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 and third, which will explore family dynamics and present recommendations to improve board effectiveness respectively, will follow in July and August. However, boards with pressing questions should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
During the last month, I have had the privilege of working with four different boards and management groups, helping them wrestle with why the company they govern exists (its purpose, or reason for being) ahead of formulating strategy to pursue the agreed purpose. All four engagements have been invigorating, revealing many insights and much passion (and debate!) within the assembled groups.
However, three troubling signs became apparent amidst the boards' commitment to the cause. These signs, which are not uncommon, have the potential to stymie the quality of the resultant strategy and management's ability to implement the approved strategy. The following comments highlight the issues:
The temptation to embrace detail, confuse the roles of the board and management and shorten the view remain very real challenges for companies around the world. If boards are to fulfil their responsibilities well, a clear sense of purpose supported by a coherent strategy is vital—regardless of the company's size, sector or span of operations.
The great news is that increasing numbers of boards are starting to realise that material benefits are available if they contribute directly to both the process of determining purpose and formulating strategy. However, boards have some way to go before the value they have the potential of adding is actually realised, if the evidence of the past month is any indication.
One of the biggest corporate news stories to break in 2016 was the Wells Fargo 'fake accounts' scandal. Many commentators, including me, wrote op-eds. At the time, I wondered whether the company had lost sight of its corporate purpose (reason for being), or if greed and hubris had permeated the corporate culture. These were speculations based on partially formed publicly-available snippets of information. Thankfully, the company initiated a far-reaching review, to try to get to the root of the problem.
Now, six months after the scandal was uncovered, the post-scandal investigation is reportedly wrapping up. Hopefully, the underlying causes will be identified, and credible recommendations to restore customer and market confidence in this once-fine brand will be presented. I look forward to reading the report.
After several years of paying high milk prices to its farmer-suppliers, Fonterra has hit hard times. International demand for milk products has slumped. On the supply side, prices paid to farmer-suppliers have tumbled. Some have said the problem is primarily related to changing demand especially in China, whereas others have suggested that Fonterra is complicit having stimulated supply to 'feed' its massive processing plants. To make matters worse, Fonterra has started losing farmer-suppliers to its competitors and it seems to be exercising "considerable discretion" with payment terms as well.
The latest commentary, an interview on Paul Henry's breakfast show today, lay out some of the challenges in plain English. Click here to watch the video clip. (disclosure: James Lockhart is my doctoral supervisor, but had no prior knowledge of this interview.)
The situation, which has been brewing for a several years, is messy to say the least. Other companies including Tatua and Open Country Dairy seem to coping much better. This begs several questions including whether the Fonterra board and management are actually in control; whether the corporate strategy is sound or not; and, whether the company has the financial and managerial resources to respond effectively. While I'm nowhere near close enough answer these questions, the old saying "where there's smoke there's fire" seems to apply.
Board diversity and board size are common topics of conversation in governance circles these days. Hardly a week goes by without one or both topics being mentioned. Most commonly people ask about board diversity and the relationship with firm performance, and the 'perfect' board size. Typically, my responses have been "Yes, diversity is good" and "No, there is no such thing as a perfect board size". Beyond that, context kicks in because every board, governance situation and even every decision is, to some extent at least, unique.
I have happily shared these responses and offered other supporting commentaries to all who ask—until now. What's changed? This article has set me thinking. Here are some insights that bear further consideration:
So, food for thought. The article was published by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania—not by some backyard consultant or agency trying to sell services. This means we can rely on the commentary. While it may or may not be 'right', it certainly has substance. I would love to hear what you think about these matters after you have read the article and pondered the ideas and suggestions.
The second day of the 11th European Conference on Management, Leadership and Governance opened with an outstanding keynote delivered by Lt. Col. Paulo Nunes of the Portugese Military Academy. Nunes is the Programme Leader of a NATO-sponsored multinational cyber defence education and training (MN CD E+T) project (click for more details).
The digital and physical worlds are, increasingly, being integrated—to the extent that some would suggest the existence of a blurred reality. 'Cyber' is a red-hot topic in both the business and military worlds, to the extent that it has become the frontline of various attempts to achieve both legal and illegal political, military and economic objectives. Nunes reported that the biggest weakness in the system is people, the human firewall.
The MN CD E+T project has been commissioned to design and implement an integrated approach to increasing awareness and providing training at the nation, NATO, EU and business levels to prepare, detect and respond the various weaknesses and threats. This includes work to determine expected behaviours and desired operational outcomes, and then to develop and deliver appropriate learning systems. Seventeen nations are currently involved in the programme, with more enrolments expected in the coming months.
If implemented well, the programme offers considerable benefits to businesses of all sizes and types. Boards and directors would be well advised to receive briefings and allocate time to think critically through the issues and implications.
Demands on boards to ensure desired company performance outcomes are achieved have led to increased scrutiny of directors and director effectiveness in recent years. Performance evaluation systems (PES) have emerged as a tool of choice to assess director performance. However, the influence of such systems on business performance is largely unknown.
Marie-Josée Roy reported the findings of a recent Canadian study that examined PES closely, in an attempt to bridge the knowledge gap. Roy's survey-based study of 89 large Canadian companies identified three distinct types of PES (exemplar, formal, minimalist—definitions of which were provided in her supporting paper). The typology was based on descriptions provided by survey respondents. Her analysis revealed some interesting correlations, including that boards with an exemplar PES were more likely to be involved in important board roles of strategy and monitoring, and were more likely to be effective in these roles.
While Roy's study was helpful in that it provided empirical evidence on board performance evaluation systems, it did not resolve the crucial question of how, in actuality, an effective PES might work. Survey respondents can (and often do) provide answers of convenience. Sadly, knowledge of whether any PES in use is actually useful (or not) for improving director and board performance remains largely unanswered. Other approaches to research, including longitundinal observations of boards in action and (probably) pyschological assessments are likely to be required if tangible progress is to be made. Even then, another even more vexing question—of whether improved board effectiveness leads to improved company performance—lies in wait.
The 11th European Conference on Management, Leadership and Governance (ECMLG) got underway this morning, at the Military Academy in Lisbon, Portugal. Nearly 90 researchers, from 28 countries have assembled to present their research and debate emergent ideas and models.
The overall theme of the conference was set by Colonel Nuno Lemos Pires when he delivered the opening keynote address From Leaders to Commanders. His talk provided some interesting contrasts between leadership in a civilian context and a military context:
Notwithstanding these contrasts and tensions, Pires then described several attributes of effective military leadership that appear to be applicable in the civilian context:
Leadership is a complex topic. In drawing both contrasts and parallels, including a direct challenge of the 'command and control' perception of military leadership, Pires set the scene well set for an interesting two days ahead.
Are you interested in emerging research on boards and corporate governance, and its practical application in boardrooms? If so, two upcoming conferences may appeal (I will be speaking at both of them):
Session summaries will be posted here, so check back later in the week for update, and then again in a couple of weeks time, on 12–13 November. Please let me know if you are interested in a particular paper or session: I will do my best to attend and report on it for you.
News that Volkswagen AG has been systematically pulling the wool over the eyes of its customers, regulators and the stock market has resulted in a predictable and rightful backlash this week. The stock price has plummeted, the brand reputation is in tatters and the chief executive is gone (albeit with a stellar severance package and not before attempting to deflect blame towards others).
The crisis raises all manner of issues, and many different levels. That the board apparently knew nothing of the problem is a bitter pill to swallow. Why not? Was the board asleep at the wheel, or was something else amiss? That it then made all manner of comments heightened the concern.
Once the emission cloud settles and people gather to understand the root cause, the folk at Volkswagen could do far worse than to look in the mirror—and specifically at how corporate governance is practised. That the two-layer board structure lacked knowledge suggests either ignorance (the board was asleep) or collusion. Neither option covers the boards in glory.
Might this sad case take us closer to a tipping point, of finally admitting the extant conception of corporate governance (a compliance framework of processes and controls, predominantly) is conducive to neither long-term business performance nor value creation? And, if so, will action be taken to embrace new conceptions of corporate governance, board practice and value creation? For the good of all stakeholders and society more generally, I hope the answer is yes.
Are you troubled by the Volkswagen experience? If you want to explore new conceptions of corporate governance that are informed by robust research and real-world experience, and test their applicability in your boardroom, please get in touch. I stand ready to help.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.