Guest blog: Dr James Lockhart (College of Business, Massey University, New Zealand)
During the late 1990s and early 2000s the hot topic in corporate governance was independent directors. Independent directors, it was proposed at the time, were the very panacea for performance improvement. It didn't really matter what the problem was the solution was independent directors, preferably a majority of them—and fast!
Much effort went into defining an independent director and veritable lists emerged of the much needed characteristics and attributes, especially concerning ownership (the lack thereof); earnings from ownership (the lack thereof); or, employment or former employment (the lack thereof). Sadly, in all that enthusiasm the single most important attribute—independence of thought—was seldom mentioned.
Fast forward a decade: now its diversity’s turn. Diversity, it is now proposed, is the panacea for improvement. Just like independent directors in the past (where no systemic evidence emerged supporting the assumption that independent directors actually improve performance) business is besieged with the idea that diversity on boards will enhance performance. All of the board diversity research conducted to date has been from outside the boardroom. We know that because there have been only four longitudinal studies conducted within the boardroom—one in Norway by Morton Huse; one by a serving board member (no conflicts there); one by a British colleague (Silke Machold); and, one by Peter Crow.
So what is being measured? Just like the independent director research, the diversity research has reduced the boardroom to a simple input-output model. Diversity then refers to the measurable appearance of directors, such as, skin colour, ethnicity, sex, age, qualifications, professional backgrounds, and so on with a focus on sex, colour and age. But does diversity of appearance produce a diversity of opinion? Does diversity of appearance produce different strategic decisions that would not have been considered or not approved in the absence of such diversity on boards?
Given that we don't know how effective men are in the boardroom, it is implausible to argue that we know the effectiveness of women. That is not to suggest we don't need more women on boards—we do. But the focus of the discussion ought to be one of building better boards, boards that are focused on wealth creation, and boards that deliver the company’s aspirations.
As with the independent director argument that preceded it, repetition seems to matter—if something is repeated often enough it will eventually be believed. The discussion is being fuelled by the post-modern/neo-Marxist views currently dominating the B-school landscape, one that will acknowledge diversity everywhere other than amongst Caucasians. And with that, the point is lost. The focus of corporate governance should be on performance, in organisations where the thinking folder is overflowing, not what people look like.
About Dr James Lockhart:
James is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s Business School, and a credentialed and practising company director. He teaches and researches in strategic management and corporate governance, and is responsible for the delivery of the College’s business internship and professional practice (Management) courses. He currently holds two directorships; is on the Defence Employers Support Council; and, is a Chartered Member of the Institute of Directors in New Zealand.
The question of whether companies with gender-diverse boards perform better than companies devoid of gender-diverse boards has been debated with passion for many years now. The locus of much of the early discourse was women on boards. However, the rhetoric has matured in recent times.
Whether motivated by political, social or cultural ideals, the weight of opinion amongst consultants and practicing board members now points to a positive correlation between various diversity attributes (sex, gender and ethnic identity, inter alia) and company performance. But is this a reliable reflection of reality? Wittgenstein's aphorism provides a useful reminder that all may not be exactly as it seems:
From its seeming to me—or to everyone—to be so, it doesn't follow that it is so.
Recently, Katherine Klein, a professor of management at The Wharton School, reviewed the findings of rigorous peer-reviewed studies and meta-analyses, in search of a more complete understanding. Her conclusions, which include the following comment, paint a rather different picture from normative opinion:
Rigorous, peer-reviewed studies suggest that companies do not perform better when they have women on the board. Nor do they perform worse. Depending on which meta-analysis you read, board gender diversity either has a very weak relationship with board performance or no relationship at all.
Klein also discussed possible reasons and implications of her findings. Boards and nominating committees would be well-advised to read Klein's commentary, understand the nuances and contextual factors and, most importantly, debate the implications for practice.
Postscript: Another review of the board diversity literature is available in my thesis (see pages 39–40).
"In our world now, the primary mover for reproductive success—and thus evolutionary change—is culture, and its weaponised cousin, technology."
The words in this quotation, originally published in National Geographic (*), stood out when I first read them recently. They seemed to lift themselves off the page, as if to highlight their significance. The penny dropped when I realised the quotation is applicable well beyond the [biological] world from whence it emerged.
Take boards of directors for example. The quotation suggests that board effectiveness (and, by implication, company performance) is more likely to be influenced by board culture and appropriate technology than any static attribute such as a particular board structure, composition or governance code. This intuitively attractive proposition enjoys widespread support in the academic literature, and case studies of actual board experiences have been reported.
Yet board and company failures abound, which begs an awkward question. Why do some boards continue to prioritise structure and compliance (with statutes and codes of practice) over culture and technology, especially when a stronger focus on the latter is more likely to lead to increased board effectiveness and, importantly, better company performance?
(*) D.T. Max (2017). Beyond Human, National Geographic, April 2017, p.49.
Monday 8 May 2017 shall, in our household anyway, be remembered as a significant date. It was on this date that a father and a daughter both crossed the stage to receive recognition for their respective achievements.
While the day was special for close family members in attendance, the awarding of academic credentials is by no means an endpoint. Rather, it marks a weigh point on a long-term journey. The priority for Megan now is to build her career in international business, marketing and customer service (get in touch if you have an opening for a willing and able staff member). I will continue to encourage boards and directors to focus on what really matters: fulfilling their responsibility for company performance.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.