The limited liability company is a great construct; an efficient vehicle for commerce, through which to pursue an overall aim (purpose) and to distribute wealth (however defined) over an extended period. What's more, mixed levels of ownership are possible; greater economies of scale are attainable (beyond what a sole trader or entrepreneur could typically achieve); and, importantly for absentee shareholders, liability is limited to the extent of the capital invested.
Though they offer many benefits, the limited liability company is not without flaws—it is a social construction after all, and a complex dynamic one at that. The motivations, priorities and interests of various interested parties (shareholders, directors, managers and staff, amongst others) are often different. Contexts change, and egos can get in the way as well. Left unbridled, differences can fester, morale can suffer and, in more extreme cases, the company can be torn apart. Wynyard Group and Carillion are two recent example but there are many others. Family firms are not immune to such challenges. In fact, when the wildcard of family dynamics is added to the mix, family firms are actually more, not less, susceptible. Though not always visible, the spectre of undue influence often lurks as a contributing factor, as the following discussion reveals:
Failure to differentiate the roles of 'shareholder' and 'director': Let's start with some definitions. A shareholder is a person or entity that owns shares in a company. Ownership of shares affords certain rights, such as, selecting directors, receiving dividends and participating in major decisions. But those rights do not extend to running the business. That is the responsibility of managers, a delegation via the directors. In family firms, the roles of shareholder, director and manager can become blurred, especially when an influential family member holds multiple roles.
The most common expression of undue influence that I've seen over the years relates to decision-making at the board table: a director with a significant shareholding 'expects' to influence significant decisions in their favour because they own a large parcel of shares. The important distinction that is lost (sometimes it is 'conveniently' neglected) in such situations is that the board meeting is not a proxy for a shareholder meeting. Shareholders and directors vote differently. Shareholder voting is conducted on a 'one vote per share' basis, whereas each director has a single vote at the board table. Regardless of whether directors hold shares or not, every director has an equal say.
If situations like this arise, they need to be nipped in the bud. If they are not, board meetings become a farce; the other directors puppets. This is far from acceptable, especially when the duty of acting in the best interests of the company (not any particular shareholder) is factored in. In most cases that I have observed, attempts to exert such [undue] influence tends to stem from ignorance and a desire to do what they think is fair, not malice. Usually, a quiet discussion with the director concerned is often all that is needed to resolve the matter. Another family member or an outsider (an independent director if there is one, or some other trusted advisor) are useful candidates for this task.
Treating the company as little more than a personal bank account: If I had a dollar for each time I've seen this in family firms... Recently, while observing a board meeting as part of an advisory engagement, a director asked, "Why are we always so short of cash when we are supposedly highly profitable?". The discussion that followed was both enlightening and disturbing—and, sadly, it was not the first time that I'd heard it play out. One director with banking access had been buying personal items with company funds and, from time to time, had been taking 'petty cash' for personal use. He saw nothing wrong with this because "it's my firm anyway".
If a director or shareholder uses company funds to acquire personal items, or uses the company bank account as if it were their own, they are acting in their own interests (whatever those may be). Their actions may put the viability of the company at risk as well. Neither of these motivations is permissible in law. Any shareholder wanting money from the company needs to ask the company, not just take it (that's theft!). Valid payment options include shareholder salaries (payment for effort/services rendered), dividends (a share of the profits), donations (but these may be taxable) and director's fees. The company may also agree to lend money to the shareholder. Regardless of the motivation or the payment option, a written policy which outlines the rules and conditions pertaining to payments to shareholders can help mitigate misunderstandings.
Employment of family members and related matters: Another expression of undue influence is the situation in which a family member 'pulls rank' to secure employment for themselves or another family member. While any family member may nominate anyone else (including other family members), to foist a particular person onto a manager is completely unreasonable. If managers are to be held accountable for performance, they need to be free to make reasonable employment decisions themselves, in accordance with employment policy. In family firms, it is a good idea to add a section entitled 'Employment of family members' in the policy, to set out the rules the be applied whenever a family member is being considered for a role.
While none of these examples of undue influence is unique to family firms, they are usually more visible (and often more destructive) in family firms. Once discovered, they need to be resolved. If not, family relationships can become strained, even to the point of breaking down. Actions that families might consider taking to prevent or at least mitigate the types of problems summarised here include:
Boards wishing to explore matters mentioned here or other matters related to more effective board practice, should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
This article is the second of three on the topic, 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The first explored some items that are currently front-of-mind for many directors and shareholders of family-controlled firms. The third article, which will present recommendations to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late August.
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. The final instalment, which will present recommendations to improve board effectiveness respectively, will follow in August. Boards wishing to discuss matters raised in these articles 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.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.