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.
Ten days ago, I was in Vienna to attend the Global Peter Drucker Forum, as an observer and participant. However, at the last minute—actually, three days before the Forum—the organisers asked me to 'jump in' to cover for a panelist who was a withdrawal. The session, which was recorded, was entitled "Managing like you have skin in the game". I was asked to provide a boardroom perspective. My comments start at 41m 35s:
The limited liability company is a great construct; an efficient vehicle for commerce, through which to pursue an overall aim (purpose) and to distribute wealth (however defined) over an extended period. What's more, mixed levels of ownership are possible; greater economies of scale are attainable (beyond what a sole trader or entrepreneur could typically achieve); and, importantly for absentee shareholders, liability is limited to the extent of the capital invested.
Though they offer many benefits, the limited liability company is not without flaws—it is a social construction after all, and a complex dynamic one at that. The motivations, priorities and interests of various interested parties (shareholders, directors, managers and staff, amongst others) are often different. Contexts change, and egos can get in the way as well. Left unbridled, differences can fester, morale can suffer and, in more extreme cases, the company can be torn apart. Wynyard Group and Carillion are two recent example but there are many others. Family firms are not immune to such challenges. In fact, when the wildcard of family dynamics is added to the mix, family firms are actually more, not less, susceptible. Though not always visible, the spectre of undue influence often lurks as a contributing factor, as the following discussion reveals:
Failure to differentiate the roles of 'shareholder' and 'director': Let's start with some definitions. A shareholder is a person or entity that owns shares in a company. Ownership of shares affords certain rights, such as, selecting directors, receiving dividends and participating in major decisions. But those rights do not extend to running the business. That is the responsibility of managers, a delegation via the directors. In family firms, the roles of shareholder, director and manager can become blurred, especially when an influential family member holds multiple roles.
The most common expression of undue influence that I've seen over the years relates to decision-making at the board table: a director with a significant shareholding 'expects' to influence significant decisions in their favour because they own a large parcel of shares. The important distinction that is lost (sometimes it is 'conveniently' neglected) in such situations is that the board meeting is not a proxy for a shareholder meeting. Shareholders and directors vote differently. Shareholder voting is conducted on a 'one vote per share' basis, whereas each director has a single vote at the board table. Regardless of whether directors hold shares or not, every director has an equal say.
If situations like this arise, they need to be nipped in the bud. If they are not, board meetings become a farce; the other directors puppets. This is far from acceptable, especially when the duty of acting in the best interests of the company (not any particular shareholder) is factored in. In most cases that I have observed, attempts to exert such [undue] influence tends to stem from ignorance and a desire to do what they think is fair, not malice. Usually, a quiet discussion with the director concerned is often all that is needed to resolve the matter. Another family member or an outsider (an independent director if there is one, or some other trusted advisor) are useful candidates for this task.
Treating the company as little more than a personal bank account: If I had a dollar for each time I've seen this in family firms... Recently, while observing a board meeting as part of an advisory engagement, a director asked, "Why are we always so short of cash when we are supposedly highly profitable?". The discussion that followed was both enlightening and disturbing—and, sadly, it was not the first time that I'd heard it play out. One director with banking access had been buying personal items with company funds and, from time to time, had been taking 'petty cash' for personal use. He saw nothing wrong with this because "it's my firm anyway".
If a director or shareholder uses company funds to acquire personal items, or uses the company bank account as if it were their own, they are acting in their own interests (whatever those may be). Their actions may put the viability of the company at risk as well. Neither of these motivations is permissible in law. Any shareholder wanting money from the company needs to ask the company, not just take it (that's theft!). Valid payment options include shareholder salaries (payment for effort/services rendered), dividends (a share of the profits), donations (but these may be taxable) and director's fees. The company may also agree to lend money to the shareholder. Regardless of the motivation or the payment option, a written policy which outlines the rules and conditions pertaining to payments to shareholders can help mitigate misunderstandings.
Employment of family members and related matters: Another expression of undue influence is the situation in which a family member 'pulls rank' to secure employment for themselves or another family member. While any family member may nominate anyone else (including other family members), to foist a particular person onto a manager is completely unreasonable. If managers are to be held accountable for performance, they need to be free to make reasonable employment decisions themselves, in accordance with employment policy. In family firms, it is a good idea to add a section entitled 'Employment of family members' in the policy, to set out the rules the be applied whenever a family member is being considered for a role.
While none of these examples of undue influence is unique to family firms, they are usually more visible (and often more destructive) in family firms. Once discovered, they need to be resolved. If not, family relationships can become strained, even to the point of breaking down. Actions that families might consider taking to prevent or at least mitigate the types of problems summarised here include:
Boards wanting to explore matters mentioned here should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
This article is the second of three on the topic, 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The first explored some items that are currently front-of-mind for many directors and shareholders of family-controlled firms. The third article, which will present recommendations to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late 2018.
From entering the business lexicon less than quarter of a century ago, 'corporate governance' has come a long way. Prior to 2000, the term was rarely mentioned in business discussions much less amongst the general public. Boards and directors directed the affairs of the firm, and that was it. Now the term is ubiquitous. Its usage has changed over time as well: from describing the functioning of the board of directors, the term is now used to describe all manner of corporate activity, much of which bears little if any semblance to the board or governance at all.
The proclivity to use the terms 'governance' and 'corporate governance' has trickled down from big business to now infect family-controlled firms. Well-intentioned but inappropriate usage—notably advisers (typically, but only accounting firms) making assertions such as "You need governance"—has had unintended consequences. When attention is diverted away from running and overseeing the business to "implement governance" (whatever that means or entails) without justification, costs have a tendency to go up not down, and a whole new set of problems including confusion, consternation and strained relationships often follow.
Over the last two decades, I've had the privilege of working with the directors and shareholders of hundreds of family-controlled firms, ranging from 'mom and pop' operations to much larger (multi-hundred million dollar) enterprises. Awareness of (and interest in) governance has become palpable, more so if a director has just read an article or heard a talk from an expert purporting a 'best practice' governance solution. Yet directors know that a single answer rarely works everywhere. Context is crucial in business; every situation is, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. As a consequence, the universal application of a formulaic 'best practice' solution does not make much sense. Recognition of this gives rise to many questions, especially from the shareholders and directors of family-controlled firms. Here is a selection of the more frequently asked ones:
These questions are typical of those that have been front-of-mind for the directors and shareholders of the family-controlled firms that I've interacted with in recent months. Curiously, questions about social interaction, boardroom behaviour and family dynamics (the human dimensions) are asked far less often. This, despite the board being a collective of directors—people—who are required to work together in the best interests of the firm. Boards that resolve these so-called 'soft' questions tend to be more effective. But more on that next time.
This article is the first of three on the topic of 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The second, which explores undue influence and the impact of family dynamic is available here. A final instalment, which will make suggestions to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late 2018. Boards wanting to discuss matters raised in these articles should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
Entrepreneurs—that group of individuals who put their resources and, often, their reputation on the line, in pursuit of a big dream—are interesting people. Some are brash and larger than life; others are quieter and more considered. Despite variations in style and personality, one common thread that binds entrepreneurs is the importance of leveraging (often limited) resources to best advantage to maximise the chance of seeing their dream realised. One important and oft-overlooked resource is the board of directors. Some of the questions I've heard entrepreneurs ask include:
I will be in Brisbane Australia on Tue 7 February 2017 to help entrepreneurs and directors of entrepreneurial businesses explore these questions. The Brisbane branch of Entrepreneurs' Organisation, a global network of more than 10,000 business owners in 42 countries, has invited me to deliver a talk and to host a workshop for members. The title of the two sessions are as follows:
Corporate governance—the concept and the practice—has been the subject of much debate over the past two or three decades, especially as researchers, shareholders and the public have sought to make sense of the extent and meaning of the term and the appropriate role of the board.
A cacophony of ideas and understandings have now pervaded our academies and directors' institutes (including that the scope of corporate governance extends well beyond the boardroom to include the whole of the organisation). As a concequence, the appropriate role of the board is not clear. Is it one of oversight and control, or is the pursuit of performance more important? The answer to this question is dependent on one other: What exactly is corporate governance? Many directors have become confused about these questions and, as a result, the appropriate role and contribution of the board.
Thankfully, a straightforward answer is at hand.
The term 'corporate governance' was coined just 56 years ago by Richard Eells, an academic. He used the term to describe "the structure and functioning of the corporate polity" (the board of directors). Sir Adrian Cadbury added that corporate governance is "the means by which companies are directed and controlled". In other words, corporate governance is an overarching term to encapsulate what boards (should) do as corporate goals are pursued. Corporate governance frameworks (such as those proposed by Tricker and Garratt) provide the underlying detail: they describe how the board should steer and guide the company it is responsible for governing.
Directors expecting to make effective contributions in 2017 and beyond would be well-advised to consider this what–how distinction very carefully: a common (and agreed) understanding is crucial if the board is to work harmoniously and decision-making is to be effective.
A burning question for many directors is encapsulated in the title of this muse. In recent years, the business media has published many stories about boards; questionable board practices; assertive CEOs that 'take over': and, missteps and failures that seem to emanate from the boardroom. Some of these stories are justified, whereas others lack substance. Alongside, the academic community has investigated the question, although typically from the perspective of a distant observer using public data or, at best, interview comments. Reliable knowledge about the board's role in influencing business performance has remained elusive. Sadly, populist claims have filled the void.
I have spent several years investigating the question of board influence beyond the boardroom as well, in an effort to discover whether boards are simply disempowered groups that meet to rubber stamp decisions, or whether influence (especially over firm performance) is possible. The quest has included longitudinal observations of board meetings; interviews with chairmen, directors and chief executives; and, the analysis of very large piles (mountains, seemingly!) of board papers, minutes, reports and observation notes. Useful insights have been gleaned from informal discussions with directors have provided useful insights as well.
While no definitive answers to the burning question have emerged(in any predictable sense anyway), a pattern is clearly apparent:
Findings have been written up in my doctoral thesis. The findings are summarised in two published papers, with similar sounding titles. The first, entitled How boards influence business performance: Developing an explanation was recently published in Leadership and Organization Development Journal (Volume 37, Issue 8), an academic journal. The second, entitled Board influence from and beyond the boardroom: A provisional explanation, was warmly received (attracting the best paper award) at the European Institute of Advanced Management Studies' 13th Annual Workshop on Corporate Governance in Milan in late October.
If you would like to know more, please get in touch. I'd be delighted to discuss the findings (especially the implications and guidance for practice) with any board or larger group intent on realising and sustaining high levels of company performance.
I arrived back in New Zealand this morning from six productive days in London (client and new business meetings) and three days in Milan (EIASM conference: day one and day two summaries). My first morning back is typically consumed attending to any non-urgent mail (envelopes and packages, not email) that may have arrived. Today was no different. Then the phone rang. The person on the other end, a director named Simon (not his real name) wanted some advice. He was struggling to settle a dispute that had been simmering in a family business boardroom for a couple of months. Tempers were starting to become frayed.
The board in question comprised six directors, three of whom were also shareholders (one was the managing director). The other three (including Simon) were independent directors. The dispute arose when one of the non-executive directors (who held approximately 28 per cent of the company's shares) disagreed with the other directors on a strategically important issue. After some discussion, Simon revealed that the director expected to influence the decision "commensurate with my shareholding". The other directors were not sure how to proceed. Thankfully, they sought external guidance before things got out of hand.
This vignette is not uncommon in family-owned businesses (regardless of size, sector or complexity). It occurs when when non-executive directors want to exert 'power' and the board as a whole is not adequately informed about its duties and responsibilities. Unchecked it has the potential to cause significant damage. However, and notwithstanding the social tensions, the issue is easily resolved.
While debate (including vigorous debate) is to be encouraged in the boardroom (the research literature has associated vigorous debate with higher quality decision-making), directors need to understand that no one director necessarily has any more (or less) power than any other. When it comes to decision-making, all have an equal 'say'—one vote—because the board being a collective of peers required to make decisions together.
Problems can occur if non-executive directors attempt to wield 'power' through their shareholding, even though shareholding has no relevance in the boardroom at all. Non-executive directors can (sometimes conveniently) lose sight of this, especially when an issue of importance to them is being debated or they hold strongly-held views on an issue. In the heat of the moment, they can confuse their director and shareholder decision rights (one vote per director v. one vote per share, respectively). Director decision rights apply when the board is in session (during board meetings). In contrast, shareholder decision rights apply in shareholder meetings only (e.g., the annual general meeting). Directors need to both comprehend this distinction and act accordingly, if the board is to be a place of productive decision-making.
If you'd like to know more, about decision-making in the boardroom or any other aspect of good board practice, please let me know. I'd be delighted to serve you.
Al Brown, restauranteur, television personality and colourful raconteur, has a way with words. In this vignette, he talks candidly about several things he has learned about running a business successfully. These include:
While Al's businesses would be correctly categorised as small-medium enterprises by most people, the principles are universally applicable. I commend this short clip to all boards, as a scene setter just before your next board meeting gets underway; and, to executive teams, as a reminder of three important elements of effective leadership.
How do these points fit with your understanding of effective business and board leadership?
Subject to two pending confirmations, the schedule for my upcoming visit to London (14–20 September) is full. During this short visit, I will be participating in the Organizations with Purpose conference (16–17 September) at London Business School (in conjunction with the Blueprint Trust); attending a non-executive director forum; meeting (separately) with ICSA and ICGN executives; discussing my involvement in a significant event in 2017; fulfilling requests for confidential meetings; advising several clients; and, delivering a presentation. While the visit will be fleeting (and busy!), I am hopeful of realising a long-time ambition: to climb the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral on Sunday 18th, my day off.
The high level of interest in my work has been both humbling and gratifying. Thank you for your support!
Looking ahead, I'll be returning to the UK and Europe is in October (19–28th), culminating with the 13th EIASM Corporate Governance workshop in Milan (I will be presenting a paper there). If you would like to learn more about my governance research (especially implications for practice); have a confidential discussion about a sensitive topic; or, discuss the possibility of me addressing your board or a public event, please get in touch. Recent experience suggests that the diary is likely to fill up quickly, so it would be wise to act promptly.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.