I returned today from two overnight trips (both were to attend board meetings, meet shareholders and discuss various company matters with management). It was great to get out and about again—to sit together around a board table, meet staff and see the businesses operating following the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown.
While I was away, a Netherlands-based colleague sent a note saying she'd just started reading through Musings, from the beginning. Why someone would go back and read all of my writings since March 2012 is beyond me, but she has chosen to do so. She said that while many writings resonated, one piece in particular stood out as being as relevant today as when it was first written, in 2012.
Amongst other things waiting for my attention [having arrived overnight] was this article, originally posted by Tony Schwartz on the HBR Blog Network. The article set me thinking. Why are we, in this so-called modern age of productivity, so busy trying to fit so much in to our lives? We use electronic diaries to keep track and save time, but they've come to rule our lives. We seem to be constantly running; going faster, but getting nowhere.
Chantal's comment, and my subsequent re-reading of this piece, set me thinking once again about the impact of speed and busyness on decision quality.
How can any director make effective contributions in the boardroom if they are so busy, or moving so quickly, that they do not have time to consider the wider context? The prospect of an electronically-enabled world sounds enticing to many. But is it built on a solid foundation? Are board decisions any better than before?
Directors owe a duty of care to ensure the enduring success of the company governed. For that, they need to create space to think deeply and critically about longer-term options. They ignore this maxim at their peril.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of framing a discussion on board decision-making with a group of board directors and Digoshen Impact Partners. (Digoshen is a global learning platform to empower experienced and aspiring directors.) The following comments summarise the key points mentioned during this week's session.
At the core, the board of director's main job is to ensure the performance of the enterprise it governs. For that, the board needs to consider information, ask questions and make decisions, strategic decisions. This sounds straightforward. But many boards struggle; and more so in a highly-dynamic environment. For example:
Given these research findings, it's little wonder effectiveness is low. The seemingly unending trail of missteps and company failures tells a sorry story. But boards have options; they hold the ultimate decision-making power and, therefore, are by no means powerless. Boards intent on achieving high levels of decision effectiveness may wish to embrace the following suggestions (discussed during the session):
One final point. Boards are social groups that operate within a stratified social setting, the company and more broadly the wider marketplace. Thus, the actions and outcomes that follow are contingent on many external factors. Things can (and do) change quickly. Therefore, boards need to keep their eyes open, to ensure they have contextually relevant information to hand to make an informed decision; and to remain diligent after the decision, to ensure the expected benefits of the decision are in fact realised.
This musing is based on a session summary I co-authored (original posted on the Digoshen website).
Last week, Scott Arrol, CEO of NZHIT (New Zealand's peak body for those involved the digital health sector), got in touch to ask a few questions about the contribution of boards during times of crisis—a topical subject! The primary challenge for boards in such times is working out how to respond. The playbook that may have served well in the past is, probably, of little use now that the operating context has been flipped on its head. Despite this, the board remains responsible for business performance, so respond it must.
During our conversation (which was recorded, see below), we touched on the following points:
If you'd like to explore any of these or related points further, please get in touch.
The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has shaken communities and commercial activity around the world, to the very core. Since late February, strict restrictions on human movement both between countries and, now, within communities have been imposed, in the hope of containing the virus and, in one case, of eradicating it. The scale of the impact on lives, social structures and economic activity has yet to be measured, but it will be large, I suspect. The scars will remain tender for some time in many cases.
Unsurprisingly, many people have been inventive in response to the situation they now find themselves in. Neighbours are meeting at a distance, and internet traffic has grown exponentially as people have taken up online entertainment options and relied heavily on social media to keep in touch with each other. All of this is to be expected; humans are social beings, after all.
The vacuum left from the pausing of economic activity has been filled by creative thinkers and opportunists offering all manner of webinars, 'best practice' check lists and other forms of guidance to help individuals, groups and businesses reconfigure their lives and businesses. The Internet is now awash with them. Some are well-informed and helpful, but most of the ones I've seen are little more than attention-seeking noise.
My own work patterns have changed too, mainly as a result of the restrictions on movement now in place. These include using electronic communications tools such as video conferencing in place of in-person board, coaching and other client meetings; and the telephone and email to keep in touch with colleagues and clients. The following points summarise my experiences as I have sought to govern at distance this past month:
One final point. These are my experiences. Some may be familiar, others less so. Regardless, if you have any questions or comments, please get in touch. If you are prepared to add your experiences, as similar or different as they may be, I'd be delighted to hear them and am sure others would be too. Please leave a reply below.
The global onset of the COVID-19 virus has precipitated a wide range of reactions in the community, from ambivalence to anxiety. Many governments have stepped in to support their citizens. Some have imposed community-wide lockdowns and social distancing protocols in an effort to break the spread of the contagion; others have implemented rigorous testing and quarantine regimes to identify and isolate those affected.
Business leaders have been considering their options too. Working from home has become a 'thing', as has the use of video conferencing and other online tools. Amongst the many responses, one in particular caught my eye this week: proposals by the directors' institutes of several countries—notably Australia, New Zealand and Britain, and Germany and others as well—to temporarily suspend director liability in the case of insolvency.
Superficially, this sounds like a reasonable idea. When a force majeure event strikes, the impact on sales, working capital and jobs may be very significant. The effect may be immediate, especially if the company is prevented from trading due to a lockdown. If the affected company cannot restructure its cost base, draw on financial reserves or secure finance quickly, business continuity will be at risk. Insolvency may follow, and all jobs will be lost. Thus goes the argument. But on the flip side (there always is one), the suspension of director liability and allowance to trade whilst insolvent may open the door for abuse, despite the honourable intention of keeping the economy functioning.
Insolvency has always been a red line for boards and companies. This proposal makes it porous, by absolving directors of responsibility for trading while insolvent. Some questions worth considering as lawmakers assess the proposal:
While a force majeure event can catch even the most well-run companies out, those with strong balance sheets and highly-engaged boards are better placed to respond well. They probably do not need the protection of the proposed provision, because they are more likely to have a robust risk assessment and mitigation framework in place, and strategic risks will have been assessed at most board meetings. But those companies being run close to the wire, or with inadequately engaged boards or weaker systems, may be caught flat footed. And if they are, what then? Should directors be protected, or be held to account?
Lawmakers need to tackle these types of questions, and resolve ambiguities thoroughly. If they don't, expect scurrilous directors to exploit the inevitable loopholes—to defend against other, board-induced, problems such as ineptitude, incompetence, negligence or malfeasance, for example.
Enquiry is appropriate, regardless of the catalyst, because sunlight, as they say, is a great disinfectant.
Information (and mis-information) about the spread of COVID-19 around the world is clogging our airwaves, inboxes and social media feeds as quickly as the virus itself is spreading. But amongst it all, there are some things we can hold as self-evident. Many people are suffering, some are dying. New phrases are entering the lexicon, such as, social distancing (should be physical distancing, I think) and self isolation. Governments are responding with a variety of controls to limit movement. Borders have been closed, and lockdowns are being imposed in some areas. Airlines have reduced capacity, grounding fleets. Many businesses, especially SMEs, are in turmoil. People are on edge—lives have been put on hold.
While COVID-19 has spooked many people, not to mention the stock markets and wider economy, life must go on—and it will, albeit with some adjustments, of course.
The challenge for those who direct the affairs of companies—boards—is one of governing well in the face of what is, patently, a very different environment from that which existed even two weeks ago.
Businesses face continuity and safety risks every day. Routinely, staff and managers spot, assess, prioritise and respond to operational risks every day; that is their job. But when risks have strategic implications (i.e., an occurrence is likely to have a major effect on strategy execution, future business success or even company viability), the board must become involved. COVID-19 is one such risk. The board needs to understand the potential short- and longer-term impact (using information from credible sources and tools such as scenario planning, for example), consider various options and make informed decisions.
Some practical questions that the board may wish to consider include:
One final point. COVID-19 is no longer a strategic risk. It is upon us. Boards everywhere need to deal with it as well as they can, given the most reliable information available, with the best interests of the company to the fore. That means providing close support to management; more so if big decisions are needed, such as releasing staff or partial closures. However, and most importantly, boards should not panic. Neither should the board react to suggestions being advanced by some that an event such as the COVID-19 outbreak should be seen as a catalyst to redefine corporate governance. Corporate governance remains corporate governance—the means by which the company is directed and controlled. What might be appropriate though is a review, to consider how the board practices corporate governance. But that should wait until the current crisis in in hand. Fix the problem first, then learn from it.
A kerfuffle has broken out on the East Coast of the US, between Lucian Bebchuk, an esteemed professor at Harvard University, and Martin Lipton, partner at New York law firm Wachell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Specifically, Lipton has mounted a strong attack on an article published by Bebchuk (a critical examination of 'stakeholder governance'). That Lipton has objected should not be surprising. After all, he is a lawyer with vested interests and he has a long record of promoting stakeholder governance.
This is what Bebchuk asserted:
Stakeholderism, we demonstrate, would not benefit stakeholders as its supporters claim. To examine the expected consequences of stakeholderism, we analyze the incentives of corporate leaders, empirically investigate whether they have in the past used their discretion to protect stakeholders, and examine whether recent commitments to adopt stakeholderism can be expected to bring about a meaningful change. Our analysis concludes that acceptance of stakeholderism should not be expected to make stakeholders better off.
Lipton's counter to these assertions was strident:
We reject Professor Bebchuk's economic, empirical and conceptual arguments. They are ill-conceived and ignore real-world challenges companies and directors face today.
This debate exposes something awkward—that when partisans announce their views people react, especially if they denounce other perspectives. This tactic may well pique interest and sell column inches, but it rarely results in viable outcomes that can be sustained over time.
My own research, and experience both as an advisor and serving company director, suggests that either-or argumentation, a characteristic of determinism, is deeply flawed. To pursue profit as an exclusive goal inevitably results in selfishness and inequity. Similarly, the pursuit of priorities espoused by ESG proponents introduces a another, and not insignificant, risk—of exposing the companies and the economy more generally to an 'Icarus moment'.
Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, summed things up well in his January 2019 letter:
Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose—in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked. Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time—not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities. Similarly, when a company truly understands andexpresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability. Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behaviour and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders.
Fink's position highlights that a balanced perspective is probably 'best'. But how might it be achieved? The pathway may be hiding in plain sight. If the board is to fulfil its duty to ensure value is created over time, it needs to look well beyond selfish interests and motivations. This means considering the wider context within which the company operates, creating a viable strategy, determining appropriate 'performance' measures and only then governing accordingly.
Bebchuk was brave to call out the messianic assertions of the stakeholder capitalism camp. Perhaps Lipton might take stock, and meet with Bebchuk—the purpose being to explore the nuances of each other's views, in search of a more balanced understanding of the purpose of companies and role of the board.
Leadership is topical in most spheres of human endeavour; companies are no exception. To encourage others to achieve great things is the stuff of effective leaders. The most successful are widely-lauded. But leadership can take many forms, of course. Cast your eye over the last 100 years or so and you'll discern leadership in action in different ways. The era of the titan (Rockerfeller, Carnegie and Morgan being notable examples) saw leaders exert control over companies powerfully. The emergence of the management class in the inter-war years saw the emphasis change, the efficient operation of companies came to the fore. Since the turn of the century and the entry of corporate governance into the business lexicon, leadership has taken another form: the oversight of companies from the boardroom.
Often, perhaps typically, leadership is understood to be an individual endeavour; a person exerting influence. But leadership has a collective dimension too—the board of directors is an instructive case. While individuals (directors, trustees) contribute to board discussion and process, it is the board (not directors) that decides. Leadership in this context is, exclusively, collective.
Collective leadership requires a different approach. Directors need to work together to reach consensus for a start. This article has some more great tips that boards may wish to consider as they seek to lead effectively:
How does your board measure up? More pointedly, does your board even know the effect of its decisions? Nearly thirty years ago, the challenge of explaining board influence over company performance was famously described by Sir Adrian Cadbury, a doyen of corporate governance, as being "a most difficult of question". Thankfully, some progress has been made in recent years, as researchers have entered the boardroom to conduct long-term observational studies of boards in session, and leaders such as Charles Hewlett have shared insights from their experience. While robust explanations remain elusive, one thing is now clear: neither the structure nor composition of the board is a direct predictor of its effectiveness, let alone company performance. If boards are to contribute effectively in the future, they need think, act and behave differently.
Trust is one of those social building blocks that is crucial for getting things done with others. Board work by no means exempt. When directors a faced with making strategically-important decisions, they must rely on information from and interaction with their board colleagues, the chief executive and any other advisors who may have been invited to contribute. Then, after consideration and having made a decision, the board needs to follow through, by ensuring the decision is implemented well. But, and sadly, the levels of trust both between directors and with external stakeholder groups is often lower than what is needed for effective decision-making. The following comments, originally published in 2016 by EpsenFuller (subsequently acquired by ZRG Partners), make the point deftly:
Board directors today face a variety of challenges. Whether it is a case of corruption or the increasing threat of cybercriminals, their performance in dealing with these issues is the subject of considerable attention, explained The Huffington Post (Jan. 25, Loeb). Investors, consumers and NGOs alike are looking to boards for accountability in terms of company performance. Yet, a recent study found that public trust in boards of directors is lower than that of CEOs. A mere 44 per cent of survey participants claimed to have trust in a company's board—five per cent less than trust in CEOs. Influential constituencies are demanding that boards perform at exceptional levels while maintaining distinct independence from company executives.
That some directors do themselves no favours (through poor behaviour, malfeasance, hubris and failing to complete actions, for example) is self-evident. But all is not lost. High levels of performance are possible—if all of the directors commit to working together (both as a board and with management) and reach agreement on the company's core purpose; the strategy to be pursued to achieve the agreed purpose; how performance will be measured; and the values that will underpin behaviour standards, decisions, and everything the company does and stands for.
Perhaps if more boards embraced this mindset (working together), with the company's best interests to the fore, the trust problem that generates so much tension (not to mention column inches) would gradually become a thing of the past. Is this expectation worth striving for, or do you think it is too ambitious?
A situation developing at Hutt City Council (a local council not far from where I live) is instructive for boards everywhere. It concerns a proposal to make a grant to Hutt Valley Tennis, a tennis club, to assist with the redevelopment of its tennis facility. The entity and the size of the grant, $850,000, are largely immaterial. What is significant about the matter is that one of the Hutt City councillors is married to the president of Hutt Valley Tennis (a potential conflict of interest, perhaps?), and that the decision required a casting vote by the Mayor to break a deadlock. The local newspaper has just reported the matter, and a newspaper columnist has chimed in offering an opinion as well.
On the conflict of interest: Questions have been raised as to whether Councillor Milne had a conflict of interest, because his wife is the President of the organisation that stands to benefit from the proposal. Milne registered his interest but denied there was a conflict of interest because his wife is a volunteer, and neither he nor his wife has a financial interest in it. But financial interest is not the appropriate test. A more appropriate test is whether the person can reasonably be expected to make an independent and objective decision, or other factors might lead to bias. Hutt Valley Tennis identified a potential conflict, and Milne registered interest. Yet Milne proceeded to participate in the decision-making anyway. On this matter, Milne appears to have missed a vital point: perception is reality (i.e., conflicts are assessed by others, not self). If there was any doubt at all, caution should have been exercised. To argue that there was not an actual conflict is inappropriate, some might suggest arrogant. Better for Milne to have removed any doubt by excusing himself from the discussion (by leaving the room), especially as he had already declared an interest. He should not have participated in the decision either. Standing one step back, the Mayor is not beyond scrutiny in this matter. Why did he not ask Milne to leave the discussion, and why was Milne not excluded from the decision?
On decision thresholds: Local councils, like company boards, make decisions in the collective. This means that every resolution results in either a 'yes' or a 'no' decision (notwithstanding any deferral or request for more information). In local government, the minimum threshold for a binding decision is typically a simple majority, with the Mayor holding a casting 'vote' in the cases of a deadlock. But is a sensible means of collective decision-making? What of the downstream effects and consequences? To proceed following a split decision raises all sorts of questions, not the least of which is the opposed councillors' commitment to uphold (or undermine) the decision. A better threshold is consensus, whereby every councillor (director, in the case of boards) has space to speak for or against a proposal, and debate points, on the understanding that they support the decision afterwards (because their warrant requires them to act in the best interests of the entire constituency). If consensus cannot be reached, it is better to defer the decision, pending more information and/or discussion.
Thankfully, the Hutt City Council has recognised the situation for what it is. The council has decided to nullify the initial decision and reconsider the proposal next week. Milne has announced that he will not participate.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.