The passing of the Covid pandemic has been a great relief for many; boards of directors are no exception. Several weeks ago, I visited Sydney, Australia to meet with directors, boards and leaders of membership bodies. The feedback was clear: if companies (and through them, economies and societies) are to prosper, boards need to start thinking strategically again. And last week, more grist to the mill. During a successful visit to Bengaluru, India to lead a Board Immersion Programme for a globally-known FMCG company, the question of how boards can add value was front-of-mind throughout.
Today, I'm delighted to announce my first post-Covid trip to the United Kingdom and Europe, to continue the work there.
From November 16th through 25th, I will visit the UK, several EU countries, and elsewhere as required, to respond to requests to help boards respond well as they pursue sustainable business performance. This includes:
Do you want to meet in November? Regardless of whether you have a specific request or a general question, please get in touch. I'll respond promptly with some suggestions for your consideration.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks thinking about problem solving; my attention drawn, in particular, to problems that fall between simple (for which answers are self-evident) and wicked (easily defined, but for which an answer is elusive due to incomplete or contradictory information, or changing requirements). Difficult problems are those that can be solved, but answers are far from evident, even following careful enquiry. The BBC Series, The Bomb, explores a case in point. Nuclear fission was discovered to be theoretically possible (Leo Szilard), but considerable effort over the following decade was required to finally tackle the problem in practice.
So-called ‘difficult problems’ require, clearly, intentional enquiry and, often, patience. As with gravity and magnetism, the underlying explanation (resolution) cannot be observed directly, only through its effects. So, deep and critical thinking is needed, if a resolution is to be discovered.
Such problems are familiar territory for boards: if they were straightforward, management teams would resolve them. And therein lies the challenge for directors: the underlying cause of a problem raised to board level tends to be hidden under that which can be seen. And what is more, any linkage between the problem, the underlying cause, what can be observed, and any subsequent effects or impacts (note: plural) is tenuous and, almost certainly, contingent.
If boards are to be effective in their work (governance: the means by which companies are directed and controlled), directors need to be alert, astute and actively engaged—more so because resolutions to difficult problems cannot be discerned directly. Thus, directors need to think beyond what is written in board reports, and what is apparent when reading other materials. Those who think they can get away with quickly reading board papers a few days before the upcoming meeting are kidding themselves.
If directors are prepared to read widely across a range of topics, allocating 1–2 hours per day for six days every week, to consider ideas and think deeply, the likelihood of uncovering possibilities and solution options is greatly enhanced. Indeed, the correlation between, on one hand, time spent reading and thinking deeply, and on the other, high quality decisions is stark. Time and critical thinking matters, if directors are to add value.
During June, I spent most of my discretionary time reviewing articles about corporate scandals and failures, as reported in the mainstream media and academic press, and discussed on social media. They made fascinating reading, not only for the summaries, but also the amount of finger-pointing and defensiveness—an indication that accountability was missing in action in most cases.
Consider the Carillion, Wirecard and Petrobas cases, all mentioned in a recent Financial Times feature article (paywall, sorry). The discussion concentrated on the accounting and audit professions; the questions being whether they should have detected the problems, and whether ethics should be a consideration. These are good questions, but they sound a little like positioning an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Disclosures, in the form of annual reports, audit statements, and various ESG-related reports, are necessary. But they are just that; disclosure reports. And the more complex the reporting and disclosure requirements, the more time management and the board needs to spend preparing and checking reports, to meet expectations. And with greater focus on reporting and compliance, the greater the likelihood that accountability will become discretionary.
Accountability is one of four foundational elements of corporate governance. There are two aspects, namely, boards are charged with holding management to account, and they need to provide an account to legitimate stakeholders. (The others are the formulation and approval of corporate purpose and strategy; policymaking; and, monitoring and supervising management, to ensure the company is operated and strategy achieved within prevailing statutory and regulatory boundaries. Together, these four elements comprise the Learning Board Framework, a proposal described in The fish rots from the head, a book written by Bob Garratt, a doyen of corporate governance and board work, circa 1996. The LBF is the single-best approach to board activity that I have come across in my twenty-five years of board and governance practice and research, bar none.)
As in life, enduring success in business (meaning, achieving and sustaining high levels of organisational performance) can be attributed to many things. These include, inter alia, a great idea, a clear and coherent strategy, excellent execution, capable and highly-motivated people, forces of nature, timing, effective leadership, luck (yes, luck), and more besides. Yes, success has many sources, even to the point of being idiosyncratic.
Failure is different. Even a cursory study of corporate failures reveals several common themes, most of which can be readily traced back to the boardroom:
Almost all of these themes emerge from poor behaviour and a leakage of accountability. Knowing what to do is one thing, knowing how to behave (and behaving) is quite another. Fortunately, help is at hand. Insights from research suggest five underlying behaviours are necessary if boards are to contribute well. These include strategic competence, a sense of purpose, active engagement, collective efficacy and constructive control. If any one of these is absent, the likelihood of the board exerting any meaningful influence or adding any value drops to nought. (If you want more information on this, please get in touch.)
One final comment: The role of director is founded on trust—the fiduciary responsibility. And from this flows accountability—in role and in relationship. If boards place a low value on accountability, by not holding management to account for the achievement of operational and strategic goals; rubber-stamping advice from suppliers such as lawyers, accountants and auditors; or, not providing a candid account of performance to shareholders, regulators and other stakeholders, they deserve what comes their way.
The transition to electric vehicles looms large for many. Most of the major manufacturers are scrambling to offer new and exciting models to entice both corporate and private buyers. Enticements are being offered by some governments to encourage adoption. Regulators are active too, especially in Europe and California, with announced intentions to ban new vehicles powered by petrol or diesel.
The opportunity to embrace a transport technology that is cleaner, quieter and considerably cheaper to operate (than petrol or diesel alternatives) is attractive—once the initial purchase price hurdle leapt. The purported benefits seem to be significant, but does the reality match the rhetoric? As with any proposal to embrace system-level change, the costs of moving from one technology to another are far from trivial. If an assessment is to be complete, the total lifetime costs (TLCs) need to be considered; that is, the sum total of all costs incurred over a product/system’s lifetime (includes manufacture, operation, disposal).
In the case of electric vehicles, what of the economic, environmental and social costs of extracting metals for battery ingredients; logistics and manufacturing; replacement of batteries when they are spent; battery disposal; and, of upgrading the power generation and distribution network to provide adequate electrical power to recharge batteries? Many of these are being quietly ignored, it seems. Not my problem, some argue, as if out of sight is out of mind. This short article argues that when the TLCs are factored in, the benefits associated with a seemingly compelling technology (in this case the adoption of electric powered vehicles and other devices with battery power packs) may not be as great as what has been claimed.
And so to the purpose of this muse, which is not to argue the benefits or otherwise of adopting electrically powered vehicles. Rather, it is to table an issue often overlooked by board of directors considering so-called strategic projects: total lifetime costs.
When faced with a strategically-significant proposal, boards first need to check for alignment, by testing whether the proposal is contributory to the corporate strategy (spoiler alert: often linkages are tenuous). Assuming it is, directors should satisfy themselves that total lifetime costs have been included. Only then can the question of whether the recommendation should be embraced or rejected be debated.
Why might this be important? Directors are duty-bound to act in the best interests of the company. That means taking all relevant information into account.
If boards ignore externalities, or abuse the social, environmental and economic capitals consumed in the operation of the company, the governed company is unlikely to endure over the longer term. And in so doing, directors may be exposing themselves, unwittingly, to legal challenge as well.
ESG and sustainability are hot topics in business and, increasingly, civil society. Hardly a day goes by without one or both being mentioned in newsfeeds and across social and mainstream media. Since the term ESG was first coined in 2005, and more so through the coronavirus pandemic, researchers and commentators have promoted ESG as the answer to what have been held up as great issues of our time—issues such as changing climatic conditions; the impacts of fossil fuels; population growth; modern slavery; the excesses of capitalism; geopolitics; and, more besides.
Shareholders are starting to acknowledge companies should be doing a better job, in terms of appropriately stewarding the resources used in the operation of their business and fulfilling their duties. Institutional investors in particular are applying direct pressure to refocus board attention and business priorities to tackle the great issues—their underlying belief is that ESG-based approaches provide more sustainable long-term value creation.
What is one to make of these developments?
Evidence to support claims that ESG-based investments outperform other investments is yet to emerge. The question of why this might be the case remains open. It could be that investments have been poorly placed; expectations are unreasonable; measurement systems are inappropriate; and, probably, more besides. Of these possibilities, the spectre of inappropriate measurement systems looms large.
A couple of years ago, Ethical Boardroom, a magazine read by tens of thousands of board directors, advisors and executives, commissioned an article on the matter. I concluded that a measurement and reporting framework founded on the three main capitals used in business would probably provide a more informative and complete measure of sustainable business performance than ESG. A copy of that article follows. If you have any comments and suggestions on this, including criticisms, please do let me know—either in the comment box below or, if you prefer, a private message.
This entry is a little more personal than most posted here. But, if you'll allow the indulgence...
Yesterday started out like many others before it: a mix of client and administration work, video calls across timezones, director commitments and writing (The craft of board work is coming along nicely). I 'logged off' a little later than usual—around midnight—having just completed a two-hour video call with members of the Global Peter Drucker Society (advance planning for the 2022 edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum to be held in Vienna late this year).
Tired but satisfied after a long day, I prepared for bed. And as I did, my mind wandered. March 24th was significant for some reason. Then I remembered; it was Musings' birthday! Yes, ten years ago, on 24 March 2012, I stepped, with some trepidation, into the blogosphere. That first step? A three-line post.
My motivation was straightforward, to share thoughts and test ideas on corporate governance, strategy and board effectiveness. At the time, I had just started on my doctoral journey (a milestone achieved in 2016). A platform to engage with academics and global leaders—and to let off steam from time to time—was going to be helpful, I thought. And so it was, and continues to be.
Today, some 712 posts later, Musings has entered middle-age. From tentative first steps, to now a library of comments on professional (corporate governance, strategy, and the craft of board work), philosophical and personal topics. Whether the thinking underpinning the articles has improved over time or not is for readers to determine. Hopefully, a progression is evident. And, while the frequency with which posts have appeared has declined a little in recent years, my desire remains as it was in 2012: that each post proved valuable to at least one person. If that was achieved, the effort was worthwhile.
Looking back over the decade, I have been most fortunate to have met and learned from many great thinkers, leaders and doyens of corporate governance and strategy. I have also had the privilege of serving aspiring and established directors, and boards, across five continents. Musings has been an enabler.
The support and encouragement shown as I have pursued my passion—to help boards realise the potential of the organisations they govern—has made a great difference to me. Hopefully, it has been beneficial to others as well. Thank you.
And, in case you are wondering, Musings, will continue to be published, for as long as readers show interest.
Much has been made in recent weeks of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Social and mainstream media has been awash with commentary, both about the situation on the ground, and of various moral and ethical issues arising, not to mention significant geopolitical and balance of power impacts.
The Western world has rallied in support of Ukraine. Governmental–, corporate– and community–level responses have been announced and taken including accepting refugees, providing humanitarian support, and organising fund-raising and community support. Governments have imposed economic and trade sanctions as well. Many companies have decided to withdraw from the market. Others have chosen to remain, for a variety of reasons. Some, who initially held the line, have subsequently changed their mind after feeling the effects of a backlash. Directors have resigned from boards too, signalling they have no interest in continuing to serve on the boards of Russian companies.
To say the situation is fluid and outlook is uncertain is an understatement. In cynefin–speak, the appropriate descriptor is 'chaotic', meaning rapid response is appropriate: searching for the 'right' answers is futile.
Despite the ambiguity and uncertainty, directors must continue to make decisions, to govern. In a crisis, most boards, rightly, focus on the here and now. Strategy and strategic initiatives are put to one side, and accountability may languish too. All available resources are applied to understanding and stabilising the situation.
But after the heat has subsided and the situation is brought under control, boards need to take stock. They owe a duty of care (to themselves but also shareholders and legitimate stakeholders), for both their actions and those of management. Were the decisions made and actions taken during the crisis appropriate given the information to hand and prevailing situation at the time?
The review may find the board operated within statutory and regulatory boundaries, and that decisions taken in averting the crisis were reasonable. But what if decisions and actions are found to have crossed moral or ethical boundaries? Where should accountability lie? The question of moral accountability cuts across personal and professional reputation, organisational culture, and market confidence.
And to the future, where should the board's moral compass point, what conduct is appropriate, and how should the board's actions be assessed?
December is a significant month for many peoples around the world. It is the month in which two of the three great Abrahamic faiths have a major festival (Jews, Hannukah; Christians, Christmas), and the Japanese observe Omisoka. For others not professing a faith, December is significant to the extent that it marks the end of the Julian calendar. Each of these observances is distinctive, but a common thread runs through them: celebration and dedication.
Yes, December is a time to reflect on the year gone and give thanks, and to ponder what lies ahead.
Through this muse, I too wish to give thanks, to the many board directors, business leaders and students that I have had the good fortune to work with during 2021—both in person in New Zealand, and via video link in the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Caucasus region, North America and the Caribbean, India, several African and Middle Eastern countries, and closer to home in Australia. I have learnt a lot, and hope others have derived value from the interactions. Thank you.
Peering into 2022, the prospect of travelling internationally to work in person with boards and students is enticing. Once the coronavirus situation stabilises, border restrictions are relaxed and travel becomes viable again, I will accept bookings. But in the meantime, I have decided to take on a new project.
For over two decades now, I’ve had the privilege of working with aspiring and established directors on five continents, helping them wrestle with problems, consider opportunities, make decisions and learn what it means to be an effective director. Over the same period, two friends have encouraged—even nagged—me to consolidate my ideas, experiences and insights into a book. And each time it has been mentioned, I have pushed the idea away, citing lack of head space. But circumstances have changed in 2021 and the time now seems right to reconsider the prospect of writing 50,000 words about governance and the craft of board work. So, that is what I will attempt in 2022.
(*) The image shows the Marsden Cross, which marks the location of the first Christian mission settlement in New Zealand, and the spot Samuel Marsden preached the first Christian service, on 25 December, 1814.
Every year, at about this time, sages and futurists of various stripes peer out from their sanctuaries to offer opinions of what the future holds. Many speak or write deterministically, as if they have been blessed with special powers to know or postulate the future with great accuracy. Pronouncements are read with great anticipation by many, and embraced as if categorical. But some commentators are more circumspect; their contingent expressions reveal great maturity and wisdom.
“Forecasting is always a hazardous business. … no one can claim that the future is entirely inscrutable.”
One does not need to look far to see examples of the difficulties faced by those charged with forecasting and strategising. Over the last two years, for example, undertones of fear and stasis have been prominent. People and companies have frozen in response to pronouncements and dictates from national leaders. Economic and social priorities have been set to one side; the main—nay, only—focus has been on the pesky virus known as Covid19. First, borders were closed and populations were locked down, in an effort to flatten the curve. Some even tried to eliminate the virus. Then, recognising their folly, leaders embraced vaccination to reduce the effects of the virus. Most recently, mandates have seen populations divided into two classes, the vaccinated and the un-vaxxed. Naysayers have jumped in, but many of their predictions have proven to be wrong as well. Meanwhile, economies have struggled and the social fabric has frayed.
Amidst this backdrop, boards remain responsible for the performance of the companies they govern. Of those who recognise this (and not all do), some boards wait, perplexed by the unknowns, and others strike out, believing they can control the future, despite a plethora of externalities. Neither response is particularly wise.
High performing boards and leadership teams recognise that things change, often unexpectedly. They remain vigilant, watching for weak signals that might portend the emergence of something significant. They hold options open for as long as possible. Then, when it is time, they act, decisively.
The types of questions high performing boards ask (and keep asking) include:
While some of these questions may be difficult to answer, boards must persevere. Even partial answers are likely to indicate a more reliable way forward than the lazy option of blindly pursuing the supposedly categorical predictions of mediums, sages and futurists.
News of a new variant of the coronavirus emerged this week. B.1.1.529 (now Omicron, a moniker assigned by the World Health Organization) was first isolated by scientists in South Africa. Already, it has been detected in several neighbouring countries and in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Czechia, Hong Kong, Germany, Australia and Israel. Governments are reportedly “scrambling to protect their citizens from a potential outbreak". These responses are supposedly to protect but also, undoubtedly, to buy time.
Given the experiences since the coronavirus disease was first detected and subsequently declared to be a global pandemic, the reactions to the latest variant are hardly surprising. News agencies and social media commentators have been up to their usual antics; newsfeeds are abuzz. Fear is a powerful catalyst, of course. But reliable guidance to indicate whether Omicron is more or less contagious, and more or less virulent, is yet to emerge. For example, the two cases in Australia are asymptomatic and both people are fully vaccinated. A calm response is needed.
Another interesting aspect of the current situation is the response to those who first alerted the world to what they had discovered. When virologists in South Africa openly shared the results of their advanced gene sequencing tests, others (especially in so-called advanced economies) were quick to point the finger. They accused several countries in southern Africa of being the source of the outbreak, and ostracised them by banning travel—even from countries with no recorded cases—demonstrating the blame game is alive and well.
Effective leaders (boards) do not get caught up in the blame game. They take another path:
Then, having prepared and decided upon a course of action, effective boards remain engaged. They keep their eyes open, scanning for weak signals that might portend danger. If danger strikes, they engage immediately and fully—supporting the executive response but remaining calm at all times.
Is your board well-equipped to lead in an event that threatens the company’s prosperity or viability? And what is the likelihood it will oversee an appropriate response? Will it work calmly with the executives as a conjoint team to assess the situation and activate an appropriate response, or will it remain aloof and descend into finger pointing (perhaps because directors are more interested in protecting their personal reputation)? If there is any chance of the latter, consideration should be given to replacing the board with directors who are prepared to take their duties more seriously.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.