Over the past eighteen months, many commentators, critics and self-styled experts around the world used the onset of the coronavirus pandemic to promote new ways of working; postulating that working from home is somehow better or more productive than working in a group setting (in an office or boardroom, for example). Zoom became a 'thing' (lockdowns being the catalyst, of course); Microsoft Teams, too. Proponents have suggested that the conduct of board meetings and annual meetings via video link (virtual meetings) saves time and money, and increases participation.
But, as the weeks and months have passed, the novelty of working separately has began to wear off. Stories of frustration have emerged, with widespread claims that decision quality and productivity has suffered. Staff and managers who once asserted the benefits of #WFH—even to the extent that people would not have to commute to office space any more—have gone quiet. Younger staff are pining to be together again; social magnetism at work.
And what of boards and their effectiveness? Can boards maintain high levels of productivity and decision quality when directors cannot meet together in person for extended periods? Might the availability of high quality video links and board portal software supplant the need to meet together in a boardroom?
In considering these questions, let's acknowledge that the board is a social group, and social groups work better when they are together. Not having to travel to a meeting is attractive to many, but proximity trumps distance in relationships, n'est-ce pas? Also, decisions are made the under tutelage of the board chair, following interaction to discover, discuss and debate. But body language, non-verbal cues and unspoken reservations are difficult to discern when on-line. What is more, the wider context within which the board and company operate is dynamic and generally complex, and ambiguity is prevalent, due to missing information.
If boards are to be effective (measured by the board providing steerage and guidance in pursuit of agreed company purpose; making smart decisions; holding management to account for execution; and, verifying progress towards agreed strategic goals), directors need to be on their game. For this, they need to be competent in role; be actively engaged (individually and collectively); know why they are there; understand the business of the business, the company's strategy and the strategic implications thereof (just one in six directors do); and, exercise control constructively—all of which is made easier if they meet together.
Do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences!
Tennis is a wonderful game; almost anyone can play. From schoolchildren to elite professional players, the sport is exhilarating; the excitement is often palpable.
One of the reasons tennis is attractive is that it is straightforward. The boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable play are, usually, well marked. The ball is served, and if is returned and bounces within the boundaries, play continues. If not, the score is adjusted and play is restarted with another serve. But, neither the net nor the lines play the game, players do; winning or losing is the result of two players (or four, if doubles) having played against each other within the playing space.
The distinction in tennis between the rules, the playing of the game, and the score at the end has strong parallels in governance.
Boards are charged with playing the game (that is, governing—providing steerage and guidance, in pursuit of an agreed goal) within the boundaries of various statutes, regulations and policies (the rules). The 'result' is company performance, which is usually reported in the annual report and any other reports to legitimate stakeholders. As with the distinction in tennis, neither the statutes or regulations, nor the annual report are the game. The 'game' is governance, and it is played by the board. Statutes and regulations are necessary, without doubt, but they are no more governance than rules are tennis.
Another facet of tennis is the player ranking table, which identifies comparisons between players at a population level. The very best players feature at the top; lesser players, further down. Positioning on the ranking table can be a source of motivation for players (to train harder, to embrace various tactics to improve their performance, for example), But position alone does not improve playing standards, player skill or on-court conduct.
And so it is with boards and governance. The position a company occupies on a ranking table (adherence to corporate governance standards or ESG metrics, for example) provides a comparative indication of how the company measures up against others. But that is all—to read in more is folly. The likelihood of ranking companies by corporate governance scores improving standards [compliance], for example, is about as tenuous as ranking tennis players improves player conduct. Why so? Standards and rules are thresholds; boundaries that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Tennis players wanting to improve their game focus on fitness, technique, strategy and tactics. Similarly, companies intent on improving performance need to focus their attention and efforts on purpose, strategy and execution.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel in a plane without any knowledge of where you might be headed? While this prospect may excite some, the idea of flying without a destination or purpose in mind beggars belief for most people.
Successful air travel is predicated on knowing the destination; a precursor to the pilot creating a flight plan to make the journey and arrive safely. Air travel is, generally, safe and straightforward when this principle is applied. But things can go wrong, and if they do, pilots must be ready to respond well. For that, years of training and accumulated experience are vital. And vigilance too: continuously reading onboard and external signals to verify progress, and to spot and respond to any emerging problems.
Successful governance is directly analogous. Knowledge of the destination and how to get there (purpose and strategy) is vital, as is constant monitoring of both the general direction (to verify progress is being made towards the desired goal) and the current situation (to detect any emerging problems).
Boards are, in general, reasonably good at reading and understanding the current situation. But they are not nearly as good when it comes to general direction. Knowledge and agreement around the ultimate goal, how to get there and how progress might be measured remains problematic. If directors and boards lack clarity on these matters, their ability to govern well and ensure the performance of the company into the future is lost. The consequential risks are high. Chances are, the board and the company will be knocked around—moving but not making progress, just like a cork in a washing machine.
Does your board have this in hand?
Recently, during a meeting with a company director, I was asked if I'd be interested in seeing the company’s production facilities, to provide context for an upcoming assignment. Context is everything, so I gladly accepted the offer. As we walked, we chatted about a wide range of things. At one point, I asked how things were going since the board's decision to embrace a strategy to become a higher-performing business. His response was as telling as it was succinct:
They say ‘high performance’, but all I see is ‘average’.
The melancholic admission was unexpected, but not surprising. Apparently, the most recent board report showed that staff turnover had been creeping up, and engagement scores were trending downwards. And yet the atmosphere in the boardroom was sanguine when I visited. Clearly, something was amiss.
This vignette highlights one of the great challenges in business—strategy execution; ensuring that strategy planned becomes strategy executed. Regardless of the motivation for creating them, intentions and strategies are not worth the paper they are written on if desired outcomes are not achieved.
When things go wrong, the problem can often be traced back to one or both of two things: lack of will (the "won't" barrier), and lack of know-how (the "can't" barrier). Both are indicators of a failure of leadership; a failure to equip staff, and motivate and engage them to embrace the call to action. But the root cause may lie elsewhere. If strategy implementation is OK but expected outcomes do not follow, the problem is more likely to be one of governance. This is because ultimate responsibility for organisational performance [outcomes] stops in the boardroom, not the executive suite. Some may challenge this, on the basis that the executive is responsible for running the business and implementing the strategy. They are, but for the avoidance of doubt, responsibility of determining purpose, setting overall strategy and ensuring results are achieved lies with the board of directors. There’s no getting away from it: the buck stops at the top.
If there is a gap between what the board says it wants, and what is subsequently observed as reality, the likelihood of great outcomes is low. The ‘saying–seeing’ gap must be bridged, and the board needs to own this.
Here are some questions the board may wish to consider:
So, to the direct question: Is your board across this?
Did you know that every living creature on Earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend over its lifetime (yes, 2,000,000,000)? I never knew that until I read this article recently. Brian Doyle writes so well. He brings science to life. Of heartbeats, he writes:
"You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old".
This article set me thinking. How I should spend the rest of my two billion heartbeats? Part of my answer is to continue to help boards govern well. Another is to nurture important relationships.
As a leader, how will you spend the rest of your heartbeats? And what impact do you hope to have?
As a devotee of life-long learning and a student of history, I keep an eye out for ideas and examples to share with boards and directors—in the hope that some might prove useful to help boards lead more effectively, from the boardroom. Amongst the news feeds and magazines that cross my desk (actually, computer screen), this journal often contains thought provoking articles. Recently, I was looking through some older issues and stumbled across this item, which explores effective leadership. The author offers seven 'keys' to effective leadership, as follows (I've taken the liberty of attaching a comment to each—a consideration for boards and directors):
I returned today from two overnight trips (both were to attend board meetings, meet shareholders and discuss various company matters with management). It was great to get out and about again—to sit together around a board table, meet staff and see the businesses operating following the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown.
While I was away, a Netherlands-based colleague sent a note saying she'd just started reading through Musings, from the beginning. Why someone would go back and read all of my writings since March 2012 is beyond me, but she has chosen to do so. She said that while many writings resonated, one piece in particular stood out as being as relevant today as when it was first written, in 2012.
Amongst other things waiting for my attention [having arrived overnight] was this article, originally posted by Tony Schwartz on the HBR Blog Network. The article set me thinking. Why are we, in this so-called modern age of productivity, so busy trying to fit so much in to our lives? We use electronic diaries to keep track and save time, but they've come to rule our lives. We seem to be constantly running; going faster, but getting nowhere.
Chantal's comment, and my subsequent re-reading of this piece, set me thinking once again about the impact of speed and busyness on decision quality.
How can any director make effective contributions in the boardroom if they are so busy, or moving so quickly, that they do not have time to consider the wider context? The prospect of an electronically-enabled world sounds enticing to many. But is it built on a solid foundation? Are board decisions any better than before?
Directors owe a duty of care to ensure the enduring success of the company governed. For that, they need to create space to think deeply and critically about longer-term options. They ignore this maxim at their peril.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of framing a discussion on board decision-making with a group of board directors and Digoshen Impact Partners. (Digoshen is a global learning platform to empower experienced and aspiring directors.) The following comments summarise the key points mentioned during this week's session.
At the core, the board of director's main job is to ensure the performance of the enterprise it governs. For that, the board needs to consider information, ask questions and make decisions, strategic decisions. This sounds straightforward. But many boards struggle; and more so in a highly-dynamic environment. For example:
Given these research findings, it's little wonder effectiveness is low. The seemingly unending trail of missteps and company failures tells a sorry story. But boards have options; they hold the ultimate decision-making power and, therefore, are by no means powerless. Boards intent on achieving high levels of decision effectiveness may wish to embrace the following suggestions (discussed during the session):
One final point. Boards are social groups that operate within a stratified social setting, the company and more broadly the wider marketplace. Thus, the actions and outcomes that follow are contingent on many external factors. Things can (and do) change quickly. Therefore, boards need to keep their eyes open, to ensure they have contextually relevant information to hand to make an informed decision; and to remain diligent after the decision, to ensure the expected benefits of the decision are in fact realised.
This musing is based on a session summary I co-authored (original posted on the Digoshen website).
Last week, Scott Arrol, CEO of NZHIT (New Zealand's peak body for those involved the digital health sector), got in touch to ask a few questions about the contribution of boards during times of crisis—a topical subject! The primary challenge for boards in such times is working out how to respond. The playbook that may have served well in the past is, probably, of little use now that the operating context has been flipped on its head. Despite this, the board remains responsible for business performance, so respond it must.
During our conversation (which was recorded, see below), we touched on the following points:
If you'd like to explore any of these or related points further, please get in touch.
The global crisis brought about by COVID19 has precipitated a range of reactions and emotional responses. These have included fear (of catching the virus, becoming very sick or even losing life); frustration (that civil liberties have been withdrawn); anger (the prospect of high levels of state control after the immediate crisis has passed); praise (the selfless actions of first responders and healthcare professionals); disappointment (of not being able to spend time with loved ones); beatification (of some political leaders); confusion (about the conflicting official guidance); and more besides. Inherent biases are also on display, as people turn to social media to express themselves (or react to what others have written). Some have supported the government's actions and public health responses; others have been highly critical, even vitriolic.
It's perfectly natural for people to react to what they read and hear about the situation and the uncertainty foisted upon them—and to be curious about the motivations of leaders and what the future might hold.
In times of great crisis (when chaos tends to reign), the most important priority for a leader (board of directors, executive team, community leaders or the government) is to re-establish a sense of stability and order, noting the fine line between providing leadership and imposing one's will.
Effective leaders tend to roll their sleeves up, identify options, openly encourage alternative perspectives, make decisions based on best-available data and assumptions thought valid at the time of the decision, and explain why decisions have been taken. But as the situation develops—and it will, both naturally and in response to various interventions—progress and data need to be reviewed. Effective leaders display an openness to reverse or amend earlier decisions promptly if new data do not conform to a priori assumptions. Transparency and accountability are both crucial to maintain the confidence and support of stakeholders.
But effective leaders also look beyond the immediate crisis. They ask questions to discover what the future might hold, and whether the crisis presents an opportunity to do things differently. But they don't pursue change for change sake. Over the past two or three weeks, a bevy of visions of what a post-COVID19 world could or should look like have been published by think-tank groups; futurists; independent consultants; journalists; social media commentators; self-styled experts; company leaders and other pundits. Amongst those shared to date, 'digital transformation'; 'locking in new ways of working'; 'a post-office world'; 'the end of globalisation'; 'balanced capitalism'; 'a more inclusive society' and other similar phrases have featured prominently. Some of the proposals I have seen are coherent and merit further investigation; others are little more than bias-laden and thinly-veiled attempts to influence public opinion in favour the author's favoured ideology. Hopefully, political leaders have been considering options to rebuild the economy and social fabric too, but these are yet to be revealed.
With so many options (and many more to come, no doubt), business, political and community leaders face a daunting challenge: of threshing the wheat from the chaff, and making strategically-important decisions in the best interests of others, not self. To decide where and how to move next, in the midst of great ambiguity and uncertainty, is not for the faint-hearted. Wisdom and maturity are invaluable capabilities in this context.
Many tools and frameworks are now available to help leaders make sense of a multiplicity of options, and to respond well given the prevailing context. The Cynefin Framework is worthy of consideration. (Hat-tip to a Netherlands-based colleague who reminded me of it recently.)
Regardless of which approach or framework you use, high-level sense-making and systems thinking expertise is vital. Heterodox perspectives are to be encouraged too. Without these, leaders run the risk of becoming introspective, leaning in on natural biases or, worse, preferred ideologies. Also, great care must be exercised to ensure intended visions are made plain, strategies are coherent and decisions are evidence-based. If such care is not taken, those concerned by what they deem to be inappropriate experimentation or investigation might bite back. Curiosity killed the cat, after all.
The COVID19-induced crisis presents leaders (politicians, boards of directors, community leaders) with a golden opportunity to take stock and, having thought carefully, make decisions in the best interests of the constituency, company, community they serve. Effective decision-making in chaotic situations is far from straightforward, but our future prosperity depends on it.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.