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 intent on improving organisational effectiveness and making a difference spend lots of time asking questions, lots of questions.
When a question is asked from the floor after a keynote talk, during an advisory engagement or professional development workshop, or as part of a confidential discussion or informal chat, something mysterious happens: Both parties learn! This should come as no surprise, for no one has all the answers—although some people behave as if they do.
Recently, I posed several questions board directors may wish to consider. The response to that musing has been overwhelming, so I thought an open invitation might be in order.
If you have a question about any aspect of corporate governance, strategic management, board craft or the challenge of governing with impact—either personally or on behalf of a board you serve on—please ask and I will gladly respond. Use the comment link here or, if you prefer, send an email. Let's learn together!
The role of company director has become quite visible over the past couple of decades. From hardly rating a mention in the popular press or polite society fifty years ago, public awareness of boards and directors has blossomed in recent times. Questionable practices and failures of various kinds have seen boards become a source of board fascination and disdain—targets of criticism in the eyes of the business media, political class, regulators and, increasingly, the wider public. Activists, institutional investors, proxy advisors, and other stakeholders and supernumeraries have sought to exert influence and press various claims too, on both company priorities and board decision making (think: ESG, disclosures, DEI, climate change, net zero, and more besides).
While some boards have responded well to changing circumstances, others have battened down the hatches. Defensiveness can be an important response at times, but it is not a sustainable tactic given the mandate to govern (provide appropriate steerage and guidance to achieve a specified goal).
If directors are to steer and guide effectively, they need to consider information, ask questions to check progress and elicit missing information and, having debated various options, make decisions. This is crucial, for the questions directors ask may be the difference between effectiveness and ineffectiveness in role. The following list provides a useful starting point for boards intent on governing with impact:
Do you agree or disagree—I welcome your thoughts on this! Also, what other questions have you found useful?
I have spent four days in Australia this week, meeting with directors, advisors and a couple of institutional leaders in two state capitals. While the weather has been great, a few storm clouds [metaphorically, on the governance horizon] were apparent. Whether these are serious problems, or just differences of opinion, they strike me as being worthy of discussion. I’d be delighted if you would ponder the following situations, and share your thoughts to help me understand why boards, more often than not, erode value.
These examples demonstrate, to me anyway, that questions of what corporate governance is, the role of the board and how governance might be practiced are far from resolved. Directors and their advisors seem to be their own worst enemies. Flawed understandings of what governance is (the provision of steerage and guidance, to achieve an agreed strategic aim), and how it might be practiced, remain serious barriers to boards fulfilling their mandate, which is to ensure the enduring performance of the company. Why do some directors’ institutes, advisory and consulting firms, regulators, academics, and media commentators continue to discuss “best practice” and promote various matters that have little if any direct impact on achieving sustainably high levels of organisational performance? Surely attention needs to be on helping directors and boards do their job well, n’cest ce-pas? I have a few ideas to crack this problem, but I’m keen to hear what you think.
I’ve been holidaying in Scotland this week, the first of two in the Highlands after whistle-stop visits to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I prefer the countryside over cities, the wide-open spaces and the scenery. The vistas in Scotland are especially magnificent, especially if the weather is fine, which it has been this week. Today, I saw the Jacobite Steam Train in action as it crossed the famous Glenfinnian Viaduct—well almost in action, for the chance of a wayward spark starting a fire in the adjacent bracken has limited this famous tourist experience to a push-me pull-you configuration with a heritage diesel locomotive bringing up the rear. The question, in my mind and the minds of others witnessing the viaduct crossing, was, “Which locomotive is actually doing all the work?” Or, more plainly, what is driving what? From the picture, the answer is not immediately obvious. However, the very presence of the diesel locomotive provides an important clue. And so it was. Today, the Jacobite Steam Train excursion was, in fact, the Jacobite Steam Train experience, powered by diesel.
The visual imagery provides a powerful analogy for something else I saw today; a press release issued by the Institute of Directors entitled, “ESG must not neglect governance!”
The headline implies that governance (from the Greek, meaning to steer, to guide, to pilot) is little more than a component of ESG (a means of measuring corporate performance). This, despite governance being the term that describes the work of the board of directors (the means by which companies are directed and controlled). But, reading on, the situation is not quite as it first seemed. Dr. Roger Barker, head of the policy unit, acknowledged the importance of boards taking non-financial (so-called, ESG) factors into account when making decisions. But he also noted the emergence of an “ESG industry” that has started to control various agendas, with little interest in the enduring performance of the company. And, with it, boards are being subordinated to a lesser role. Barker issued a strong call: to subsume governance within ESG may well result in the important work of the board in driving business performance becoming neglected.
Bravo, Dr. Barker! This is exactly what institutions need to be telling their members and others interested in corporate performance: ESG is a measurement and reporting mechanism, no more and no less. The board of directors is duty-bound to ensure the performance of the company, now and into the future, a high calling. If it is to discharge its duties well, the board needs to remain in control, driving the agenda. In doing so, the board should consider various externalities including social and environmental factors), of course, but it should not be beholden to them or to those applying the pressure.
Today, 26th May, is my fourth and final day in the office this month. Airports, hotels, taxis, client and speaking engagements, and board meetings have been the order of the month—until today. Now, my attention is elsewhere: on other important tasks, which, if neglected, could undermine what has gone before.
Taking care of business on days like today means taking care of administration: creating and issuing invoices, collating receipts and claiming disbursements, checking in with a couple of director colleagues, and seeking feedback from family business meeting. And, regardless of whether one is a leader in a large organisation, a freelance consultant, small business owner, or an independent director and advisor, paperwork left to mount up exposes one to operational and, potentially, reputational damage.
Most months, I spend one evening per week in the office, to keep on top of things. But sometimes, travel and other commitments stand in the way of this rhythm. And, when this happens, a concerted effort is needed to get back on track. Today is that day.
How do you keep on top of administrative tasks?
Several times in the past six weeks, I have been asked to share some thoughts on artificial intelligence and board work; specifically, the impact of emerging AI capabilities on corporate governance and, even, the need for board of directors. The rapid emergence and now widespread awareness of ChatGPT has been a catalyst for many of these enquiries, it seems. I have been fascinated by the unfolding situation, not only because of a longstanding interest (I studied artificial intelligence at university nearly four decades ago), but also the speed by which awareness has spread, and expectations climbed to such stratospheric heights, is unprecedented. Claims have been made that computer-based tools will soon supplant the need for human directors and, with it, board meetings. Some, especially those with jaundiced perceptions of boards, their work and any value they add, have confided this may be a good thing. Others have reserved judgement—for now at least—saying the situation is far too fluid and complex to make anything approaching an informed or reliable decision, much less widespread change.
That so many people are questioning 'conventional' corporate governance practices feels a little bit like ground hog day. While I do not claim any particular expertise in the topic of artificial intelligence, I have read widely, asked many questions (of myself and others) and pondered both the purported capability and potential impact (of artificial intelligence) on board work.
The departure points for my enquiry has been, as always, definitional. What is artificial intelligence, and what conception of governance does one hold? My responses to these questions are as follows:
So, the proposition to be considered is, "Can a computer replace a social group charged with steering and guidance an organisation in a complex and dynamic environment?"
Those people wondering whether AI might be a viable mechanism to support or even replace boards have much to ponder. What is the role of a board of directors in companies? How might the operating context beyond the organisation be assessed? Where does accountability for statutory compliance and overall performance lie? And, to whom should the Chief Executive and management of the company report? If one holds the view that the board is the ultimate decision-making authority within a company (a responsibility delegated by shareholders), and that this (decision-making despite uncertainty and ambiguity) is 'core business', the board has a vital role to play.
My early training in computers and technology taught me that computers respond to instruction; they cannot 'think' autonomously or handle ambiguity, and they lack feelings and intuition. They do what they are 'told'; if the 'telling' is poor, the result is likely to be poor: the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" springs to mind.
But that was then. Computing power is far greater today than it was even five years ago, much less forty. Has the evolutionary development of computing capability reached the point whereby computers can displace humans? For a large and growing list of tasks and activities, yes, of course. The analysis of data is a relevant case in point. But for many other enquiries, the answers remains a resounding no. How might a computer make sense of the unspoken feelings, intuition and biases of staff, customers and board directors, and reach a credible decision? For this, a much higher order of capability is necessary. And, with that, I stand with those reserving judgement.
What of the future? AI may become a viable mechanism to expedite board decision-making, of course. But the likelihood of directors being supplanted any time soon is low (those failing in their duties excepted). For that, artificial general intelligence (AGI) is likely to be necessary, and some moral and ethical questions will need to be resolved as well. If that is achieved, I may take a stronger position.
Regardless of whether this muse is sound or not, directors, shareholders, regulators and their various advisors need to be alert, because the situation may change quite quickly.
When aiming to achieve something in business, is it better to be good, or effective, or both? Should boards for example pursue good governance, or prioritise effectiveness? And, are these qualifiers mutually exclusive, or can a board claim both? These 'challenge' questions have beset contemporary boards of directors, more so as various stakeholders have sought to impose their expectations and ideological preferences onto corporate values, purpose, strategy and decision making.
If these questions are to be considered and answered well, agreement on the meaning of the adjectives is necessary. To wit:
Instinctively, good governance sounds attractive. It satisfies a human condition; of doing the right thing and acting in the best interests of someone else (a particular stakeholder interest, for example). But what if doing the right thing has the effect of compromising the competitive position of the company; the achievement of agreed performance objectives; or, potentially, the viability of the company? And, what might be considered good by one person or group may not be upheld elsewhere. Turning to effectiveness, the threshold is more objective—either the goal is achieved or it is not. But, what if the pursuit of an agreed objective results in environmental or social harm, or some other negative consequence? That is not acceptable either.
Given the extremes, some sort of balance is needed, in the same way that every board must ensure conformance requirements are satisfied (compliance, value protection) and performance objectives are achieved (value creation). If this is reasonable, should a different adjective be used, to more adequately describe the value of the board's work?
My recommendation: drop goodness and effectiveness, for one (at least) is highly subjective and has become emotively charged (think, what ESG has become), and the other focuses more on the goal without necessarily considering unintended consequences. Ultimately, in extremis, neither is sustainable without the other. Instead, boards should pursue enduring impact.
Boards that strive to be effective in role without incurring social or environmental harms are more likely to exert a positive and enduring influence beyond the boardroom (that is, have impact). As a result, they should be well-regarded by shareholders and legitimate stakeholders as well. The Strategic Governance Framework offers insights to boards intent on realising the full potential of the companies they govern.
The claim, that a picture is worth a thousand words, is widely known. Pictures are valuable because they capture one's attention, often evoking memories of significant or special events (as real of imaginary as they may be), or of possibilities. Indeed, the phrases 'every picture tells a story' and 'the picture tells the story' encapsulate the essence of pictures—they tell stories. But visual images are not the only means of stimulation and sharing ideas. Words are important too, especially when the ideas they convey are presented as a story.
Over the seasonal break, I have been delving into a selection of books, in search of stories and ideas. The very practice of reading is, I find, a powerful enabler—to provoke, gain insight, form opinions, and learn and build knowledge about all manner of things. I have also gone back through the Musings archives and re-read many older posts. Several that piqued my attention were re-posted on LinkedIn (check my feed) to share with a new generation of readers. To my great surprise, many of these re-posts garnered considerable attention and engagement. That some ideas continue to be relevant is gratifying. Thank you to readers who have engaged with those posts.
Notice the mechanism at play: hearts and minds are captured through 'story'. Pictures and words are important without doubt, but they are, simply, delivery channels: two of four mechanisms (the others being aural and kinesthetic (experiential)—together, VARK) to communicate the message.
Information and its effective delivery is crucial in organisations too; board work in particular. In such situations, stories can be incredibly influential for informed decision-making, a precursor of all that follows:
As managers and directors, the way we present and consume written reports, and ask and answers questions, is material to informed decision-making. Ultimately, the board's provision of effective steerage and guidance to achieve the organisation's strategic goals depends on it. Such is the craft of board work. With this in mind, what refinements might you consider to lift your game in 2023, and lift the effectiveness of your board?
‘That’ time of the year has arrived once more. For many, the time to put the tools down and relax for a few days is nigh. From the hustle and bustle of public life, families are gathering. Some will celebrate the significance of Christmas, others will celebrate because any opportunity for a party with friends and family is a good one. Amongst it all, some will work on, especially in healthcare, emergency services, process manufacturing, retail and hospitality; we should not forget them for they too have family and friends.
I am one amongst many who carve out a little time and space towards the end of December to reflect on the year gone. Often, my mind is drawn towards relationships and experiences. This year is no exception.
Before signing off this last post for the year, a note of heartfelt thanks. Thank you to everyone who has seen fit to consider my ideas, challenge my thinking, and invite me to work alongside them this year. To have been afforded the opportunity to contribute, globally, has been delightful. The calling, to serve and support boards intent on realising organisational performance, remains strong. Consequently, the work will continue in 2023, starting in early January with responses to a long list of enquiries to assess, advise, coach and speak.
Now, I have one report to complete, a client event to attend, and a few Christmas errands to run. Then, I shall set the tablet and pencil down, in favour of a book or two, my vegetable garden, a few small jobs around the house, and some quality family time.
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.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention.