ESG and sustainability are hot topics in business and, increasingly, civil society. Hardly a day goes by without one or both being mentioned in newsfeeds and across social and mainstream media. Since the term ESG was first coined in 2005, and more so through the coronavirus pandemic, researchers and commentators have promoted ESG as the answer to what have been held up as great issues of our time—issues such as changing climatic conditions; the impacts of fossil fuels; population growth; modern slavery; the excesses of capitalism; geopolitics; and, more besides.
Shareholders are starting to acknowledge companies should be doing a better job, in terms of appropriately stewarding the resources used in the operation of their business and fulfilling their duties. Institutional investors in particular are applying direct pressure to refocus board attention and business priorities to tackle the great issues—their underlying belief is that ESG-based approaches provide more sustainable long-term value creation.
What is one to make of these developments?
Evidence to support claims that ESG-based investments outperform other investments is yet to emerge. The question of why this might be the case remains open. It could be that investments have been poorly placed; expectations are unreasonable; measurement systems are inappropriate; and, probably, more besides. Of these possibilities, the spectre of inappropriate measurement systems looms large.
A couple of years ago, Ethical Boardroom, a magazine read by tens of thousands of board directors, advisors and executives, commissioned an article on the matter. I concluded that a measurement and reporting framework founded on the three main capitals used in business would probably provide a more informative and complete measure of sustainable business performance than ESG. A copy of that article follows. If you have any comments and suggestions on this, including criticisms, please do let me know—either in the comment box below or, if you prefer, a private message.
The role and contribution of the board of directors in companies has become a source of fascination for many; curiosity growing with each corporate failure or significant misstep emanating from the boardroom.
On paper, the role of the board is straightforward: to steer and guide the company towards agreed objectives. The legal framework within which directors operate is both stable and adequate, duties are specified and the principles are clear. So, what could possibly go wrong?
Guidance to help boards govern well is not in short supply. Many researchers have postulated the configuration of the board is material to effectiveness and outcomes; some say the key lies in board process and policy; and yet others point to boardroom behaviour. Consulting firms and directors' institutions have proposed models too. While these proposals are enticing, failure studies and other analyses suggest none provide surety in terms of helping boards operate effectively in practice.
One of the reasons reliable guidance remains elusive is that board work is far from straightforward. Long-term studies of boards informed by direct observations of boards in session are few and far between. And, boards need to consider many things, debate options, weigh up risks and, ultimately, make decisions—all within an environment characterised by ambiguity and change. And if that is not enough, the board does not operate the company, the executive does.
If a board is to have any hope of discharging its duties, much less govern well, a solid foundation is crucial. That means directors need to understand their role and duties, and make sense of information.
If a board is to exert any meaningful influence beyond the boardroom, directors first need to understand the duties of a director and role of the board. Competence gaps are not be tolerated in medicine or engineering: No one would expect a doctor to use a carpenter’s tools, or accept crayon drawings from an engineer. And yet such acceptance is tacit amongst directors and shareholders. What is more, if a director transgresses, the likelihood of being held to account before the judiciary is relatively low. A commitment to professional development, and the professionalisation of directorship, are proposed as mechanisms to close the competence gap.
Once in the boardroom, directors need to apply their collective knowledge and expertise, maturity and wisdom as they consider information, distinguish signal from noise, and make decisions. If that can be achieved, the likelihood of the board making an effective contribution greatly is enhanced.
The gap between the board's provision of steerage and guidance (i.e., governance) and business performance has been at the core of my work over the past two decades, motivating my formal research, practical enquiry and contributions as a director. If you would like an update on recent progress, please contact me.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.