Several times in recent weeks, I have been asked about advisory boards. Individually, none of the requests are especially remarkable. But when several questions are posed in close succession (such as those listed below), by people in several different countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Ireland, it may be timely (again) to review the phenomenon.
The spate of enquiries set me thinking. Advisory boards have, at various times, been both topical and the source of much confusion and debate. But why the heightened level of interest at this time? Has the recently-published HBR article on shadow boards been a catalyst, or is something else going on? It's almost impossible to tell, except to observe that the person posing the question—usually an entrepreneur—wants to know more. Either they've read or heard about advisory boards, or been advised by someone that they 'need' one (their accountant, a firm specialising in setting up advisory boards, some other consultant). The recommendation is typically justified by it being a stepping stone, "before taking on a full board". The implication is that the entrepreneur does not have to give up control. And therein lies a common misunderstanding: that an advisory board provides a bridge to, or is a substitute for, a board of directors. It is not (*).
Before going any further, let's lay down some definitions:
Turning now to the question posed in the title of this muse: Are advisory boards a good thing? The answer depends on the purpose and function of the group of advisors (let's not use the term 'board' just now).
It's important to note that the 'deemed director' / 'shadow board' risk is borne by the advisor(s), not the manager, entrepreneur or company. But it is easily mitigated. Here are some suggestions:
While this is not an exhaustive list of mitigations, they are globally applicable.
The bottom lines? (Yes, there are two)
(*) If the entity is a company, a board needs to be in place from day one, regardless of whether advice is sought from third parties or not. The role of the board (i.e., corporate governance) typically includes setting corporate purpose and strategy; policymaking; advising, monitoring and supervising management; holding management to account for performance and compliance with relevant statutes; and providing an account (from both a performance and a compliance perspective) to shareholders and legitimate stakeholders. The formality with which these functions are enacted is, appropriately, contextual. Click here for more information.
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.)
Today marks the beginning of a lull following a busy programme of international and domestic commitments since early February. Over a 110-day period, I have spent time in Australia (four times), England (twice), the US (twice), Germany (twice), Ireland, Sweden and Lithuania—and at home in New Zealand; interacting with over 520 directors, chairs and chief executives from 19 countries. Formal and informal discussions at conferences, seminars, masterclass sessions, education workshops, dinners, advisory engagements and board meetings were instructive to understanding what's currently top-of-mind for boards around the world. The following notes are a brief summation of my observations. I hope you find them useful.
Diversity and inclusion: These topics continue to dominate governance discussions in many countries. But, and noticeably, the discourse has matured somewhat over the last six months. The frequency with which the rather blunt (and often politically-motivated) instruments of gender and quota is mentioned is starting to subside, as directors and nomination committees start to realise the importance of diverse perspectives and options to inform strategic thinking and strategising. Long may this continue, as board effectiveness is dependent on what boards do, not what they look like.
Big data and AI: What a hot topic! Globally, boards are being encouraged by, inter alia, futurists, academics and consultants to get on board (if you'll excuse the pun) with the promise that developments in this area will change the face of decision-making and improve corporate governance. Some assert that these developments will obviate the need for board of directors in just a few years. The directors I spoke with agree that these tools can help managers make sense of complex data to produce information, even knowledge. But these same directors have significant reservations when it comes to strategic decision-making. Automated systems are poor substitutes for humans when it comes to making sense of (even recognising) contextual nuances, non-verbal cues and other subtleties. Unless and until this changes, the likelihood that boards will continue to be comprised of real people engaged in meaningful discussion remains high.
Corporate governance codes: The number of corporate governance codes introduced in markets has been steadily rising over the last decade. Most western nations, and a growing number of Asian and developing nations, have implemented codes to supplement statutory arrangements. Many directors and institutions around the world continue to look to proclamations that the UK is the vanguard when it comes to corporate governance thinking and related guidance: the recently-updated UK corporate governance and stewardship codes are held up as evidence of good practice. While the quality of board work in the UK has improved over the last decade, a strong compliance focus continues the pervade director thinking—across the business community in the UK and beyond. The reason is stark: codes are little more than rulebooks. Further, rules don't drive performance, they define boundaries. The more time boards spend either complying with the rules or finding ways to get around them, the less time is left for what actually matters, company performance. In many discussions over the past few months, I've pointed people to the ground-breaking work of contributors such as Bob Tricker, Sir Adrian Cadbury and Bob Garratt. These doyens provided much-needed impetus to help boards understand their responsibility for company performance. The emergent opportunity for regulators and directors' institutions is to consider alternative responses to ineptitude and malfeasance: instead of creating more rules all the time, why not hold boards to account to the existing statutes, most of which seem to be eminently suitable?
Best practice: Many individual directors (and boards collectively) are starting to move beyond 'best practice' as an aspirational goal. Further, directors and boards are demanding to hear educators and thinkers who are also practicing directors, not trainers delivering off-the-shelf courses. Context is everything. The evidence? When a director asks to explore the difference between theory and practice you know something in his prior experience has missed the mark. Practising directors know that the board is a complex and socially-dynamic entity, and that the operational environment is far from static. Directors' institutes, consulting firms and trainers need to stake stock and move beyond definitive 'best practice' claims, lest they be left behind and become monuments to irrelevance. Enough said.
Governance remains a fashionable topic: If I had a dollar every time I've heard 'governance' promoted as a career in recent months, or the term used in discussions (including, sadly, often inappropriately), I would be really well off. But the act of invoking a term during a discussion is no panacea to whatever situation is being discussed. More capable directors are needed to contribute to the effective governance of enterprises, of that I am sure. But the established pattern of selecting directors from a pool of seemingly successful executives—as if a reward—is folly. The findings from a growing number of failure studies from around the world attest to this. The role of a director is quite different from that of a manager or executive. Managers and executives have hierarchical authority and decisions are made by individuals. In contrast, directors lead by influence and decisions are always collective. The challenge for those aspiring to receive a board appointment is to set their managerial mindset aside, to enable a more strategic mindset and commitment to the tenet of collective responsibility to emerge.
Standing back from these interactions, the board landscape seems troubled. But I remain hopeful. Progress is being made (albeit more slowly than many would wish) and a pattern is slowly emerging. Increasing numbers of directors are acknowledging that the board's primary role is to ensure performance goals are achieved, and that the appropriate motivation for effective boardroom contributions is service, not self.
The challenge is to press on. If the number of requests from those wanting to understand what capabilities are needed in directors, what boards need to do before and during board meetings, and desirable behavioural characteristics is any indication, boards are getting more serious about making a difference—and that points to a brighter future. If a tipping point can be reached, arguments centred on board structure and composition that have dominated the discourse can be consigned to their rightful place: history. I look forward to that day.
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.
My intention is to pursue more meaningful exchanges of ideas elsewhere. Challenging problems (how boards influence company performance, for example) need devoted time and space for critical thought and analysis. They cannot be resolved in 140 characters.
If you are interested, my thoughts on a range of topical matters including inter alia corporate governance, board effectiveness, strategy, the board's role in company performance and the compliance–performance dilemma will continue to be shared online, on LinkedIn, this blog and in published articles. Please read and debate them with your colleagues, and share your thoughts (especially strong or opposing views!). If you have a question or a request, ask and I'll respond promptly.
If you have a preference for in-person discussions, as many directors do, I am available to explore topics of interest, either publicly at conferences or other forums, or privately at workshops or confidential briefings.
Over the last twenty years, I have spent countless hours serving on and advising boards, and thinking about governance and the characteristics of effective boards. To have been invited to work with boards around the world as they have sought to realise the full potential of the enterprises they govern has been a real privilege. But with such privilege comes responsibility—the importance of standing back from time-to-time to take stock and reflect on learnings cannot be overstated, which is exactly what I have been doing over the last few days.
Two things in particular stand out just now. First, boards are increasingly aware that ultimate responsibility for enterprise performance lies with the board itself (not the CEO); and second, social media is starting to get in the way of effective learning.
That awareness is trending upwards is great news. But the supplementary question of how high performance is achieved and sustained remains problematic. The market is awash with best practice recommendations and supposedly definitive guidance ("five ways to...."), many of which have been implemented diligently. But alas, company failures continue to be blots on the landscape.
Directors want reliable guidance, but many directors struggle to sort the wheat from the chaff. They say that the plethora of often discordant information is more a hindrance than it is helpful. Privately, some admit that they have become confused about the purpose of the board, what corporate governance is and how it should be practiced. Others have suggested that the question itself (of the board's role in achieving high enterprise performance) is 'wicked', meaning it is easy to describe, but really difficult if not impossible to solve due to incomplete or contradictory information and a highly contextual setting—a moving target camouflaged in a landscape that is far from static.
The other thing that has become relatively clear in recent times is the role and impact of social media: it seems to be getting in the way of meaningful debate on big questions and wicked problems. Yes, news feeds and the 'like' button can be additive, but self-proclaimed experts offering opinions disguised as 'solutions' generally add little except noise and clutter. If progress is to be made, more reliable guidance is needed to help boards focus on what actually matters—enterprise performance. For this, researchers need to go to the source (the boardroom), to discover, analyse and report what really happens when the board is in session, including what boards do; how decisions are made; and how power is wielded and influence is exerted. Interviews, surveys and the quantitive analysis of large datasets all have their place, but the direct (and ideally, long-term) observation of boards in action is the gold standard. Researchers, advisors and directors need to continue to pursue meaningful dialogue—not sound bites—both with each other and at conferences and other interactive forums (workshops and masterclasses, for example) to explore situations, discover what works (and what doesn't) and, crucially, understand the contextual limitations and nuances of various options. A commitment to read widely and critically is also important.
Press on we must; the question of how boards influence enterprise performance is far too important to ignore. Tough problems need time and space for critical thought and analysis. Thus my decisions to step away from Twitter and to change my use of LinkedIn—to create more space for critical thinking and analysis. My hope is that what emerges will be of some use to helping boards address something that has remained constant: responsibility for enterprise performance starts—and ends—with the board.
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.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.