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.
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:
With 2018 consigned to history and holiday season break all but over, most business leaders and boards of directors are turning their attention to what the year ahead (and beyond) holds. Even a cursory glance reveals a plethora of issues that may have an impact on business continuity and, potentially, continuance.
Consider these indicators:
And that's just the start.
As is usual at this time of the year, business and governance commentators have stuck their collective necks out, promulgating a variety of predictions given the indicators (as real or imagined as each indicator may be); each behaving as if they possess levels of predictive insight beyond what a reasonably educated person might be able determine by tossing a coin. But do they? They cannot all be correct—in fact, none may be.
The challenge for boards, of course, is working out how to respond.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that boards have become confused by what's going on around them. Increasing numbers have grown quite tired of 'conventional wisdoms' and so-called 'best practices' (plurals intentional). Some have responded by taking defensive positions, and others are boldly trying things without first understanding the contextual relevance.
My response to enquiries from boards is straightforward: open your eyes to the possibilities, think and act strategically, but don't be impetuous.
Helping boards respond well typically involves sharing insights from research and practice; facilitating discussions; and providing contextually-relevant and evidence-based guidance. To this end, I will be travelling extensively again in 2019: the following international trips are confirmed in my diary, and more are pending:
If you would like to discuss options to lift the effectiveness of your board in 2019, please get in touch. I look forward to hearing from you.
Much has been written about the notion of value creation since the phrase became 'hot' in business circles several years ago. Today, one does not have to listen for long to hear questions such as "Does XYZ add value?' or "What's our value proposition?"The term is dropped into sentences hither and thither, flowing from the tongue freely, as if it were an old friend. This implies that 'value creation' is front-of-mind; something that is not only topical but also to be striven for.
But what is 'value creation', and how is value created? Here's one view:
Value creation is the primary aim of any business entity. Creating value for customers helps sell products and services, while creating value for shareholders, in the form of increases in stock price, insures the future availability of investment capital to fund operations. From a financial perspective, value is said to be created when a business earns revenue (or a return on capital) that exceeds expenses (or the cost of capital). But some analysts insist on a broader definition of "value creation" that can be considered separate from traditional financial measures. "Traditional methods of assessing organizational performance are no longer adequate in today's economy," according to ValueBasedManagement.net. "Stock price is less and less determined by earnings or asset base. Value creation in today's companies is increasingly represented in the intangible drivers like innovation, people, ideas, and brand."
This description, from Reference for Business, reveals that 'value' can mean different things to different people. As with many concepts within the social sciences and liberal arts (of which management and governance are expressions), context is crucial. Clarity of language is needed if leaders are to be effective and businesses are to prosper. Listeners and readers must be able to comprehend messages readily. The following questions provide a useful starting point for such an enquiry:
Rather than make assumptions or assertions (think how often have you heard people claim a 'unique value proposition'), put these questions to the beneficiaries (because, rightly understood, the 'value' of anything is determined by the recipient not the creator).
Start your enquiry at the 'top' of a company. Boards should sit with shareholders and ask (or propose, if the shareholder is unclear) what 'value' looks like to them. This is the 'core purpose' question. Responses might include increased share price; a long-term market position or business model; increased market share; a social priority; or some combination of these, or even something completely different. Senior managers and staff should meet with customers (or prospective customers) and ask the same question. Ask staff themselves as well: the motivations of employees are likely to be different from those of shareholders and customers. 'Great solutions' that 'add value' to are highly unlikely to hold any sway at all if the intended beneficiary does not recognise, or is not interested in, the 'value' that is supposedly being offered. As with strategy, boards need to take the high ground, by ensuring that value created for one recipient does not erode value elsewhere. Boards need to work with management and together become crystal clear about value in a holistic sense: what it is, who the recipient is, and how it is created.
Once the value matrix (what, to whom, how and why) is understood and agreed, the answers need to be communicated in a clear and concise manner, so that effort and expectations can be aligned accordingly.
Finally, a note to boards: You have an ongoing responsibility to ensure that purpose, strategy and managerial and operational activity are not only aligned, but also the desired value (outcome, strategic goal) is actually being achieved and that it is recognised by the intended recipients. The importance of ask probing questions cannot be overstated.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in 2015.
Ten days ago, I was in Vienna to attend the Global Peter Drucker Forum, as an observer and participant. However, at the last minute—actually, three days before the Forum—the organisers asked me to 'jump in' to cover for a panelist who was a withdrawal. The session, which was recorded, was entitled "Managing like you have skin in the game". I was asked to provide a boardroom perspective. My comments start at 41m 35s:
In a couple of weeks, I'll be in England and Europe, for the third and final time this year. The schedule includes attendance at two conferences, delivery of two keynotes and a bevy of meetings, as follows:
While the schedule is fairly full, some gaps remain for additional meetings (in London).
If you would like to meet, please get in touch. I'd be glad to discuss any aspect of boards, corporate governance or effective board practice; explore a research idea; or respond to (future) speaking or advisory enquiries.
In business, as in life, the task of exerting control is commonly perceived as being one of exercising limits; of saying 'no' and imposing constraints. Such perceptions are well-founded. Check these verb usages of 'control', lifted straight from the dictionary:
If you have spent much time in boardrooms, you'll know that director behaviour tends to be consistent with these definitions, more so if the chief executive is ambitious or entrepreneurially-minded (the two attributes are not necessarily the same). When asked, board justification for exercising caution is straightforward: to keep the chief executive honest and to keep things 'on track'.
Such an understanding—holding management to account—seems admirable. Monitoring and supervising management is one key task (of four) of corporate governance after all. But does a strong hand actually lead to better outcomes? More pointedly, how might the exercise of restraint and limits advance the purposes of the company (noting the board is responsible for ensuring performance goals are achieved)? Such conduct is analogous to applying the brake when the intention is to drive on. A growing body of academic and empirical evidence suggests that a strong hand, like increased compliance, may actually counter-productive.
Rather than persist with what is demonstrably a problematic approach, it might be more fruitful for boards to consider another perspective. What if control is re-conceived in positive terms (namely, constructive control), whereby the board's mindset is to provide guidance (think: shepherd or coach) by ensuring the safety of the company and steering management to stay focused on agreed purpose and strategy? Might this deliver a better outcome?
Emerging research (here, but contact me to learn more) suggests the answer is 'yes'. Strongly-engaged and strategically competent boards that display high levels of situational awareness as they debate issues from multiple perspectives and make informed decisions in the context of the long-term purpose of the company can make a difference. Constructive control is one of five important behavioural characteristics of effective boards identified in this research.
The limited liability company is a great construct; an efficient vehicle for commerce, through which to pursue an overall aim (purpose) and to distribute wealth (however defined) over an extended period. What's more, mixed levels of ownership are possible; greater economies of scale are attainable (beyond what a sole trader or entrepreneur could typically achieve); and, importantly for absentee shareholders, liability is limited to the extent of the capital invested.
Though they offer many benefits, the limited liability company is not without flaws—it is a social construction after all, and a complex dynamic one at that. The motivations, priorities and interests of various interested parties (shareholders, directors, managers and staff, amongst others) are often different. Contexts change, and egos can get in the way as well. Left unbridled, differences can fester, morale can suffer and, in more extreme cases, the company can be torn apart. Wynyard Group and Carillion are two recent example but there are many others. Family firms are not immune to such challenges. In fact, when the wildcard of family dynamics is added to the mix, family firms are actually more, not less, susceptible. Though not always visible, the spectre of undue influence often lurks as a contributing factor, as the following discussion reveals:
Failure to differentiate the roles of 'shareholder' and 'director': Let's start with some definitions. A shareholder is a person or entity that owns shares in a company. Ownership of shares affords certain rights, such as, selecting directors, receiving dividends and participating in major decisions. But those rights do not extend to running the business. That is the responsibility of managers, a delegation via the directors. In family firms, the roles of shareholder, director and manager can become blurred, especially when an influential family member holds multiple roles.
The most common expression of undue influence that I've seen over the years relates to decision-making at the board table: a director with a significant shareholding 'expects' to influence significant decisions in their favour because they own a large parcel of shares. The important distinction that is lost (sometimes it is 'conveniently' neglected) in such situations is that the board meeting is not a proxy for a shareholder meeting. Shareholders and directors vote differently. Shareholder voting is conducted on a 'one vote per share' basis, whereas each director has a single vote at the board table. Regardless of whether directors hold shares or not, every director has an equal say.
If situations like this arise, they need to be nipped in the bud. If they are not, board meetings become a farce; the other directors puppets. This is far from acceptable, especially when the duty of acting in the best interests of the company (not any particular shareholder) is factored in. In most cases that I have observed, attempts to exert such [undue] influence tends to stem from ignorance and a desire to do what they think is fair, not malice. Usually, a quiet discussion with the director concerned is often all that is needed to resolve the matter. Another family member or an outsider (an independent director if there is one, or some other trusted advisor) are useful candidates for this task.
Treating the company as little more than a personal bank account: If I had a dollar for each time I've seen this in family firms... Recently, while observing a board meeting as part of an advisory engagement, a director asked, "Why are we always so short of cash when we are supposedly highly profitable?". The discussion that followed was both enlightening and disturbing—and, sadly, it was not the first time that I'd heard it play out. One director with banking access had been buying personal items with company funds and, from time to time, had been taking 'petty cash' for personal use. He saw nothing wrong with this because "it's my firm anyway".
If a director or shareholder uses company funds to acquire personal items, or uses the company bank account as if it were their own, they are acting in their own interests (whatever those may be). Their actions may put the viability of the company at risk as well. Neither of these motivations is permissible in law. Any shareholder wanting money from the company needs to ask the company, not just take it (that's theft!). Valid payment options include shareholder salaries (payment for effort/services rendered), dividends (a share of the profits), donations (but these may be taxable) and director's fees. The company may also agree to lend money to the shareholder. Regardless of the motivation or the payment option, a written policy which outlines the rules and conditions pertaining to payments to shareholders can help mitigate misunderstandings.
Employment of family members and related matters: Another expression of undue influence is the situation in which a family member 'pulls rank' to secure employment for themselves or another family member. While any family member may nominate anyone else (including other family members), to foist a particular person onto a manager is completely unreasonable. If managers are to be held accountable for performance, they need to be free to make reasonable employment decisions themselves, in accordance with employment policy. In family firms, it is a good idea to add a section entitled 'Employment of family members' in the policy, to set out the rules the be applied whenever a family member is being considered for a role.
While none of these examples of undue influence is unique to family firms, they are usually more visible (and often more destructive) in family firms. Once discovered, they need to be resolved. If not, family relationships can become strained, even to the point of breaking down. Actions that families might consider taking to prevent or at least mitigate the types of problems summarised here include:
Boards wanting to explore matters mentioned here should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
This article is the second of three on the topic, 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The first explored some items that are currently front-of-mind for many directors and shareholders of family-controlled firms. The third article, which will present recommendations to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late 2018.
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.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.