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.
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.
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.
The festive season—known as Christmas in most commonwealth nations, Holiday Season in the US, and other names elsewhere—is a time to gather with family and friends to celebrate, reflect and, importantly, give thanks.
To friends, colleagues and clients around the world: Thank you for your support and encouragement in 2017. To have been invited into boardrooms in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Europe to provide assistance; speak at conferences, summits and other forums; and, contribute to the development of new, more effective models of board practice and corporate governance has been a distinct honour. Thank you.
After a busy but fulfilling twelve months, I'm about to take some time out, to relax and recharge ahead of what is already shaping up to be an interesting year serving boards and directors internationally. If think you might require assistance in 2018, please get in touch. I am available, globally, from 4 January onwards.
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.
One of the joys of my 'work' is that I get to journey with boards and executive managers as they wrestle with some pretty challenging questions. Whether the journey involves briefings, phone discussions, meetings over coffee, professional development sessions or facilitated workshops, the goal is generally consistent: to gain understanding, in pursuit of increased effectiveness and, ultimately, better business performance.
By way of example, I was recently invited to work assist ChildFund New Zealand (*), a social enterprise committed to the ideal of eradicating child poverty. The board and senior managers gathered in a modest setting—the administration office—to strip back the layers and, in so doing, re-discover the organisation's reason for being (purpose) and develop strategy to achieve the identified purpose. The intention was to reach agreement in principle on the core elements by the end of the day, so management could form up a coherent strategy document for discussion with the board and subsequent approval.
We got underway at 9.00am, as planned. Some 116 man-hours of focussed and, at times, intense effort later, it was 5.00pm. I won't mention what was discussed or decided, other than to say agreement was reached on most of the big questions. Once the strategy elements are drafted up into a suitable document and approved (there will be a couple of iterations between management and the board to tidy up loose ends, no doubt), attention will move to implementation. The ChildFund board intends to use the approved strategy as a frame, to both resource management and hold it to account (which will include monitoring strategy implementation and verifying that the expected outcomes and benefits are actually being achieved).
Tips for effective purpose and strategy workshops:
(*) It is not my usual practice to name clients! However, when one of the ChildFund NZ directors posted a picture on social media of the board and managers gathered around a whiteboard, the occurrence of the workshop and my involvement became public. Regardless, the details of the discussion remain confidential.
So, Travis Kalanick has left the building, no longer the chief executive of Uber, the company he co-founded. The company, which makes money through the use of a ride sharing application, has grown rapidly in recent years. From a good idea, the company has become a colossus valued at over US$65 billion. Kalanick deserves credit for Uber's rise. However, Uber's reputation is not without tarnish; reports of a toxic culture, sexism and several scandals have blotted its copybook. The co-founder's pugnacious style hasn't helped either.
Uber's widely-reported missteps raises some challenging questions about the role and function of the board of directors; questions that are strikingly similar to those asked following the Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal and the collapse of Wynyard Group, both in 2016:
Uber was founded on a strong vision and its grew rapidly. The board was technically diverse and debate did occur in the boardroom at times, yet the evidence suggests that board lost its way and became ineffective.
Though tragic, the Uber situation is instructive for directors and boards elsewhere. Power seems to have been a significant factor. If directors are serious about fulfilling their duties well—especially acting in the company's best interests and pursuing the future performance of the business—some shared understandings are crucial:
However, the presence of these factors is insufficient in terms of predicting effectiveness or performance. Ultimately, the effectiveness of any board is a function of what the board does and how directors behave. Research is starting to understand the mechanism of corporate governance, but causality remains elusive. Directors take their eyes off these considerations at their peril.
This is a brief note to advise that I will be in London next week, to speak at the ICSA Annual Conference. The conference is being held at ExCeL, London, over two days (4–5 July). Programme details are available here.
I'll be speaking on the first day of the conference, at 12noon. My topic is strategy, from the board's perspective. Here's the session summary from the programme:
Good strategy vs bad strategy
Sound interesting? Come along, I look forward to meeting you.
Note: I'll be in London Monday 3rd to Thursday 6th inclusive, with some free time both during the conference, and immediately before and after. Please get in touch if you'd like to meet up (day or night) to ask a question; discuss an aspect of corporate governance or strategy; learn more about my research on boards and business performance; or, simply have a chat over a coffee or a drink. I'd be delighted to hear from you.
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.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.