It had to happen. Someone just asked one of 'those' questions. Should boards of directors communicate with shareholders? Great question Lex Suvanto! You can read his blog post here. Amongst his comments, Suvanto makes two quite startling observations:
Many directors are passionately against the idea of engaging directly with shareholders.
Directors also correctly point out that the board should not say anything out of step with management anyway, so they question the value of this effort, especially given limited available time that directors can devote.
These observations, and others in the article raise important supplementary questions about how boards conceive their role and the mindset of directors—including these:
Ultimately, appropriate responses to these questions are straightforward if boards understand the statutory framework and directors have a clear understanding of both why boards exist and what boards (should) do (i.e., corporate governance).
Directors are appointed by shareholders to ensure the effective operation of the company, in accordance with shareholder wishes (whatever they might be). If the senior-most decision-maker in the company is the board, is it not reasonable to expect the board to both understand what the shareholders want from their investment and subsequently provide an account to those that put them there? I think so. Suvanto's article contains some helpful suggestions to get started. I'm available if you want to chat further.
News emerged today that many FTSE 250 company boards had made no contingency plans for a possible #Brexit decision. As Alice Korngold notes in her article, this highlights serious deficiencies in relation to risk management, board process and board composition. Korngold is right to challenge boards on this exposure. But does Korngold go far enough? Most of the concerns expressed are framed in the context of a traditional understanding of boards and corporate governance: monitoring the executive and managing various risks.
Directors carry important duties, to the company and shareholders. In addition to acting in the company's best interests, directors have an important responsibility to deliver value to shareholders (in whatever form might be agreed). This means that monitoring the executive and managing risks is insufficient. More is required. Boards also need to make important decisions to set the company on a path towards a desired future state.
An increasing percentage of directors say they are involved in strategy (read the surveys), suggesting boards do take their responsibilities seriously. However, observations of boards in session (i.e., board meetings) suggests that a gap exists between claimed and actual behaviour. Korngold's commentary adds to those concerns. That some boards are not performing the 'basics' of monitoring performance and managing risk adequately—let alone driving future performance—is problematic. What confidence can shareholders have that boards are considering strategic options and determining an appropriate strategy to achieve the company's purpose? The bluff and bravado that has permeated the discourse needs to be replaced with an authentic commitment to drive business performance. Is this too much to ask?
Looking to the future, if the result of the British plebiscite does little more than motivate boards to take the future performance of the company more seriously, then it will have been a worthwhile exercise. Until then, Barton and Wiseman's observations are likely to remain—sadly—resoundingly accurate.
One of the biggest shake-ups to confront the Western World (since the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall anyway) occurred in the United Kingdom last week. The result of a much anticipated plebiscite was a decision by the British people to leave the EU. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the flow of information became a cacophony as politicians, scaremongers and other 'experts' promoted various positions, in an effort to influence to voting public.
Finally, the day arrived and the people voted. Soon, the results were published. The people had spoken. Some cheered while others mourned. Curiously, some reacted by rueing their decision, wondering whether they had voted wisely. Really? With a straightforward question to answer and a plethora of information to hand, how could anyone make the 'wrong' choice (unless they didn't vote, of course)? Is this reaction an outpouring of buyer's remorse on a national scale, or is something else going on—an indication that some did not take the decision seriously or that a dose of hubris clouded the better judgement of some voters perhaps?
The British plebiscite highlights a behavioural weakness that besets many people. From an early age, we spend our lives learning as much as we can, aspiring to become experts in whatever field interests us. Most of us want to excel; to realise our potential. In our haste to make decisions and get ahead, we tend to embrace new ideas and disregard 'old' ones. If we can secure an advantage, we'll take it—thank you very much. But when it comes to big decisions, we may not be as smart as we think we are. Decisions that are based on politically-motivated or emotion-filled pleas, or knee-jerk responses seldom deliver the 'best' outcome.
Often, the best decisions are those made after we have paused and looked back, for guidance about how best to move forward. Whether we are cast as leaders or followers, we could do far worse than to seek out people like Bill and Augusto, sit with them and, having asked them a question, listen intently to what they have to say. Our challenge, having sat and listened, is to act on the wisdom passed to us.
News has emerged from Volkswagen this week that the board has proposed that shareholders formally approve the work of the company's top management team. Wow, I'm amazed. Isn't that the board's job?
The board exists as a decision-making proxy for absent shareholders and, in so doing, the board should provide oversight of management including of its work. Regular board meetings and other board–management interactions provide the appropriate forum for this reporting, verification and monitoring to occur. In contrast, annual meetings provide a forum for the board and management to provide an account of the resultant company performance to the shareholders.
That the Volkswagen board of directors is recommending that the work of management is approved by the shareholders creates the impression that the board is not doing its job of overseeing management adequately. While this could be an obfuscation (following the trouble the board and management found itself in over the emissions scandal), if the board is attempting to shift responsibility (for oversight of management away from the board) it needs to be called out. The shareholders then need to determine whether the current board is delivering value or simply defending a position—it's own.
Fonterra has been doing it tough lately. That the company's board and management is under pressure is patently obvious. Fonterra needs to respond, but how? Is Fonterra simply a victim of a perfect storm, or could the current problems have been avoided (or at least their effect minimised)?
Some background. Fonterra is New Zealand's largest company, responsible for 25% of the country's GDP. The company, a co-operative, sells milk products around the world. It sells, largely, commodity products and, therefore, is exposed to commodity pricing fluctuations. The prices Fonterra is receiving for its milk products has fallen significantly in recent times, down to US$2176 per tonne (whole milk powder) at the latest GlobalDairyTrade auction on 3 May 2016—less than half what it was two to three years ago (the price averaged US$5000 per tonne in 2013). As a consequence, the price Fonterra pays to its farmer-suppliers has tumbled, from highs of over $8.00 per kilo of milk solids to now $3.90 per kilo.
During the good times, farmers were actively encouraged to convert land from other types of farming to dairy farms. Many did so, funded by debt. Banks supported these conversions, given the high milk prices. However, few realised that milk prices follow oil prices very closely (the correlation value is something like 0.95 and the lag is measured in weeks). As oil prices dropped, milk commodities followed, and predictably so. Now, many farmers are running up huge losses, and yet Fonterra continues to encourage more supply which, inevitably, will make the problem worse not better. If the company stopped investing in monolithic bulk plants, it would free up hundreds of millions of dollars immediately. That money could be used to support suppliers with better prices, or to make some serious moves further up the value chain, as Tatua and others have already proved is realistically achievable.
So, where to from here? From the outside looking in, Fonterra has several options worthy of investigation. Here's a few suggestions to get things underway:
If the Fonterra board is serious to driving company performance, for the good of all shareholders and the economy more generally, it needs to gather off-site with management urgently for several days. Sleeves need to be rolled up and egos left outside the room, to sort out why Fonterra exists (purpose); formulate a high-level strategy; and, develop a realistic recovery plan. Strong external facilitation will be required (probably a couple of capable independent facilitators with dairy sector, strategy and governance backgrounds) to work through some fairly tough issues. If this can be achieved, the company (and, therefore, the shareholders and suppliers) and the country will be better for the effort.
MediaWorks, a broadcasting company that owns several radio, television and internet brands is doing it tough, this week especially, to the extent that the wheels appear to be falling off. Consider these recent events:
None of this augers well for a company that is struggling to maintain mindshare and marketshare against the national broadcaster, Television New Zealand. A blind man can see something is wrong, badly wrong.
My sense is that the spotlight needs to be shone on the board. After all, it is the board that holds the ultimate responsibility for overall company performance and the various contributory pieces including culture; values; strategy; and, the performance of the chief executive. That the company has been struggling for a couple of years or more, and seems to have been (blindly?) experimenting with programming options suggests that the board doesn't have a good grasp on things.
Sadly, MediaWorks is not the first company to trip in this way, and it won't be the last.
Several years ago, I studied another company with a successful track record that, unexpectedly, began to fail. Though operating in a different sector of the economy, that case (sorry, I can't disclose the details) had similar characteristics to the MediaWorks situation. The board had hired a sanguine chief executive to craft and implement a new growth-based strategy. The board gave the chief executive plenty space to operate, to such an extent that it did not scrutinise the chief executive or company performance adequately. Ultimately, the strategy was flawed and the board only worked that out when a staff member blew the whistle. The board had been gamed—it had been asleep at the wheel. To its credit, the board's response was strong: it released the chief executive and many directors resigned as well. Shareholders were briefed, and they were invited to recruit a new board and 'start again'. Within six months, the company had a new board and chief executive; its 'reason for being' (core purpose) was revisited; a new strategy was developed to achieve the purpose; and, resources were adjusted to suit. The company got back on track and it continues to perform well to this day.
Perhaps it's time for the MediaWorks board to also respond to the signals, by looking in the mirror; reigning in the culture of hubris and excess that seems to have pervaded the company; and, making some much needed adjustments. The fish rots from the head, after all.
After several years of paying high milk prices to its farmer-suppliers, Fonterra has hit hard times. International demand for milk products has slumped. On the supply side, prices paid to farmer-suppliers have tumbled. Some have said the problem is primarily related to changing demand especially in China, whereas others have suggested that Fonterra is complicit having stimulated supply to 'feed' its massive processing plants. To make matters worse, Fonterra has started losing farmer-suppliers to its competitors and it seems to be exercising "considerable discretion" with payment terms as well.
The latest commentary, an interview on Paul Henry's breakfast show today, lay out some of the challenges in plain English. Click here to watch the video clip. (disclosure: James Lockhart is my doctoral supervisor, but had no prior knowledge of this interview.)
The situation, which has been brewing for a several years, is messy to say the least. Other companies including Tatua and Open Country Dairy seem to coping much better. This begs several questions including whether the Fonterra board and management are actually in control; whether the corporate strategy is sound or not; and, whether the company has the financial and managerial resources to respond effectively. While I'm nowhere near close enough answer these questions, the old saying "where there's smoke there's fire" seems to apply.
As 2015 gives way to 2016, many people will be reflecting on the past and looking to the future; thinking about what was and what might have been. I'm no different. One of the books I've been reading while pondering the past and the future this week is The Servile Mind by Kenneth Minogue. A friend recommended it—he wondered whether the commentary might be applicable to directors and boards. My response, having read half of the book so far, is an unreserved 'yes'! Here's the note on the flyleaf:
One of the grim comedies of the twentieth century was that miserable victims of communist regimes would climb walls, sim rivers, dodge bullets, and find other desperate ways to achieve liberty the West at the same time that progressive intellectuals would sentimentally proclaim that these very regimes were the wave of the future. A similar tragicomedy is playing out in our century: as the victims of despotism and backwardness from Third World nations pour into Western States, academic and intellectuals present Western life as a nightmare of inequality and oppression.
In The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, Kenneth Minogue explores the intelligentsia's love affair with social perfection and reveals how that idealistic dream is destroying exactly what has made the inventive Western world irresistible to the peoples of foreign lands. The Servile Mind looks at how Western morality has evolved into mere "politico-moral" posturing about admired ethical causes—from solving world poverty and creating peace to curing climate change. Today, merely making the correct noises and parading one's essential decency by having the correct opinions has become a substitute for individual moral responsibility.
Instead, Minogue argues, we ask that our governments carry the burden of soling our social—and especially moral—problems for us. The sad and frightening irony is that the more we allow the state to determine our moral order and inner convictions, the more we need to be told how to behave and what to think.
Humbly, I commend this book to all directors who want to govern well and make a difference in 2016.
History is littered with many stories of corporate successes and, sadly, almost as many failures. Why do some companies perform well over the long term while others become abject failures? Is it, as Jim Collins remarked in Good to great, a matter of luck, or is some other factor at play? While luck and environmental factors can be influential, I suspect there's more to it. A common thread that seems to weave its way through many of the success (Ford, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Xero, Facebook) and failure stories (Pan-Am, Enron, WorldCom, Satyam, and Toshiba, amongst many others) is captured in the title of this posting: Accountability.
All directors hold, by law, a fiduciary responsibility. In Australia, New Zealand (where I live) and many other commonwealth countries, that responsibility is to the company. In the USA, it is to shareholders. Tellingly, it is never to self (despite some directors behaving as if it was!). If directors are to serve shareholders (who appoint them) and also the wider stakeholder community well, moral fortitude is a requirement, as is competence and engagement.
The role of the director is one of service; of acting (read: considering information and making decisions) in the best interests of another party; and, ultimately, of being accountable for decisions made. Consequently, directors cannot afford to be asleep at the board table, nor be selfish in decision-making. Performance, accountability and ethics needs to take precedence over reputation and prestige.
Each month, Julie Garland McLellan, non-executive director and board consultant, invites several people to respond to a tricky board or governance situation. This month (Oct'15 issue), she crafted a challenging relationship dilemma with an ethical twist, and I was asked to provide a response. Thanks for inviting me to contribute Julie. The dilemma and my response are replicated here:
If you want to understand more about these options, or if you think you might need assistance with a challenging board situation, please get in touch.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.