May and June 2016) not in control as it should have been? Though present, were directors asleep at the wheel rather, in effect adopting a passive style of oversight—in contrast to that conceptualised by Eells, Cadbury, Garratt and others? Was the board captured by an optimistic outlook and charismatic management? More pointedly, who was actually in control? The early indications suggest that the company was being controlled by management—ineffectively so, as is now patently clear—usurping the board's statutory role.
What can we learn?
That Wynyard Group has now joined (unwittingly) a rather long list of companies of interest to governance researchers and MBA classes (adding case example of what not to do) is clear. This case will also, no doubt, be played out in the business media and by 'experts' in the days to come. In the meantime and regardless of whether Wynyard is wound up or continues to trade in some form, the case provides salutary lessons for boards elsewhere:
Boards should discuss these and related matters periodically, to ensure they are appropriately focussed on (and adequately equipped to pursue) the value creation mandate. A formal, externally-facilitated board and governance assessment (providing an outside perspective) should offer useful insights as well, so long as any recommendations arising are acting on.
Al Brown, restauranteur, television personality and colourful raconteur, has a way with words. In this vignette, he talks candidly about several things he has learned about running a business successfully. These include:
While Al's businesses would be correctly categorised as small-medium enterprises by most people, the principles are universally applicable. I commend this short clip to all boards, as a scene setter just before your next board meeting gets underway; and, to executive teams, as a reminder of three important elements of effective leadership.
How do these points fit with your understanding of effective business and board leadership?
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.