Information (and mis-information) about the spread of COVID-19 around the world is clogging our airwaves, inboxes and social media feeds as quickly as the virus itself is spreading. But amongst it all, there are some things we can hold as self-evident. Many people are suffering, some are dying. New phrases are entering the lexicon, such as, social distancing (should be physical distancing, I think) and self isolation. Governments are responding with a variety of controls to limit movement. Borders have been closed, and lockdowns are being imposed in some areas. Airlines have reduced capacity, grounding fleets. Many businesses, especially SMEs, are in turmoil. People are on edge—lives have been put on hold.
While COVID-19 has spooked many people, not to mention the stock markets and wider economy, life must go on—and it will, albeit with some adjustments, of course.
The challenge for those who direct the affairs of companies—boards—is one of governing well in the face of what is, patently, a very different environment from that which existed even two weeks ago.
Businesses face continuity and safety risks every day. Routinely, staff and managers spot, assess, prioritise and respond to operational risks every day; that is their job. But when risks have strategic implications (i.e., an occurrence is likely to have a major effect on strategy execution, future business success or even company viability), the board must become involved. COVID-19 is one such risk. The board needs to understand the potential short- and longer-term impact (using information from credible sources and tools such as scenario planning, for example), consider various options and make informed decisions.
Some practical questions that the board may wish to consider include:
One final point. COVID-19 is no longer a strategic risk. It is upon us. Boards everywhere need to deal with it as well as they can, given the most reliable information available, with the best interests of the company to the fore. That means providing close support to management; more so if big decisions are needed, such as releasing staff or partial closures. However, and most importantly, boards should not panic. Neither should the board react to suggestions being advanced by some that an event such as the COVID-19 outbreak should be seen as a catalyst to redefine corporate governance. Corporate governance remains corporate governance—the means by which the company is directed and controlled. What might be appropriate though is a review, to consider how the board practices corporate governance. But that should wait until the current crisis in in hand. Fix the problem first, then learn from it.
A kerfuffle has broken out on the East Coast of the US, between Lucian Bebchuk, an esteemed professor at Harvard University, and Martin Lipton, partner at New York law firm Wachell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Specifically, Lipton has mounted a strong attack on an article published by Bebchuk (a critical examination of 'stakeholder governance'). That Lipton has objected should not be surprising. After all, he is a lawyer with vested interests and he has a long record of promoting stakeholder governance.
This is what Bebchuk asserted:
Stakeholderism, we demonstrate, would not benefit stakeholders as its supporters claim. To examine the expected consequences of stakeholderism, we analyze the incentives of corporate leaders, empirically investigate whether they have in the past used their discretion to protect stakeholders, and examine whether recent commitments to adopt stakeholderism can be expected to bring about a meaningful change. Our analysis concludes that acceptance of stakeholderism should not be expected to make stakeholders better off.
Lipton's counter to these assertions was strident:
We reject Professor Bebchuk's economic, empirical and conceptual arguments. They are ill-conceived and ignore real-world challenges companies and directors face today.
This debate exposes something awkward—that when partisans announce their views people react, especially if they denounce other perspectives. This tactic may well pique interest and sell column inches, but it rarely results in viable outcomes that can be sustained over time.
My own research, and experience both as an advisor and serving company director, suggests that either-or argumentation, a characteristic of determinism, is deeply flawed. To pursue profit as an exclusive goal inevitably results in selfishness and inequity. Similarly, the pursuit of priorities espoused by ESG proponents introduces a another, and not insignificant, risk—of exposing the companies and the economy more generally to an 'Icarus moment'.
Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, summed things up well in his January 2019 letter:
Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose—in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked. Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time—not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities. Similarly, when a company truly understands andexpresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability. Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behaviour and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders.
Fink's position highlights that a balanced perspective is probably 'best'. But how might it be achieved? The pathway may be hiding in plain sight. If the board is to fulfil its duty to ensure value is created over time, it needs to look well beyond selfish interests and motivations. This means considering the wider context within which the company operates, creating a viable strategy, determining appropriate 'performance' measures and only then governing accordingly.
Bebchuk was brave to call out the messianic assertions of the stakeholder capitalism camp. Perhaps Lipton might take stock, and meet with Bebchuk—the purpose being to explore the nuances of each other's views, in search of a more balanced understanding of the purpose of companies and role of the board.
Dave Rennie, a rugby coach from New Zealand, has just been appointed as coach of the Australian national team, the Wallabies. This appointment has raised eyebrows, not only because of the passport the appointee carries, but because of the appointment process.
It turns out the Rugby Australia had been speaking with Rennie for six months prior to the appointment being announced. Superficially, this appears to have been a smart move on Rugby Australia's part; a succession planning exemplar. But was it, or was it an act of disloyalty against the incumbent, Michael Cheika? The incumbent only made his intentions clear during rugby's showpiece, the Rugby World Cup, vowing to resign if the Wallabies did not win the William Webb Ellis Cup. Cheika and Raelene Castle, chief executive of Rugby Australia, were hardly the best of buddies, for sure. But when does strength in leadership (Castle has form) cross the line, becoming bullying?
This case exposes an interesting dilemma for boards of directors. When does the board's duty of loyalty to the incumbent chief executive cease? Is it reasonable, for example, to publicly support the incumbent while also scheming in the shadows to replace him or her? If the board finds itself in a position of lacking confidence in the chief executive (regardless of the reason), it owes a moral duty to both the chief executive and the organisation for which it is responsible to act both swiftly and with integrity. Rugby Australia appears to have done neither. While Castle probably operated within the law (she is on record as saying that formal contract negotiations did not take place until after the Rugby World Cup), the moral high ground was forfeited long ago. And that, sadly, places both Castle and the Rugby Australia in a rather awkward position.
Leadership is topical in most spheres of human endeavour; companies are no exception. To encourage others to achieve great things is the stuff of effective leaders. The most successful are widely-lauded. But leadership can take many forms, of course. Cast your eye over the last 100 years or so and you'll discern leadership in action in different ways. The era of the titan (Rockerfeller, Carnegie and Morgan being notable examples) saw leaders exert control over companies powerfully. The emergence of the management class in the inter-war years saw the emphasis change, the efficient operation of companies came to the fore. Since the turn of the century and the entry of corporate governance into the business lexicon, leadership has taken another form: the oversight of companies from the boardroom.
Often, perhaps typically, leadership is understood to be an individual endeavour; a person exerting influence. But leadership has a collective dimension too—the board of directors is an instructive case. While individuals (directors, trustees) contribute to board discussion and process, it is the board (not directors) that decides. Leadership in this context is, exclusively, collective.
Collective leadership requires a different approach. Directors need to work together to reach consensus for a start. This article has some more great tips that boards may wish to consider as they seek to lead effectively:
How does your board measure up? More pointedly, does your board even know the effect of its decisions? Nearly thirty years ago, the challenge of explaining board influence over company performance was famously described by Sir Adrian Cadbury, a doyen of corporate governance, as being "a most difficult of question". Thankfully, some progress has been made in recent years, as researchers have entered the boardroom to conduct long-term observational studies of boards in session, and leaders such as Charles Hewlett have shared insights from their experience. While robust explanations remain elusive, one thing is now clear: neither the structure nor composition of the board is a direct predictor of its effectiveness, let alone company performance. If boards are to contribute effectively in the future, they need think, act and behave differently.
English can be a confusing language. The same word can have different meanings in different contexts (by 'bear', do you mean the animal, taking up arms, or putting up with someone; and is a 'ruler' a measuring instrument or a monarch?). Meaning and usage matters; more so because it is not static. Language evolves, whether by design or in response to an evolutionary development. Some refinements improve our ability to communicate effectively, others to defy logic.
The understanding and usage of the terms 'governance' and 'corporate governance' are topical cases in point. While the term 'governance' is derived from the Greek root kybernetes meaning to steer, to guide, to pilot (typically a ship), a plethora of usages have emerged over time. Today, many different usages have become commonplace. These the oversight of managers and what they do; the activities of the board; and the framework within which shareholders exert control and boards operate. It is also used to describe the board itself ("we'll need to get the governance to make that decision"). The term has also been applied in an even broader context, the business ecosystem (i.e., system of governance). The most extreme example I have heard is, "Governance can mean almost anything, it is completely idiosyncratic; different for every organisation".
Things are made worse when two related but distinct concepts are conflated. Consider the definition of corporate governance and the practice of corporate governance. The former is relatively stable. Eells (1960) coined the term, to describe the structure and functioning of the corporate polity (the board). Later, Sir Adrian Cadbury (1992) added that 'corporate governance' is "the means by which companies are directed and controlled". The fundamental principle here is that corporate governance is a descriptor—the activity of the board. Compare that with the practice of corporate governance--how a board enacts corporate governance when it is in session. The means by which boards consider information and make decisions can and must be fluid depending on the situation at the time.
The wider context merits a brief comment—the rules under which companies and their boards operate (statutes, codes and regulations), and the consequential impact of the board's decisions. These are necessary, because they define the wider environment; what is allowed and what is not. In recent years, I've heard many people include regulations and codes within their understanding of corporate governance. Similarly with the consequential impact of the board's decisions beyond the boardroom. Are either of these corporate governance?
If you'll allow a sporting analogy, it's important to distinguish between the rules of the game, the game as played, and the final score. All are necessary, but only one is the game. To embrace an all-encompassing understanding suggests that corporate governance is ubiquitous, extending across the entirety of the company's operations and the functions of management, leadership and operations—not to mention the wider system of rules of regulations. This, I am convinced, takes us close to the root of the confusion that besets many directors. Every time I'm asked, I invoke Eells and Cadbury. A framework of laws and regulations is necessary, for these define the operating boundaries. But they are not corporate governance. In asserting that corporate governance is the means by which companies are directed and controlled, Cadbury was saying that corporate governance is the descriptor for the work of the board. And work, straightforwardly, is something to be practiced. Let's not lose sight of these distinctions. The continued 'sloppy' use of language serves only one purpose: to obfuscate.
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.
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.)
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?"
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.