The matter of diversity in corporate boardrooms has been the topic of much debate in recent years. Some people have claimed that the die is cast: that the presence of women (or some other group) in the boardroom leads to increased business performance. Others are less convinced. I have contributed to the debate on a few occasions, both as a panelist and in print. You can read some of my comments here and here, or use the search box to find other articles on diversity.
While the debate goes on in the trenches, some commentators have begun to stand back, to offer a more holistic perspective. Jeff Jacoby, for example, has just written this article, published in the The Boston Globe. His balanced summary highlights various aspects of the debate. Two sentences stand out:
"The evidence that more female board members means higher corporate profits is murky at best."
"Either way, what no study has managed to nail down is causation."
With these comments and others in the article, Jacoby has put his finger on the core of the issue. Board effectiveness (especially any relationship between board attributes and subsequent firm performance) is a complex issue. No one structure, composition or set of behaviours fits all situations (much less all companies).
Looking ahead, the challenge is two-fold. First, everyone who is interested and capable of making an effective contribution in the boardroom needs to be encouraged to offer themselves as a serious director candidate. Shareholders (or their nomination committees) need to work hard to find and appoint the best candidates—regardless of any physical attribute or notional diversity variable. The ability to govern well in the team environment must be the compelling basis of assessment. Second, the rhetoric needs to continue to mature, beyond the blunt instrument of observable characteristics to focus the subtleties of what actually matters—the capabilities of directors (individually and collectively) and the quality of boardroom interaction and debate as boards consider options; make strategic decisions; and, pursue performance goals in the context of the agreed purpose of the company.
Is the diversity discourse that has pervaded board and shareholder discussions in recent years showing signs of maturing? It seems to be. Thankfully, most correspondents have moved past blunt claims—including that the presence of <diversity variable> leads directly (i.e., causative) to increased firm performance. While researchers have demonstrated that the presence of women on boards, for example, has been associated with more civil language and higher levels of engagement and critical thought, direct links to firm performance remain elusive. The reality is far more subtle: many underlying factors affect performance—some occurring inside the boardroom and some outside.
While progress is being made, concerns over the motivations of 'diversity' proponents remain. Is the goal to achieve increased board effectiveness (however that might be measured), or is a political or social agenda being played out? The challenge of selecting the 'best' company directors is far too important to be left in the hands of those with political or social agendas. I know several white male directors (all of known are highly qualified and eminently suitable as company directors) who have been told they do not meet notional diversity criteria.
How should directors be selected? One option might be to base your decision on guidance provided by Warren Buffett (see Berkshire Hathaway's 2006 Annual Report):
In selecting a new director, we were guided by our long-standing criteria, which are that board members be owner-oriented, business-savvy, interested and truly independent. I say “truly” because many directors who are now deemed independent by various authorities and observers are far from that, relying heavily as they do on directors’ fees to maintain their standard of living.
Charlie and I believe our four criteria are essential if directors are to do their job – which, by law, is to faithfully represent owners. Yet these criteria are usually ignored. Instead, consultants and CEOs seeking board candidates will often say, “We’re looking for a woman,” or “a Hispanic,” or “someone from abroad,” or what have you. It sometimes sounds as if the mission is to stock Noah’s ark. Over the years I’ve been queried many times about potential directors and have yet to hear anyone ask, “Does he think like an intelligent owner?”
Enough said, don't you think?
I'm looking forward to looking forward with some great Australian leaders in Brisbane, QLD on Thu 19 May.
I'll be talking about emerging trends including the board's role in value creation; the importance of setting a clear purpose for the business; board involvement in strategy; how to drive performance through the chief executive, in reality; and, telling a few stories along the way. Look forward to seeing you there!
Two events have been scheduled on Thu 19 May: breakfast and dinner. The breakfast event is almost booked out. However, some seats at the dinner event are still available. If you want to hear about emerging trends in governance and board practice, and their application in a family business context, click here to read more information and to register.
One of the great joys of being an independent advisor is the opportunity to spend time with people from a wide range of backgrounds; business and social experiences; walks of life; and, in my case, countries and cultures. The depth and breadth of humanity never ceases to amaze me. Paradoxically, a common thread runs amongst the diversity: people who are keen to improve organisational effectiveness and make a difference spend lots of time asking questions, lots of questions.
When questions asked from the floor after a public talk; as part of a formal advisory engagement; or, during a professional development workshop, a confidential discussion with a director or an informal chat, something mysterious happens. Both parties learn! That's because no one has all the answers. Often the person asking the question has the answer (but may not realise it) or part of the answer at least (and it needs to be integrated with some information from elsewhere). This is how we learn.
If you would like to pose a question, about any aspect of corporate governance, strategic management or a related topic, please use the comment link here or, if you prefer, send an email. I'd be delighted to respond. Let's learn together.
Board diversity and board size are common topics of conversation in governance circles these days. Hardly a week goes by without one or both topics being mentioned. Most commonly people ask about board diversity and the relationship with firm performance, and the 'perfect' board size. Typically, my responses have been "Yes, diversity is good" and "No, there is no such thing as a perfect board size". Beyond that, context kicks in because every board, governance situation and even every decision is, to some extent at least, unique.
I have happily shared these responses and offered other supporting commentaries to all who ask—until now. What's changed? This article has set me thinking. Here are some insights that bear further consideration:
So, food for thought. The article was published by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania—not by some backyard consultant or agency trying to sell services. This means we can rely on the commentary. While it may or may not be 'right', it certainly has substance. I would love to hear what you think about these matters after you have read the article and pondered the ideas and suggestions.
Board rejuvenation is often considered and discussed, but statistics on boards member ages show little progress. The general public thinks a board of directors is a set of relatively old people. Common sense and corporate governance approaches lead one to think that the introduction of new ideas from younger generations would surely be a company asset.
Age diversity within a board is unquestionably desirable, but will one or two younger directors be enough? Probably not. In fact, except in exceptional cases (mainly in new technology fields), board members will probably be least 35 years old—hardly 'young' any more—by the time they have acquired the experience needed to be a skilled board director. Also, younger leaders often have full-time jobs, so will there be sufficient candidates available anyway? Recruitment of younger directors may be difficult and generally will not be enough to ensure that potential contribution from truly young people will be brought to the boards. How then to proceed ?
One approach to solving this problem might to be create a Young People Board, under the leadership of the official board—a 'shadow cabinet' of sorts. With slightly different goals, some municipalities use this approach. A Young People Board could be composed of 18 to 25 year old volunteers—a similar number of members as the official board. Recruitment could be for three-year terms (with renewal of one third every year). The aim would be to achieve multi-faceted diversity.
Periodically (say three times per year), the company board would invite the Young People Board to consider a topic discussed by the official board. The Young People Board would meet to debate the topic and develop proposals. Many ideas would emerge as young people naturally consider new technologies; social networks; data protection; ecology; ethics; and, international perspectives. Each year, a half-day meeting would be scheduled with the official board, to receive presentations and debate the topics studies by the Young People Board .
The Young People Board formula would be light, without any significant expenses or time commitment from the official board members. However, the process would enable official board members to be positively confronted with new ideas coming from truly young people. They may even retain some ideas for implementation!
Members of the Young People Board and, indirectly, their friends and relatives, would derive benefits including learning about the company activities, its executives and, importantly, the 'corporate governance' world. Through the process, the company may identify young talents for later hiring. The company could use this approach to improve its image, especially among young people.
Many speeches and writings advocate innovation. As one dwells on this, the realisation that innovation applies not only within technology areas, but also in organizational processes and the social domain. The Young People Board is a concrete example of this type of innovation. Is this something your board can support? If so, please contact Guy Lé Pechon at Gouvernance & Structures.
Nearly fifty chairmen, directors and company secretaries from around South-east Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa gathered at the Ritz–Carlton Millenia Hotel in Singapore this week for The Boardroom Agenda conference. Delegates received presentations, shared stories and debated issues over two days (23–24 November), under the Chatham House rule. I had the honour of contributing to the discussion on the second day. Here are some of the takeouts:
I've come away from the conference with the impression that the quality of corporate governance and board practice in Asian and Middle Eastern economies is rapidly improving. Overall, the hunger to improve board effectiveness was plain to see, as was the desire to learn from those with experience gained elsewhere (if the many conversations, requests to return and business cards in my satchel are any indication). However, care must be taken to ensure that models and frameworks in use in the Anglosphere are not blindly implemented in this region. Such colonialism is unwarranted and patronising, and it may be culturally demeaning as well.
Calls in support of appointing women as corporate directors have proliferated in recent years: the stated view being that the presence of women around the board table can improve decision quality and, potentially, business performance. Some legislatures have supported these calls by implementing quota systems. Many (but certainly not all) boards now count at least one female amongst their number.
Anecdotal commentaries suggest that the level of attendance, engagement and discussion quality improves after a woman is appointed to a board. This is good, but another question lurks around the corner: If one capable women makes an impact and two more so, is an all-female board better still—or can we have too much of a good thing? Might an all-female board be as problematic as a board comprised only of men?
I've seen some great all-male boards, some great all-female boards and, sadly, some rather ineffective diverse boards in action. That a diverse range of options are explored, independence of thought is displayed and that directors make considered decisions seem to be more important considerations than the physical composition of the board. Thankfully, the rhetoric is starting to mature along these lines. Hopefully director selection processes will soon follow, such that the qualities possessed by directors and the way they work together in the boardroom are the main considerations. Then, the gender (or any other diversity attribute) of directors should matter no more. Might this offer a viable path forward?
What is it with the women on boards and diversity discourse?
These topics, both arguably proxies for the on-going fight for a more equal society, have been the subjects of much research and discussion over the last decade or more. Claims and counter-claims have been asserted—sometimes quite stridently—in both the popular press and in the academic literature. While many commentators have asserted that the presence of women in boardrooms, or diversity amongst directors is causal to increased company performance (and others have jumped on the bandwagon), a small number of bold souls have questioned the analysis, recognising that any linkage is complex and likely to be contextual.
Now, Caroline Turner, a leading commentator appears to have called time on the rather simplistic assertions that have dominated the discourse (click here to read her recent article). Her response to the question of whether gender diversity is good, bad or indifferent is "It depends on which study you read". I agree. Importantly, Turner's conclusion (that "solid research by highly respected organizations, disputed by some, shows a correlation between gender diversity and results") and appeal (for more research) signals a much needed maturing of the rhetoric.
Researchers, consultants and commentators need to build on Turner's comments. If we are to understand how boards work, and how influence is exerted, boards need to be observed in action. Sophisticated analyses, capable of exposing factors that may not be directly observable or consistently applicable, are also required. The resolution of the problem (of explaining how boards influence business performance) is more likely to be found in the subtleties of director qualities and behaviours, and the complexities of how they work together, than in any regular correlation between an observable attribute and subsequent business performance.
Thank you Caroline Turner for recognising this, and for advancing the conversation.
Many commentators—academics and practitioners—agree that corporate governance is complex and difficult to get right. In the context of maximising business performance, boards must satisfy many demanding (and competing) priorities including shareholder expectations; legal and compliance requirements; the management of risk; the determination of future direction; and, the hiring (and sometimes firing) of the chief executive. Directing is a busy job, and it is one that takes time and commitment to do well. The steady stream of boardroom 'fails' in recent years (HSBC and Christchurch City Council amongst many others) and indiscretions (FIFA) suggests many boards are not doing their job as well as they need to. Why is this?
Many aspects of boards and board practice have been studied in recent decades including structure, composition and boardroom behaviour in an effort to understand how boards work and how they might contribute to performance. Independent directors have been held up as being crucial to boards maintaining distance from the chief executive and to the effective oversight of performance. Gender (and other) diversity has been promoted heavily in many quarters. The forming of a strong team through high levels of engagement and desirable behaviours has also been explored. As yet, none of the research has exposed any conclusive results in terms of increased company performance and value creation.
The prevailing theory of board–management interaction (agency theory) that underpins much of the current understanding of how boards work (or should work) appears to be flawed. It assumes that management is opportunistic and cannot be trusted and, therefore, needs to be closely monitored. Yet none of the structural provisions based on the theory (independence, incentives, various structures) have been causative to increased performance, despite considerable effort over many years.
Rather than continue to dogmatically pursue a flawed model, we need to move on. The goal posts need to be shifted—from a focus on compliance, structure and composition to a focus on value creation. The notion of a strategic board suggests a focus on future performance and strategy; on high levels of engagement to understand the business and the market; on critical thinking and an independence of thought; and, on robust debates which explore a wide range of strategic options (diversity of thought being considered crucial to avoid consensus thinking).
Imagine what board meetings might be like if the focus changed. They'd probably last longer. Directors would read their papers before meetings, and they would be actively engaged. There may be heated discussions. Necessarily, directors would sit on fewer boards. But perhaps, if boards were bold enough to change their focus, they might become more effective. Perhaps. Here's hoping.
The original version of this muse, posted in December 2012, is available here.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.