And with little more than a blink, January 2023 is, nearly, done. January is, for me, a time to relax, reflect on the year past, spend time with family and friends, read and get ready for what lies ahead.
In the last ten days, things have started to ramp up again: international calls, my first board meeting for the year, and local enquiries—all indicators that minds are turning to board work and the pursuit of sustainable performance once more. Soon, I shall be travelling again too, in response to requests to discuss corporate governance, board work, and the role of the board in realising organisational potential.
After a good break, I not only feel ready for what lies ahead, but excited at the opportunity to help boards and directors, academics and regulators grapple with some complex issues. The first three trips for the year are scheduled, as below—and planning is already underway for several more in the months to come.
While events and engagements are being loaded into the diary daily, some gaps remain, mainly in Singapore and England. So, if you want to take advantage of me being in your neighbourhood, best to get in touch soon! If you want to talk or meet, but the timing doesn't suit, let me know anyway—there will be opportunities later in the year.
The claim, that a picture is worth a thousand words, is widely known. Pictures are valuable because they capture one's attention, often evoking memories of significant or special events (as real of imaginary as they may be), or of possibilities. Indeed, the phrases 'every picture tells a story' and 'the picture tells the story' encapsulate the essence of pictures—they tell stories. But visual images are not the only means of stimulation and sharing ideas. Words are important too, especially when the ideas they convey are presented as a story.
Over the seasonal break, I have been delving into a selection of books, in search of stories and ideas. The very practice of reading is, I find, a powerful enabler—to provoke, gain insight, form opinions, and learn and build knowledge about all manner of things. I have also gone back through the Musings archives and re-read many older posts. Several that piqued my attention were re-posted on LinkedIn (check my feed) to share with a new generation of readers. To my great surprise, many of these re-posts garnered considerable attention and engagement. That some ideas continue to be relevant is gratifying. Thank you to readers who have engaged with those posts.
Notice the mechanism at play: hearts and minds are captured through 'story'. Pictures and words are important without doubt, but they are, simply, delivery channels: two of four mechanisms (the others being aural and kinesthetic (experiential)—together, VARK) to communicate the message.
Information and its effective delivery is crucial in organisations too; board work in particular. In such situations, stories can be incredibly influential for informed decision-making, a precursor of all that follows:
As managers and directors, the way we present and consume written reports, and ask and answers questions, is material to informed decision-making. Ultimately, the board's provision of effective steerage and guidance to achieve the organisation's strategic goals depends on it. Such is the craft of board work. With this in mind, what refinements might you consider to lift your game in 2023, and lift the effectiveness of your board?
‘That’ time of the year has arrived once more. For many, the time to put the tools down and relax for a few days is nigh. From the hustle and bustle of public life, families are gathering. Some will celebrate the significance of Christmas, others will celebrate because any opportunity for a party with friends and family is a good one. Amongst it all, some will work on, especially in healthcare, emergency services, process manufacturing, retail and hospitality; we should not forget them for they too have family and friends.
I am one amongst many who carve out a little time and space towards the end of December to reflect on the year gone. Often, my mind is drawn towards relationships and experiences. This year is no exception.
Before signing off this last post for the year, a note of heartfelt thanks. Thank you to everyone who has seen fit to consider my ideas, challenge my thinking, and invite me to work alongside them this year. To have been afforded the opportunity to contribute, globally, has been delightful. The calling, to serve and support boards intent on realising organisational performance, remains strong. Consequently, the work will continue in 2023, starting in early January with responses to a long list of enquiries to assess, advise, coach and speak.
Now, I have one report to complete, a client event to attend, and a few Christmas errands to run. Then, I shall set the tablet and pencil down, in favour of a book or two, my vegetable garden, a few small jobs around the house, and some quality family time.
I have the good fortune of meeting many hundreds of people every year—aspirational and established directors, board chairs, executives, journalists, shareholders, MBA students, doctoral candidates, lobbyists, regulators, policy analysts, conference organisers, and more besides. Sometimes, contact is fleeting; sometimes it is enduring, as we work together to gain insight, educate, or tackle a difficult problem.
One question that keeps coming up (besides the big three, namely, what is corporate governance; what is the role of the board; and, how should governance be practiced) is, "How do I stay current and relevant?"
The answer is straightforward. I read, a lot.
Every morning—well, at least six days a week—I dedicate 90 minutes or more, to check newsfeeds, blog posts and emails that have arrived overnight. The primary goal is to ensure I have sufficient awareness to engage well with colleagues and clients on topical matters. Some people call this continuing professional development. I prefer a simpler description: reading to keep up.
This commitment is, I find, a bare minimum because it does not afford space to read widely and think deeply about ideas, perspectives and the human condition. For that, I read books; sometimes in the evenings, but most often on flights and during holiday breaks. Why? Because I have time to think and mark (in pencil in the margin if a physical book, or electronic bookmark if an e-book) specific points to investigate further.
Several people have asked what I'm reading. Here is a list of books either under way or to be read this summer break. Notice only one is directly linked to my board and governance work. That is intentional. Reading widely means, to me, reading beyond normal boundaries to discover new ideas and ways of thinking about things.
This list is a selection of the books awaiting my attention. If you read, I'd love to hear any recommendations!
The practice of corporate governance has garnered much attention over the past couple of decades; curiosity about boards growing each time news of a corporate failure and serious misstep becomes public. While those with axes to grind are quick to jump on their hobbyhorses, failure studies indicate that suggestions of hubris, malfeasance, narcissism, ineptitude, incompetence and poor engagement are not without basis.
More recently, a wider group of so-called stakeholders and claimants have raised their voices, arguing that companies are having a negative effect on a range of social and environmental concerns. The ESG initiative, established in 2005 to put pressure on boards to report their activities and performance more fully, has become a movement (even an industry for personal and professional gain in the eyes of some).
On the weight of evidence presented in the media, it would be easy to conclude that practices of companies, and the system that underlies modern commerce—capitalism—are detrimental to sustainable life and wellbeing. Firing shots at boards and companies is easy, because they are visible and command media attention. But are such responses justified? What if the assumptions and motivations that underpin investor, regulator and activist critiques are flawed, or the bases for regulatory interventions ill-advised?
Some companies deserve criticism, of course. They should be called out and held to account. But many (most) operate within their means. Unsurprisingly, the boards of some reputable companies are reportedly pushing back on the expectations of some institutional investors, which, they say, have become over-prescriptive and formulaic. Alongside, some boards say new disclosure reporting rules being introduced, by the FSB Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) amongst others, are counterproductive—for they add costs without any apparent benefit.
Together, this begs an awkward question: Are the actions of some, who claim to be acting in the name of sustainability and a fairer society, actually an attempt to exert power and control for their own purposes? And, if so, are current attempts to establish regulations to enforce certain practices on companies reasonable or are they a bridge too far? It is little wonder that relationships between some boards and shareholders are starting to fracture, and society is becoming tribal.
Twenty-one years ago this week, I embarked on a journey to pursue a dream: to help directors and boards become value creators, realising the potential of the companies they govern. At the time—four weeks after the terror attack on the World Trade Centre—governance was hardly known as a word, and most boards had a strong compliance orientation. I had no idea whether the dream was realistic, much less attainable. But, at 39 years old, the calling was strong—compelling even. So, I took a deep breath and walked away from a great company and international role, armed solely with a strong belief that I might be able to add some value. I was told that stepping away from financial security and the makings of a stellar international career was crazy. But the decision had been made.
I found that people would happily talk about their situation and what they wanted to achieve if they thought you were genuinely interested in them. That insight has provided the foundation for everything that followed—including working with thousands of directors in 45 countries across five continents, serving on boards, delivering hundreds of talks and leading many education sessions. The 2012–2016 period dedicated to complete doctoral research, to try to answer that most difficult question of how boards influence company performance provided a breakthrough that I hope, one day, will be taken up widely: the Strategic Governance Framework. To have met and spent time with doyens of corporate governance, strategy and leadership along the way—including Bob Garratt, Bob Tricker, Charles Handy, James Lockhart, Jenny Darroch, Roger L. Martin, Rita Gunther McGrath, Silke Machold, Stuart Farquhar, Andrew Kakabadse and many more besides—has been inspirational. I am indebted to everyone who has spared a few minutes to answer questions and share insights.
Other highlights include sitting with directors in India, Eastern Europe and other places well off the beaten track, to listen; experience their thirst for insight; and receive their gratitude for what little I had to offer.
Without exception, everyone I've met and worked with has wanted to find ways to guide and steer the businesses they govern with greater effect. To have been asked to contribute has been a honour.
Thank you to every established director, board trustee, and board chair; every aspiring director; every chief executive and leadership team; every MBA student, researcher and associate; everyone who has heard me speak or read my articles (note: all my articles and blog posts remain available today); every regulator and government who sought confidential assistance; and, untold others I've never met. Thank you for considering my submissions and arguments, for believing in me, for encouraging me and for engaging me.
Today, 21 years on from stepping out of the boat, the calling remains strong. I remain available to serve for as long as boards and directors call for assistance, and my ability to contribute allows. To that end, and with the passing of the pandemic, I am available once more to travel to meet in person to understand and speak into situations. So, if you have a question or want to discuss a problem, please get in touch. I stand ready to serve.
The passing of the Covid pandemic has been a great relief for many; boards of directors are no exception. Several weeks ago, I visited Sydney, Australia to meet with directors, boards and leaders of membership bodies. The feedback was clear: if companies (and through them, economies and societies) are to prosper, boards need to start thinking strategically again. Last week, more grist to the mill. During a successful visit to Bengaluru, India to lead a Board Immersion Programme for a globally-known FMCG company, the question of how boards can add value was front-of-mind throughout.
Today, I'm delighted to announce my first post-Covid visit to the United Kingdom and Europe, to continue the advisory work there.
From November 16th through 25th, I will visit the UK, several EU countries, and elsewhere as required, to respond to requests to speak, and to help boards respond well as they pursue sustainable business performance. This includes:
Do you want to meet in November? Regardless of whether you have a specific request or a general question, please get in touch. I'll respond promptly with some suggestions for your consideration.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks thinking about problem solving; my attention drawn, in particular, to problems that fall between simple (for which answers are self-evident) and wicked (easily defined, but for which an answer is elusive due to incomplete or contradictory information, or changing requirements). Difficult problems are those that can be solved, but answers are far from evident, even following careful enquiry. The BBC Series, The Bomb, explores a case in point. Nuclear fission was discovered to be theoretically possible (Leo Szilard), but considerable effort over the following decade was required to finally tackle the problem in practice.
So-called ‘difficult problems’ require, clearly, intentional enquiry and, often, patience. As with gravity and magnetism, the underlying explanation (resolution) cannot be observed directly, only through its effects. So, deep and critical thinking is needed, if a resolution is to be discovered.
Such problems are familiar territory for boards: if they were straightforward, management teams would resolve them. And therein lies the challenge for directors: the underlying cause of a problem raised to board level tends to be hidden under that which can be seen. And what is more, any linkage between the problem, the underlying cause, what can be observed, and any subsequent effects or impacts (note: plural) is tenuous and, almost certainly, contingent.
If boards are to be effective in their work (governance: the means by which companies are directed and controlled), directors need to be alert, astute and actively engaged—more so because resolutions to difficult problems cannot be discerned directly. Thus, directors need to think beyond what is written in board reports, and what is apparent when reading other materials. Those who think they can get away with quickly reading board papers a few days before the upcoming meeting are kidding themselves.
If directors are prepared to read widely across a range of topics, allocating 1–2 hours per day for six days every week, to consider ideas and think deeply, the likelihood of uncovering possibilities and solution options is greatly enhanced. Indeed, the correlation between, on one hand, time spent reading and thinking deeply, and on the other, high quality decisions is stark. Time and critical thinking matters, if directors are to add value.
During June, I spent most of my discretionary time reviewing articles about corporate scandals and failures, as reported in the mainstream media and academic press, and discussed on social media. They made fascinating reading, not only for the summaries, but also the amount of finger-pointing and defensiveness—an indication that accountability was missing in action in most cases.
Consider the Carillion, Wirecard and Petrobas cases, all mentioned in a recent Financial Times feature article (paywall, sorry). The discussion concentrated on the accounting and audit professions; the questions being whether they should have detected the problems, and whether ethics should be a consideration. These are good questions, but they sound a little like positioning an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Disclosures, in the form of annual reports, audit statements, and various ESG-related reports, are necessary. But they are just that; disclosure reports. And the more complex the reporting and disclosure requirements, the more time management and the board needs to spend preparing and checking reports, to meet expectations. And with greater focus on reporting and compliance, the greater the likelihood that accountability will become discretionary.
Accountability is one of four foundational elements of corporate governance. There are two aspects, namely, boards are charged with holding management to account, and they need to provide an account to legitimate stakeholders. (The others are the formulation and approval of corporate purpose and strategy; policymaking; and, monitoring and supervising management, to ensure the company is operated and strategy achieved within prevailing statutory and regulatory boundaries. Together, these four elements comprise the Learning Board Framework, a proposal described in The fish rots from the head, a book written by Bob Garratt, a doyen of corporate governance and board work, circa 1996. The LBF is the single-best approach to board activity that I have come across in my twenty-five years of board and governance practice and research, bar none.)
As in life, enduring success in business (meaning, achieving and sustaining high levels of organisational performance) can be attributed to many things. These include, inter alia, a great idea, a clear and coherent strategy, excellent execution, capable and highly-motivated people, forces of nature, timing, effective leadership, luck (yes, luck), and more besides. Yes, success has many sources, even to the point of being idiosyncratic.
Failure is different. Even a cursory study of corporate failures reveals several common themes, most of which can be readily traced back to the boardroom:
Almost all of these themes emerge from poor behaviour and a leakage of accountability. Knowing what to do is one thing, knowing how to behave (and behaving) is quite another. Fortunately, help is at hand. Insights from research suggest five underlying behaviours are necessary if boards are to contribute well. These include strategic competence, a sense of purpose, active engagement, collective efficacy and constructive control. If any one of these is absent, the likelihood of the board exerting any meaningful influence or adding any value drops to nought. (If you want more information on this, please get in touch.)
One final comment: The role of director is founded on trust—the fiduciary responsibility. And from this flows accountability—in role and in relationship. If boards place a low value on accountability, by not holding management to account for the achievement of operational and strategic goals; rubber-stamping advice from suppliers such as lawyers, accountants and auditors; or, not providing a candid account of performance to shareholders, regulators and other stakeholders, they deserve what comes their way.
The transition to electric vehicles looms large for many. Most of the major manufacturers are scrambling to offer new and exciting models to entice both corporate and private buyers. Enticements are being offered by some governments to encourage adoption. Regulators are active too, especially in Europe and California, with announced intentions to ban new vehicles powered by petrol or diesel.
The opportunity to embrace a transport technology that is cleaner, quieter and considerably cheaper to operate (than petrol or diesel alternatives) is attractive—once the initial purchase price hurdle leapt. The purported benefits seem to be significant, but does the reality match the rhetoric? As with any proposal to embrace system-level change, the costs of moving from one technology to another are far from trivial. If an assessment is to be complete, the total lifetime costs (TLCs) need to be considered; that is, the sum total of all costs incurred over a product/system’s lifetime (includes manufacture, operation, disposal).
In the case of electric vehicles, what of the economic, environmental and social costs of extracting metals for battery ingredients; logistics and manufacturing; replacement of batteries when they are spent; battery disposal; and, of upgrading the power generation and distribution network to provide adequate electrical power to recharge batteries? Many of these are being quietly ignored, it seems. Not my problem, some argue, as if out of sight is out of mind. This short article argues that when the TLCs are factored in, the benefits associated with a seemingly compelling technology (in this case the adoption of electric powered vehicles and other devices with battery power packs) may not be as great as what has been claimed.
And so to the purpose of this muse, which is not to argue the benefits or otherwise of adopting electrically powered vehicles. Rather, it is to table an issue often overlooked by board of directors considering so-called strategic projects: total lifetime costs.
When faced with a strategically-significant proposal, boards first need to check for alignment, by testing whether the proposal is contributory to the corporate strategy (spoiler alert: often linkages are tenuous). Assuming it is, directors should satisfy themselves that total lifetime costs have been included. Only then can the question of whether the recommendation should be embraced or rejected be debated.
Why might this be important? Directors are duty-bound to act in the best interests of the company. That means taking all relevant information into account.
If boards ignore externalities, or abuse the social, environmental and economic capitals consumed in the operation of the company, the governed company is unlikely to endure over the longer term. And in so doing, directors may be exposing themselves, unwittingly, to legal challenge as well.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.