The topics of strategy in the boardroom and the influence that boards have (or not!) over firm performance have been in the minds and on the lips of many people in recent months. From high-quality articles on websites and respected magazines, to academic research papers, speeches at conferences and symposia and casual thoughts expressed in private, the conversation has ebbed and flowed.
That these topics remain on the radar suggests that directors are starting to recognise that the board might have a role beyond approving strategy and monitoring performance. But what role? To assist the discussion, here are some thoughts published on Musings in the last twelve months:
I hope this collection of links is of some use. Please contact me if you would like to pick up on any of the points made here or elsewhere.
Just over three years after first setting out, I arrived at a small but significant milestone on my doctoral research today. The candidate final draft of the thesis (a 'mere' 336 pages) was sent to my supervisors for their detailed review. I'm hoping that, subject to relatively minor edits and changes, this draft will be submitted for examination.
The personal satisfaction of arriving at this point is palpable: Some of the numbers: read over 1000 articles; listened to over 6GB of audio recordings of board meetings and interviews; read and analysed over 900 printed pages of documentation; untold hours spent wrestling with candidate theories; and, written over 83,000 words (this is what remains, I've probably written and scrapped at least 20,000 more than this). The going has been tough lately, because writing up a thesis, in an academic style is not my forte. A couple of months ago, I expressed some frustration. Today, the sun shone again, and it was good.
Tomorrow will be my second day off in 2015. After a steady diet of 14 hour days, my wife is not sure what I'll do with myself. I've got a fair idea: it'll probably involve a Colnago, and I doubt there will be a word processor in sight! Thank you to everyone who has provided support to this point. The journey is not over yet, but I'm hopeful that the end is not too far away now.
Most of the elections and meeting resolutions that I have been involved in over the past 35 years have used 50% as the acceptance threshold. Gain the support of at least half of the decision-makers and the proposal is accepted or candidate appointed. While this is an easy threshold to understand (more people support the idea or person than don't), the possibility of a large pool (sometimes close to half) of people who are opposed means that the post-decision period can be filled with angst and opposition.
I've long wondered whether a higher threshold might be appropriate, especially when voting for company directors and making major (read: strategic) decisions. In other words, big decisions need widespread support. If a director candidate or a proposal fails to gain the support of most of those with decision rights, then clearly the body is not in strong agreement. Two of the social enterprises that I have been involved with for many years work this way: one uses 66% and the other 75% as their decision threshold. Yes, sometimes it takes a little longer to get agreement, but the time-to-benefits is usually much less because people are more united. Overall, the approach has served the enterprises, and those they serve, well.
The question of decision thresholds was raised in the business press recently. Seventy per cent was mooted as a possible threshold. Might such a proposal have legs? Would directors would be more likely to think and act in the best interests of the company? Candidates and those promoting various proposals would need to work harder to gain more widespread support, that's for sure. Decision timeframes would probably blow out; director candidates and strategy proposals might need to be more populist to garner the widespread support needed to breech the threshold; and, necessary but unpopular proposals might fail to attract the required levels of support thus putting unnecessary pressure on people, resources and possibly business viability.
While these downsides might seem daunting, the idea of raising the decision threshold on major decisions (like director elections and the approval of strategy, for example) might be worth some consideration. After all, the more united a group can be, the more likely it is of achieving its goal and, therefore, realising the expected benefits. What do you think?
Petrobras, Brazil's state-owned oil company, hit the headlines today, saying that it intends to revise its governance and organisational management model. The company has had problems with corruption and, just recently, employed a governance, risk and compliance (GRC) officer, its first.
Interestingly, the review will be conducted by a "group of executives with experience in various areas of the company". This sounds reasonable enough, until you consider that the stated problem is corruption. The review is being conducted by the very people that may (or may not) have been involved. How much confidence should one place in the internal panel isolating the problem(s) and, having done so, the Petrobras board making changes to get its house in order? Usually, such reviews are conducted by external parties, if they are to be afforded any credibility.
This will be interesting to watch.
Diversity is a topic that has gotten under people's skin, and rightly so. Much has been written, spoken and argued in recent times. Many blog rolls and column-inches have been expended by people arguing for or against various physical incarnations of diversity in the executive suite and boardroom. Clearly, the 'diversity' seed has sprouted. But for what purpose? What is the endgame? And, what should the endgame be?
Many have argued that that the presence of women on boards is causative to increased business performance; others have argued that no such causation exists. Actually, the academic research is mixed: it shows positive, neutral and negative correlations. This should be of no surprise. That such a blunt stick (a single observable attribute: gender) might make a consistent difference in a complex, socially-dynamic system defies belief. I have mused on this in the past.
Thankfully, the argument is now starting to mature, beyond the physical aspects of diversity (gender, race, ethnicity, age, etc.) to the identification of underlying attributes and qualities of capable executives and directors, to understand how directors contribute and work together. However, another question lies in wait: the 'so what?' question. What is the purpose of appointing women onto boards and increasing the apparent diversity in executive suites? Is the motivation political (equality)? Or to maximise profit for shareholders? Or is there some other sustainable driver that needs to be brought into focus?
Businesses exist to provide a product or service and, in so doing, provide a (hopefully!) healthy return to those who invested in the business in the first place. Is this the endgame? It might be for some. However, as diversity for diversity's sake is not sustainable, neither is profit for profit's sake. Shareholders do not live in isolation from others in the community. If shareholders 'win' (through the accumulation of profits), it stands to reason that losers will emerge elsewhere.
The challenge for all of us to to lift our gaze beyond simple measures like the number of women on boards or quotas and, if we dare, beyond profit as the primary measure of business performance, to think about the endgame. Phil O'Reilly, CEO of Business New Zealand, recently said that the purpose of capitalism is greater than profit (although that is a reasonable and necessary output). He said that the objective was strong communities. Could that be the endgame we need to focus our attention on?
I am thrilled to announce that a paper written earlier this year, entitled Boards, strategy and business performance: Observations from inside boardrooms, has been accepted onto the programme of the prestigious European Academy of Management (EURAM) conference, to be held in Warsaw, Poland on 17–20 June. A copy of the abstract has been posted here. Some 1350 papers were submitted for consideration, so to be have been selected and asked to speak at the conference is truly an honour. Thank you to the reviewers and track chair who considered the paper sufficiently worthy.
This conference becomes the third (of three) that I will be contributing to in June:
I will be on the ground in the UK and EU to continue the corporate governance discussion from 2 to 20 June, with some time available between conferences. If you would like to take advantage of my proximity—as a speaker or facilitator, or to seek some advice—please contact me.
Why do consultants spend so much time on hobby horses, promoting their own capabilities and frameworks? Shouldn't the focus be on thinking about and promoting options that are genuinely in the best interests of the clients and marketplace they seek to serve? Take this example, which suggests that good governance is built on good information and data governance. The author cites several technical frameworks and acronyms (COSO and COBIT are mentioned), none of which I understand.
That a strong focus on standards and frameworks might be sufficient to ensure good governance (an oft cited but rarely defined term) is misleading in the least. Necessary maybe, but sufficient? No. The root of governance emerges from the Greek word kubernetes, which means to steer or pilot, typically a ship. This suggests governance is an activity associated with movement; with setting direction, navigating or guiding something—presumably towards a longer-term or major goal, or at least with a purpose in mind.
I have no doubt that frameworks are necessary within organisations to support regular business activity. However, to imply that good governance (and, presumably, business performance, although the author makes no mention of this) will emerge from the application of standards and compliance frameworks is misleading. Looking backward (monitoring) or to standards (compliance) may satisfy egos that work is being performed, but to think that either will drive performance is folly. Compliance with standards can only ever achieve one of two things: compliance or dissidence. Compliance-based frameworks (Sarbanes-Oxley, amongst others) did little to prevent the GFC of 2007–08. Some say the focus on compliance may have contributed to the failures. If businesses expect to achieve certain desired outcomes, the board needs to look to the future by building appropriate plans (strategy); providing resources to the chief executive; and, monitoring and verifying the agreed strategy is being implemented and expected performance targets achieved.
Consultants that continue to promote compliance-based technical frameworks as 'solutions' and associate them with 'good governance' are, quite frankly, doing their clients a disservice. Business leaders need to test consulting proposals thoroughly, by asking how (ask for specifics, don't accept general statements) the suitor's proposal will assist with the achievement of the business's strategy. This will probably be threatening to some consultants—but if it moves the focus onto business performance and economic growth, wouldn't that be a good thing?
HSBC has been under the hammer for several weeks now, as people have waited—expectantly—for news of what "completely overhauled" might actually mean. Then, late last week, the picture started to come into view: Several changes in the boardroom were announced.
The headline implies a wholesale change, but the reality that seems to be emerging is somewhat different: it turns out that the promised overhaul might actually just be a shuffle. Consider this:
I'm staggered. According to the Merriam–Webster dictionary, to overhaul something is to "to look at every part of (something) and repair or replace the parts that do not work". By extension, a complete overhaul is to repair or replace the entire system. The people I spoke with in the UK and the EU last week were consistent in their expectations: that many directors should be replaced with directors untainted by the failures of governance that have occurred. HSBC has a proud tradition, but a new start is needed. Sadly, this does not seem to be happening. The promised complete overhaul seems to be just a shuffling of roles—musical chairs if you will.
How confident can or should investors and account holders be after hearing of these changes? A damp squib might be a more appropriate description of the proposed changes, but that wouldn't sell many newspapers or engender much confidence would it?
Nine business days after arriving in England for meetings and speaking engagements in several English and Swiss cities, I am once more seated at Heathrow: this time to enjoy Air Zealand's service on the long flight home—and to sleep! Reflecting on fifteen meetings, eight hotels and many conversations, the main thought to emerge from this trip is "demand". Simply, the level of interest in boards, board practice and how to get boards doing the 'right' things in order to achieve the business performance outcomes expected by shareholders has been almost overwhelming. For example:
That so many people are actively seeking help to improve business performance through effective contributions in the boardroom has caught me on the hop. After all, the public persona presented by boards and chief executives is that they have everything under control. However, when the conversation moves beyond platitudes, its seems most are worried. I have put myself at the service of all who are interested. If you would like to know more, or to schedule some assistance, please contact me.
I popped into the ICSA conference at Olympia in London for a couple of hours this week, on a very kind invitation extended by CEO Simon Osborne (thank you Simon). The programme was filled with some interesting speakers. It would have been great to attend for the full day, but a teaching commitment at University of Winchester Business School during the morning put paid to that.
Anyway, to the conference. The two presentations following the mid-afternoon break were very interesting stories of failure. One concerned the Co-operative Bank and the other Manchester United. You don't often hear such stories at conferences, so when they are told it pays to listen, because lessons often abound. And so it was on Thursday afternoon.
Neil Gibb, of consulting firm SLP, talked about the appointment of David Moyes to succeed Sir Alec Ferguson. Gibb suggested that the appointment of Moyes was an abject failure. The outgoing Manager—a man not devoid of ego—anointed a successor, Moyes. Moyes was like Ferguson in many ways, except that he did not have a track record of success. Notwithstanding this, Ferguson's power (and aura?) prevailed and Moyes was appointed. Moyes coached and managed as he had done at Everton, and MU slid down the league tables. The resultant damage to the company has been conservatively estimated at £50.4m.
What went wrong? Gibb suggested the succession process was a failure of culture, in that culture trumps most things. That those that employed Moyes did not do their homework adequately. Moyes did not have the 'swagger' that characterised over the Ferguson era. The players probably did not respect him either. With hindsight, the outcome was probably a foregone conclusion. However, something that I found more interesting was that Gibb did not mention the board. Clearly, power rested with Sir Alec Ferguson. It should have rested with the board. After all, the board 'owned' the important task of employing a new manager, or it should have.
The case demonstrates the hard (financial) and soft (brand and reputation) damage that can readily occur with a 'bad' appointment. While the board can take suggestions, and culture is crucial as Gibb stressed, the board should never forfeit control over succession plans and recruitment process. However, in the Manchester United case it seems to have done so. Moyes was the face of the failure. He got the blame when the board was culpable. Thanks to Neil Gibb for telling the story, and for Simon Osborne for inviting me to hear it.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.