ESG (environmental, social, governance), an indicator and measure of corporate priorities and performance, has become topical in business circles, very topical. Its emergence has coincided with a rising tide of concerns about the effects of the doctrine of shareholder maximisation, as espoused by Milton Friedman some fifty years ago. A bevy of academics, consultants and politicians have responded by jumping on a bandwagon; much has been written, arguments abound. The objective of much of this rhetoric seems to have been to establish a counterbalance to perceived excesses of capitalism (because capitalism is evil, apparently).
The idea of using a range of financial and non-financial measures to assess company performance is not new. It was normal practice until the early 1970s. But things began to change relatively quickly after Friedman's thesis was published. A broad church of managers, boards, shareholders and activists embraced the thesis (with evangelical zeal in some cases) to justify a primary, even exclusive, focus on profit maximisation. And with it, interest in other (non-financial) indicators of corporate performance waned—until the emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and, more recently, ESG.
ESG has gained an enthusiastic following. Many proponents have argued that the widespread adoption of ESG principles could redress some of the imbalances and inequities that have become apparent in recent decades. Is that reasonable? Is ESG all it is cracked up to be?
Drucker's insight is salient (what gets measured gets managed), but the use of ESG as an appropriate measure of corporate performance doesn't sit that comfortably with me. Two things stand in the way:
If ESG contains such flaws, what other options might provide a better (more complete) indication of enduring company performance?
SEE (social, economic, environmental) merits close consideration. It reinstates the economic dimension to its rightful place, alongside the social and environmental dimensions. Thus, the three capitals that fuel sustained business performance, economic growth and societal well-being are re-united. If a company is to thrive over time (read: achieve and sustain high levels of performance, however measured), all three capitals need to be measured, managed and protected, as Christopher Luxon so ably asserted, in 2015.
And what of 'G'? Rightly understood, governance is about providing steerage and guidance (a lesson dating from the Greeks), the means by which companies are directed and controlled (hat tip to Sir Adrian Cadbury). As such, governance is a function performed—not a consequential outcome or result—and Drucker's maxim should be applied.
So, to the courageous question: has the time to SEE beyond ESG arrived? I think so.
A situation developing at Hutt City Council (a local council not far from where I live) is instructive for boards everywhere. It concerns a proposal to make a grant to Hutt Valley Tennis, a tennis club, to assist with the redevelopment of its tennis facility. The entity and the size of the grant, $850,000, are largely immaterial. What is significant about the matter is that one of the Hutt City councillors is married to the president of Hutt Valley Tennis (a potential conflict of interest, perhaps?), and that the decision required a casting vote by the Mayor to break a deadlock. The local newspaper has just reported the matter, and a newspaper columnist has chimed in offering an opinion as well.
On the conflict of interest: Questions have been raised as to whether Councillor Milne had a conflict of interest, because his wife is the President of the organisation that stands to benefit from the proposal. Milne registered his interest but denied there was a conflict of interest because his wife is a volunteer, and neither he nor his wife has a financial interest in it. But financial interest is not the appropriate test. A more appropriate test is whether the person can reasonably be expected to make an independent and objective decision, or other factors might lead to bias. Hutt Valley Tennis identified a potential conflict, and Milne registered interest. Yet Milne proceeded to participate in the decision-making anyway. On this matter, Milne appears to have missed a vital point: perception is reality (i.e., conflicts are assessed by others, not self). If there was any doubt at all, caution should have been exercised. To argue that there was not an actual conflict is inappropriate, some might suggest arrogant. Better for Milne to have removed any doubt by excusing himself from the discussion (by leaving the room), especially as he had already declared an interest. He should not have participated in the decision either. Standing one step back, the Mayor is not beyond scrutiny in this matter. Why did he not ask Milne to leave the discussion, and why was Milne not excluded from the decision?
On decision thresholds: Local councils, like company boards, make decisions in the collective. This means that every resolution results in either a 'yes' or a 'no' decision (notwithstanding any deferral or request for more information). In local government, the minimum threshold for a binding decision is typically a simple majority, with the Mayor holding a casting 'vote' in the cases of a deadlock. But is a sensible means of collective decision-making? What of the downstream effects and consequences? To proceed following a split decision raises all sorts of questions, not the least of which is the opposed councillors' commitment to uphold (or undermine) the decision. A better threshold is consensus, whereby every councillor (director, in the case of boards) has space to speak for or against a proposal, and debate points, on the understanding that they support the decision afterwards (because their warrant requires them to act in the best interests of the entire constituency). If consensus cannot be reached, it is better to defer the decision, pending more information and/or discussion.
Thankfully, the Hutt City Council has recognised the situation for what it is. The council has decided to nullify the initial decision and reconsider the proposal next week. Milne has announced that he will not participate.
Several times in recent weeks, I have been asked about advisory boards. Individually, none of the requests are especially remarkable. But when several questions are posed in close succession (such as those listed below), by people in several different countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Ireland, it may be timely (again) to review the phenomenon.
The spate of enquiries set me thinking. Advisory boards have, at various times, been both topical and the source of much confusion and debate. But why the heightened level of interest at this time? Has the recently-published HBR article on shadow boards been a catalyst, or is something else going on? It's almost impossible to tell, except to observe that the person posing the question—usually an entrepreneur—wants to know more. Either they've read or heard about advisory boards, or been advised by someone that they 'need' one (their accountant, a firm specialising in setting up advisory boards, some other consultant). The recommendation is typically justified by it being a stepping stone, "before taking on a full board". The implication is that the entrepreneur does not have to give up control. And therein lies a common misunderstanding: that an advisory board provides a bridge to, or is a substitute for, a board of directors. It is not (*).
Before going any further, let's lay down some definitions:
Turning now to the question posed in the title of this muse: Are advisory boards a good thing? The answer depends on the purpose and function of the group of advisors (let's not use the term 'board' just now).
It's important to note that the 'deemed director' / 'shadow board' risk is borne by the advisor(s), not the manager, entrepreneur or company. But it is easily mitigated. Here are some suggestions:
While this is not an exhaustive list of mitigations, they are globally applicable.
The bottom lines? (Yes, there are two)
(*) If the entity is a company, a board needs to be in place from day one, regardless of whether advice is sought from third parties or not. The role of the board (i.e., corporate governance) typically includes setting corporate purpose and strategy; policymaking; advising, monitoring and supervising management; holding management to account for performance and compliance with relevant statutes; and providing an account (from both a performance and a compliance perspective) to shareholders and legitimate stakeholders. The formality with which these functions are enacted is, appropriately, contextual. Click here for more information.
In 2014, I observed that aspects of corporate governance and board work had not changed much in 25 years. Having just re-read the book that informed that conclusion (Making it Happen, by John Harvey-Jones), I've been reflecting on the relevance of the author's comments in today's world, especially ruminations on board effectiveness and three defining hallmarks of a successful director:
Are these hallmarks still applicable in today's fast-paced, technically-savvy world?
Some commentators assert that board effectiveness is the result of compliance with corporate governance codes and various structural forms. Others, including me, place a heavier emphasis on the capabilities and behaviours of directors on the basis that the board is a social group: men and women who need to work together. (That is not to say compliance is inappropriate. It is necessary but it is not sufficient.)
Today marks the beginning of a lull following a busy programme of international and domestic commitments since early February. Over a 110-day period, I have spent time in Australia (four times), England (twice), the US (twice), Germany (twice), Ireland, Sweden and Lithuania—and at home in New Zealand; interacting with over 520 directors, chairs and chief executives from 19 countries. Formal and informal discussions at conferences, seminars, masterclass sessions, education workshops, dinners, advisory engagements and board meetings were instructive to understanding what's currently top-of-mind for boards around the world. The following notes are a brief summation of my observations. I hope you find them useful.
Diversity and inclusion: These topics continue to dominate governance discussions in many countries. But, and noticeably, the discourse has matured somewhat over the last six months. The frequency with which the rather blunt (and often politically-motivated) instruments of gender and quota is mentioned is starting to subside, as directors and nomination committees start to realise the importance of diverse perspectives and options to inform strategic thinking and strategising. Long may this continue, as board effectiveness is dependent on what boards do, not what they look like.
Big data and AI: What a hot topic! Globally, boards are being encouraged by, inter alia, futurists, academics and consultants to get on board (if you'll excuse the pun) with the promise that developments in this area will change the face of decision-making and improve corporate governance. Some assert that these developments will obviate the need for board of directors in just a few years. The directors I spoke with agree that these tools can help managers make sense of complex data to produce information, even knowledge. But these same directors have significant reservations when it comes to strategic decision-making. Automated systems are poor substitutes for humans when it comes to making sense of (even recognising) contextual nuances, non-verbal cues and other subtleties. Unless and until this changes, the likelihood that boards will continue to be comprised of real people engaged in meaningful discussion remains high.
Corporate governance codes: The number of corporate governance codes introduced in markets has been steadily rising over the last decade. Most western nations, and a growing number of Asian and developing nations, have implemented codes to supplement statutory arrangements. Many directors and institutions around the world continue to look to proclamations that the UK is the vanguard when it comes to corporate governance thinking and related guidance: the recently-updated UK corporate governance and stewardship codes are held up as evidence of good practice. While the quality of board work in the UK has improved over the last decade, a strong compliance focus continues the pervade director thinking—across the business community in the UK and beyond. The reason is stark: codes are little more than rulebooks. Further, rules don't drive performance, they define boundaries. The more time boards spend either complying with the rules or finding ways to get around them, the less time is left for what actually matters, company performance. In many discussions over the past few months, I've pointed people to the ground-breaking work of contributors such as Bob Tricker, Sir Adrian Cadbury and Bob Garratt. These doyens provided much-needed impetus to help boards understand their responsibility for company performance. The emergent opportunity for regulators and directors' institutions is to consider alternative responses to ineptitude and malfeasance: instead of creating more rules all the time, why not hold boards to account to the existing statutes, most of which seem to be eminently suitable?
Best practice: Many individual directors (and boards collectively) are starting to move beyond 'best practice' as an aspirational goal. Further, directors and boards are demanding to hear educators and thinkers who are also practicing directors, not trainers delivering off-the-shelf courses. Context is everything. The evidence? When a director asks to explore the difference between theory and practice you know something in his prior experience has missed the mark. Practising directors know that the board is a complex and socially-dynamic entity, and that the operational environment is far from static. Directors' institutes, consulting firms and trainers need to stake stock and move beyond definitive 'best practice' claims, lest they be left behind and become monuments to irrelevance. Enough said.
Governance remains a fashionable topic: If I had a dollar every time I've heard 'governance' promoted as a career in recent months, or the term used in discussions (including, sadly, often inappropriately), I would be really well off. But the act of invoking a term during a discussion is no panacea to whatever situation is being discussed. More capable directors are needed to contribute to the effective governance of enterprises, of that I am sure. But the established pattern of selecting directors from a pool of seemingly successful executives—as if a reward—is folly. The findings from a growing number of failure studies from around the world attest to this. The role of a director is quite different from that of a manager or executive. Managers and executives have hierarchical authority and decisions are made by individuals. In contrast, directors lead by influence and decisions are always collective. The challenge for those aspiring to receive a board appointment is to set their managerial mindset aside, to enable a more strategic mindset and commitment to the tenet of collective responsibility to emerge.
Standing back from these interactions, the board landscape seems troubled. But I remain hopeful. Progress is being made (albeit more slowly than many would wish) and a pattern is slowly emerging. Increasing numbers of directors are acknowledging that the board's primary role is to ensure performance goals are achieved, and that the appropriate motivation for effective boardroom contributions is service, not self.
The challenge is to press on. If the number of requests from those wanting to understand what capabilities are needed in directors, what boards need to do before and during board meetings, and desirable behavioural characteristics is any indication, boards are getting more serious about making a difference—and that points to a brighter future. If a tipping point can be reached, arguments centred on board structure and composition that have dominated the discourse can be consigned to their rightful place: history. I look forward to that day.
For years, independence has been held up as a desirable—even necessary—attribute of boards; the moot being that independent directors are a prerequisite if boards are to consider information objectively and make high quality decisions. In practice, the listing rules of most stock exchanges state that at least two directors must satisfy independence criteria, and many directors' institutes promote independence as a desirable attribute.
But does the presence of independent directors actually lead to improved business performance? Notable investor, Warren Buffett, has his doubts.
Buffett took the opportunity at the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, an investment firm, to question the merit of appointing independent directors. He said that many independent directors cow-tow to the chief executive, an assertion that is tantamount to suggesting that the balance of 'power' and 'control' lies with the chief executive not the board. If this is correct, directors are not acting in the best interests of the company (as the law requires). Thus, independence becomes meaningless.
Buffett's solution is to recommend that directors need to have skin in the game. But if they do, what is their motivation likely be? Will the holding of shares lead to directors becoming more effective?
Long-standing research(*) suggests that, as with other static attributes of boards (board size and the board's 'diversity' quotient are topical examples), structural (or, technical) independence per se provides little if any guarantee that board decisions will be of high quality, much less assurance that the board will be effective or that high performance will be sustained. Much storied cases, such as, HSBC (USA), Mainzeal (New Zealand), Carillion (UK) and CBA (Australia), amongst many others, make the point plain.
If the board's role in value creation is not dependent on structural attributes (in any predictable sense), should independence be set aside? Not completely. Independence can be helpful, if it means independence of thought; directors who are capable of critical thinking and who exercise both a strategic mindset and wisdom, as they seek to make sense of incomplete data in a dynamic environment. But even this proposal is limited: independence of thought is hardly a silver bullet. Context is crucial. Shareholders and boards must be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking about corporate governance or board effectiveness in deterministic or formulaic terms.
If boards are to have any chance of exerting influence from the boardroom, directors need to embrace an holistic understanding of how best to work together as they assess information, make decisions and verify whether the desired outcomes of prior decisions are achieved or not. For this, the actions of boards (function) trumps what they look like (form). Emerging research suggests that board effectiveness has three dimensions, namely, the capability of directors (technical expertise, sector knowledge, wisdom, maturity); what the board does when it meets (determine purpose, strategy and policy, monitor and supervise management, provide an account to shareholders and other stakeholders); and how directors behave (individually and collectively).
(*) see Larcker & Tayan (2011) Corporate governance matters, for example.
My intention is to pursue more meaningful exchanges of ideas elsewhere. Challenging problems (how boards influence company performance, for example) need devoted time and space for critical thought and analysis. They cannot be resolved in 140 characters.
If you are interested, my thoughts on a range of topical matters including inter alia corporate governance, board effectiveness, strategy, the board's role in company performance and the compliance–performance dilemma will continue to be shared online, on LinkedIn, this blog and in published articles. Please read and debate them with your colleagues, and share your thoughts (especially strong or opposing views!). If you have a question or a request, ask and I'll respond promptly.
If you have a preference for in-person discussions, as many directors do, I am available to explore topics of interest, either publicly at conferences or other forums, or privately at workshops or confidential briefings.
Over the last twenty years, I have spent countless hours serving on and advising boards, and thinking about governance and the characteristics of effective boards. To have been invited to work with boards around the world as they have sought to realise the full potential of the enterprises they govern has been a real privilege. But with such privilege comes responsibility—the importance of standing back from time-to-time to take stock and reflect on learnings cannot be overstated, which is exactly what I have been doing over the last few days.
Two things in particular stand out just now. First, boards are increasingly aware that ultimate responsibility for enterprise performance lies with the board itself (not the CEO); and second, social media is starting to get in the way of effective learning.
That awareness is trending upwards is great news. But the supplementary question of how high performance is achieved and sustained remains problematic. The market is awash with best practice recommendations and supposedly definitive guidance ("five ways to...."), many of which have been implemented diligently. But alas, company failures continue to be blots on the landscape.
Directors want reliable guidance, but many directors struggle to sort the wheat from the chaff. They say that the plethora of often discordant information is more a hindrance than it is helpful. Privately, some admit that they have become confused about the purpose of the board, what corporate governance is and how it should be practiced. Others have suggested that the question itself (of the board's role in achieving high enterprise performance) is 'wicked', meaning it is easy to describe, but really difficult if not impossible to solve due to incomplete or contradictory information and a highly contextual setting—a moving target camouflaged in a landscape that is far from static.
The other thing that has become relatively clear in recent times is the role and impact of social media: it seems to be getting in the way of meaningful debate on big questions and wicked problems. Yes, news feeds and the 'like' button can be additive, but self-proclaimed experts offering opinions disguised as 'solutions' generally add little except noise and clutter. If progress is to be made, more reliable guidance is needed to help boards focus on what actually matters—enterprise performance. For this, researchers need to go to the source (the boardroom), to discover, analyse and report what really happens when the board is in session, including what boards do; how decisions are made; and how power is wielded and influence is exerted. Interviews, surveys and the quantitive analysis of large datasets all have their place, but the direct (and ideally, long-term) observation of boards in action is the gold standard. Researchers, advisors and directors need to continue to pursue meaningful dialogue—not sound bites—both with each other and at conferences and other interactive forums (workshops and masterclasses, for example) to explore situations, discover what works (and what doesn't) and, crucially, understand the contextual limitations and nuances of various options. A commitment to read widely and critically is also important.
Press on we must; the question of how boards influence enterprise performance is far too important to ignore. Tough problems need time and space for critical thought and analysis. Thus my decisions to step away from Twitter and to change my use of LinkedIn—to create more space for critical thinking and analysis. My hope is that what emerges will be of some use to helping boards address something that has remained constant: responsibility for enterprise performance starts—and ends—with the board.
I'm in London for the weekend, an interlude between inter alia commitments hosted by the Institute of Public Administration (a masterclass for board chairs, in Dublin); Lagercrantz Associates (a workshop, in Stockholm); and the Baltic Institute of Corporate Governance (a masterclass and the BICG conference keynote, in Vilnius).
To work with people across cultures, countries and contexts is a great privilege. Discussions reveal differences in perspective and approach. Yet, some things are consistent, transcending borders and cultures. One example is 'good governance'. Directors everywhere want to know how to achieve good governance.
This is a tough request. The problem is that 'good' is a moral qualifier, implying someone or something is morally excellent, virtuous or even righteous. But that is not all it means. A quick check in any dictionary reveals at least 39 other definitions! Which one does a person have in mind they ask for help to achieve 'good governance' or 'good corporate governance'? And what about other directors around the table. Do they have the same understanding or not?
It's little wonder that directors have become confused about the role and purpose of the board.
Pragmatically, corporate governance is the means by which companies are directed and controlled (Cadbury, 1992), that is, it describes the work of the board. The objective is to produce an agreed level of performance (however measured). 'Effectiveness' is a more appropriate qualifier than goodness. If something is effective it is adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing an intended result.
Returning to the question of how to achieve good governance. After reminding the enquirer that so-called best practices offer little guarantee of success (which one is best anyway), I usually steer the discussion away from goodness towards effectiveness (performance), and suggest that Bob Garratt's Learning Board matrix, and the Strategic Governance Framework are useful starting points for a lively discussion at the board table.
Once directors acknowledge that high company performance is the appropriate goal, and that success is a function of effectiveness more so than goodness, they start to ask more relevant questions, such as, "What actually matters?" and, "How do I as a director and we as a board become more effective?"
The company secretary, a role defined in law in most jurisdictions, is an important actor in company boardrooms; a servant of the board with a mandate to ensure the smooth running of the board and its activities. Specific tasks include supporting the chair and chief executive in assembling board documentation; ensuring effective communications between key actors and external parties; recording and publishing minutes of meetings; and providing process support to the board as and when needed. Such a role seems clear.
But in recent times, company secretaries have assumed greater roles including speaking at meetings; exerting influence over decision-making processes, even to the point of presenting papers; and speaking for the board in the market square. This has been encouraged by associations representing company secretaries with the term 'governance professional'. Times are changing, for sure, but are these developments sound? Most of the contributions listed here come dangerously close to the secretary acting, or being seen to act, as a director.
But the company secretary is not a director.
Rightly understood, the role of board secretary should—indeed must—remain one of servant to the board, not part of the board. If governance is a profession (a debatable point, given almost anyone can be a director and professional standards are not enforced), then it is directors not secretaries who are the rightful claimants of the title 'governance professional'. Some other questions boards may wish to consider are:
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.