Things are not going well for struggling clothing retailer Postie Plus. They have just called a halt to share trading, pending an announcement. In April, the listed retailer was under threat of suspension for not filing it's half-year results within the required deadline. Back in December, the board got a grilling at the company's annual meeting.
Clearly, something is not right. Is the board active and acting in the best interests of the company, or is it simply asleep at the wheel? The former is hard to swallow given the evidence of late.
There was an interesting development in the long-running St Laurence story yesterday. St Laurence, once a darling amongst finance companies in New Zealand, collapsed in 2010 under a mountain of debt, falling liquidity and, potentially, misrepresentations. The case has been investigated by the Financial Markets Authority (FMA). However, the FMA issued this announcement yesterday. Rather than pursue a court action, based on a breach of the Securities Act 1978, the FMA has issued a formal warning to the directors and closed the file.
I am disappointed by this decision by the FMA. While it's probably the right decision from a pragmatic perspective, an important principle remains untested. Whether the directors were incompetent, negligent, unlucky or fraudulent should be determined. The answer makes a huge difference to the investors that lost millions, and, crucially, to any companies and owners that might consider any of the directors for a future appointment onto their own board.
There seems to be a technical glitch with the blog page of my website just now, whereby the Twitter counter at the bottom of each blog post is not working correctly. About ten days ago, my website provider—Weebly—changed the way blog posts are referenced. The change is for the better, but the Twitter counter has not been adjusted yet. Only new posts are affected.
The team at Weebly has admitted there is a problem and they've said they are working on it. I appreciate their candor, and commitment to customer service. Hopefully the problem will be fixed very soon, to reflect the actual re-tweet activity, and so that you can again see how popular (or otherwise!) individual posts are. In the meantime, please bear with me!
The question of who calls the shots in companies has been vexed for many years. On paper, the shareholders should have the final say, after all they own the company. However, the reality of what really happens is not so straightforward. Company ownership is widely held in many cases—particularly amongst publicly-listed companies—so forming a common view amongst shareholders is difficult at best. Consequently, boards and CEOs have considerable scope to seize control, in order to pursue their own aims.
My observation is that shareholders are relatively happy to accept this situation when the going is good. However, when times are tough, or when the board or management pursues strategies that are not popular with shareholders, shareholders need to become more active. Shareholders need to ensure that boards represent their interests and that they deliver the results that shareholders want. It seems that some shareholders are starting to do just that, for a new "shareholder spring" appears to be occurring. Will it make a difference? Who knows. One thing seems clear though: passive shareholders will get their comeuppance.
There was a very pleasant surprise waiting in my email box this morning: an invitation to submit an article for inclusion in a special issue of Leadership and Organization Development Journal. In March, I delivered a paper to the International Conference on Management Leadership and Governance held in Boston, USA. My contribution was noticed by the journal editors, which has led to them issuing the invitation.
I'm both humbled and thrilled by this invitation: humbled that others see my work as valuable, and thrilled for the opportunity to contribute in this way. Thank you editors.
Generally speaking, boards of directors are comprised of well-meaning, competent people who want the best outcomes for the company they oversee. They go about their work diligently, with the best will in the world. However, many of well-intentioned boards don't achieve the outcomes they plan for. Why is this? Given the thousands of boards that meet every day, and the plethora of research undertaken over the last four decades, you would think that it would be straightforward to define and replicate "good governance". After all, we know what "good" and "governance" mean, don't we? Sadly, the reality is somewhat different: every company, every board and every situation is, to some extent, unique. Therefor, standard "best practice" models and frameworks often don't work. Even after forty years of trying, we still struggle to describe "good governance", let alone know how boards influence performance outcomes.
With this rather melancholic précis, it would be easy to conclude that boards are in trouble, and that the title question simply cannot be answered. I beg to differ. There are glimmers of light on the horizon, and they are worthy of investigation. This article is one. I commend it, and others like it, to you. While we have much to learn about boards and performance, knowledge of what "good governance" might look like is a good place to work from.
Power is an interesting dimension of human behaviour. It can (and often does) bring out the best and the worst in us, and in those around us. The question of where power could or should be held has been the topic of much debate—wars even—over the centuries.
In the modern corporate context, the CEO generally occupies the alpha male (queen bee) position in a company, especially in jurisdictions where the CEO and Chair roles are combined. In such cases, the board is relegated to the relatively passive position of making those decisions it has to, and to monitoring performance. Many CEOs like it this way—they are happy to hold the power and privilege that go with the position.
An increasing number of calls, in academia and practice, are starting to challenge the status quo. However, calls for the board to take responsibility and be accountable for business performance, by becoming more involved in direction setting and strategy development, may have an unintended consequence: a power struggle. Power struggles are generally negative, because they move one's attention from the overall goal (business performance) to a lesser goal (being in control).
I'd value your thoughts on these important questions!
I had the pleasure of working with 24 outstanding business leaders and company directors yesterday—delegates on the IoD Company Director's Course. The topic of the day was strategy, as it always is on the second day of the course. My task was to lead the day and provoke discussion and debate, as part of the learning experience. The entire course is run under The Chatham House Rule, so delegates can speak freely and use real-world examples without fear of sensitive information being made public. However, some of the themes and conclusions that emerged from the discussion can be mentioned:
Unfortunately, despite the theory on how boards are supposed to work, the reality is considerably messier. Reinvigorating boards with curiosity and courage would be a very good place to start fixing what is broken.
Hopefully, delegates are able take away something from the course to ponder and challenge their status quo and some of the accepted maxims of governance. Boards cannot afford to remain as "parsley on fish—decorative but useless" (Irving Olds, Chairman, US Steel 1940–1952). If the behaviours and comments of the CDC delegates this week are any indication, curiosity and courage may be about to re-enter our boardrooms.
A few days ago, I was invited to submit a paper to the 10th European Conference on Management Leadership and Governance (ECMLG). The 2014 edition is being hosted in Zagreb, Croatia. I'm humbled by the opportunity to offer a contribution.
The deadline for paper submission is mid-June. My topic will 'access'. Simply stated, the paper will suggest that governance research needs to move on from its predilection with typically quantitative secondary data, to study what actually occurs in the boardroom. It is my view that first-hand observations are crucial if we want to truly understand how boards work, and to make credible suggestions about how they contribute to business performance. You can read the preliminary abstract here.
The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) has announced the establishment of a commission to make recommendations about the "board's role in recalibrating the enterprise's corporate strategy in response to market forces". The decision, to consider the topic and present guidance, is a positive step towards more effective governance in the USA.
For some time now, researchers have suggested that strategy needs to be part of the board's remit, although a consistent interpretation of what that means remains unclear. Some directors and consultants think boards should be actively involved in the process. Others disagree. Clearly, there are several options to be considered, along a spectrum:
Irrespective of the recommendations that Commission presents later in the year, boards are responsible and accountable for business performance, and board contributions need to be recalibrated accordingly. I await the outcome of the NACD process with interest.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.