From entering the business lexicon less than quarter of a century ago, 'corporate governance' has come a long way. Prior to 2000, the term was rarely mentioned in business discussions much less amongst the general public. Boards and directors directed the affairs of the firm, and that was it. Now the term is ubiquitous. Its usage has changed over time as well: from describing the functioning of the board of directors, the term is now used to describe all manner of corporate activity, much of which bears little if any semblance to the board or governance at all.
The proclivity to use the terms 'governance' and 'corporate governance' has trickled down from big business to now infect family-controlled firms. Well-intentioned but inappropriate usage—notably advisers (typically, but only accounting firms) making assertions such as "You need governance"—has had unintended consequences. When attention is diverted away from running and overseeing the business to "implement governance" (whatever that means or entails) without justification, costs have a tendency to go up not down, and a whole new set of problems including confusion, consternation and strained relationships often follow.
Over the last two decades, I've had the privilege of working with the directors and shareholders of hundreds of family-controlled firms, ranging from 'mom and pop' operations to much larger (multi-hundred million dollar) enterprises. Awareness of (and interest in) governance has become palpable, more so if a director has just read an article or heard a talk from an expert purporting a 'best practice' governance solution. Yet directors know that a single answer rarely works everywhere. Context is crucial in business; every situation is, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. As a consequence, the universal application of a formulaic 'best practice' solution does not make much sense. Recognition of this gives rise to many questions, especially from the shareholders and directors of family-controlled firms. Here is a selection of the more frequently asked ones:
These questions are typical of those that have been front-of-mind for the directors and shareholders of the family-controlled firms that I've interacted with in recent months. Curiously, questions about social interaction, boardroom behaviour and family dynamics (the human dimensions) are asked far less often. This, despite the board being a collective of directors—people—who are required to work together in the best interests of the firm. Boards that resolve these so-called 'soft' questions tend to be more effective. But more on that next time.
This article is the first of three on the topic of 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The second, which explores undue influence and the impact of family dynamic is available here. A final instalment, which will make suggestions to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late 2018. Boards wanting to discuss matters raised in these articles should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
Embracing a brave new world
Netflix has been in the news a bit lately, aided no doubt by public interest in its rapidly increasing 'reach', meteoric rise in its stock price and membership of a new generation of behemoth—the FAANG club. Now, the actions of the board of directors have seen Netflix become even more newsworthy, principally a consequence of this article published in Harvard Business Review. The board of directors operates quite differently from many others and, indeed, conventional wisdom. Could this be a contributing factor in Netflix's success?
Conventional wisdom, supported by both agency theory and 'best practice' recommendations of directors' institutes (in the western world, at least), suggests that 'distance' (a clear separation between the board and management) is important if boards are to objective in decision-making. The listing rules of most stock exchanges specify that at least two directors must satisfy established independence criteria at all times. Independence is de rigeuer, even though no consistent link between director independence and firm performance has ever been identified!
Back to Netflix. Two researchers, David Larcker and Brian Tayan of Stanford University, gained permission to investigate how the Netflix board keeps up to date and informed, a prerequisite of effective decisions. They found that the Netflix board does not embrace conventional wisdom. The full research report, from which the HBR article was derived, is available on the SSRN website.
The Netflix approach is based on proximity not distance. The approach has been adopted to help directors resolve a fatal flaw present in most boards: Five out of every six directors do not have a comprehensive understanding of the business being governed. Specific measures in place at Netflix include:
The combined effect of these measures has been profound: directors are much more well-informed than they would have otherwise been. The handicaps of lack of transparency or hard-to-assess information are removed. The perennial problem of information asymmetry that besets boards globally has been, it seems, solved—in Netflix's case at least.
Standing back a little from the Netflix case, several learnings are available for boards, as follows:
Many boards and directors do take their role and responsibility very seriously. But, sadly, a significant number do not display appropriate levels of commitment. If boards are to become more consistently committed to the cause—the pursuit of high firm performance and longer-term value creation—they could do a lot worse than take a page from the Netflix playbook and the advice shared here. If you want to learn more, including scheduling a discrete briefing to explore how a mechanism-based understanding of corporate governance can contribute to improved board effectiveness, please get in touch.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention.