The passing of the Covid pandemic has been a great relief for many; boards of directors are no exception. Several weeks ago, I visited Sydney, Australia to meet with directors, boards and leaders of membership bodies. The feedback was clear: if companies (and through them, economies and societies) are to prosper, boards need to start thinking strategically again. And last week, more grist to the mill. During a successful visit to Bengaluru, India to lead a Board Immersion Programme for a globally-known FMCG company, the question of how boards can add value was front-of-mind throughout.
Today, I'm delighted to announce my first post-Covid trip to the United Kingdom and Europe, to continue the work there.
From November 16th through 25th, I will visit the UK, several EU countries, and elsewhere as required, to respond to requests to help boards respond well as they pursue sustainable business performance. This includes:
Do you want to meet in November? Regardless of whether you have a specific request or a general question, please get in touch. I'll respond promptly with some suggestions for your consideration.
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.
During June, I spent most of my discretionary time reviewing articles about corporate scandals and failures, as reported in the mainstream media and academic press, and discussed on social media. They made fascinating reading, not only for the summaries, but also the amount of finger-pointing and defensiveness—an indication that accountability was missing in action in most cases.
Consider the Carillion, Wirecard and Petrobas cases, all mentioned in a recent Financial Times feature article (paywall, sorry). The discussion concentrated on the accounting and audit professions; the questions being whether they should have detected the problems, and whether ethics should be a consideration. These are good questions, but they sound a little like positioning an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Disclosures, in the form of annual reports, audit statements, and various ESG-related reports, are necessary. But they are just that; disclosure reports. And the more complex the reporting and disclosure requirements, the more time management and the board needs to spend preparing and checking reports, to meet expectations. And with greater focus on reporting and compliance, the greater the likelihood that accountability will become discretionary.
Accountability is one of four foundational elements of corporate governance. There are two aspects, namely, boards are charged with holding management to account, and they need to provide an account to legitimate stakeholders. (The others are the formulation and approval of corporate purpose and strategy; policymaking; and, monitoring and supervising management, to ensure the company is operated and strategy achieved within prevailing statutory and regulatory boundaries. Together, these four elements comprise the Learning Board Framework, a proposal described in The fish rots from the head, a book written by Bob Garratt, a doyen of corporate governance and board work, circa 1996. The LBF is the single-best approach to board activity that I have come across in my twenty-five years of board and governance practice and research, bar none.)
As in life, enduring success in business (meaning, achieving and sustaining high levels of organisational performance) can be attributed to many things. These include, inter alia, a great idea, a clear and coherent strategy, excellent execution, capable and highly-motivated people, forces of nature, timing, effective leadership, luck (yes, luck), and more besides. Yes, success has many sources, even to the point of being idiosyncratic.
Failure is different. Even a cursory study of corporate failures reveals several common themes, most of which can be readily traced back to the boardroom:
Almost all of these themes emerge from poor behaviour and a leakage of accountability. Knowing what to do is one thing, knowing how to behave (and behaving) is quite another. Fortunately, help is at hand. Insights from research suggest five underlying behaviours are necessary if boards are to contribute well. These include strategic competence, a sense of purpose, active engagement, collective efficacy and constructive control. If any one of these is absent, the likelihood of the board exerting any meaningful influence or adding any value drops to nought. (If you want more information on this, please get in touch.)
One final comment: The role of director is founded on trust—the fiduciary responsibility. And from this flows accountability—in role and in relationship. If boards place a low value on accountability, by not holding management to account for the achievement of operational and strategic goals; rubber-stamping advice from suppliers such as lawyers, accountants and auditors; or, not providing a candid account of performance to shareholders, regulators and other stakeholders, they deserve what comes their way.
The transition to electric vehicles looms large for many. Most of the major manufacturers are scrambling to offer new and exciting models to entice both corporate and private buyers. Enticements are being offered by some governments to encourage adoption. Regulators are active too, especially in Europe and California, with announced intentions to ban new vehicles powered by petrol or diesel.
The opportunity to embrace a transport technology that is cleaner, quieter and considerably cheaper to operate (than petrol or diesel alternatives) is attractive—once the initial purchase price hurdle leapt. The purported benefits seem to be significant, but does the reality match the rhetoric? As with any proposal to embrace system-level change, the costs of moving from one technology to another are far from trivial. If an assessment is to be complete, the total lifetime costs (TLCs) need to be considered; that is, the sum total of all costs incurred over a product/system’s lifetime (includes manufacture, operation, disposal).
In the case of electric vehicles, what of the economic, environmental and social costs of extracting metals for battery ingredients; logistics and manufacturing; replacement of batteries when they are spent; battery disposal; and, of upgrading the power generation and distribution network to provide adequate electrical power to recharge batteries? Many of these are being quietly ignored, it seems. Not my problem, some argue, as if out of sight is out of mind. This short article argues that when the TLCs are factored in, the benefits associated with a seemingly compelling technology (in this case the adoption of electric powered vehicles and other devices with battery power packs) may not be as great as what has been claimed.
And so to the purpose of this muse, which is not to argue the benefits or otherwise of adopting electrically powered vehicles. Rather, it is to table an issue often overlooked by board of directors considering so-called strategic projects: total lifetime costs.
When faced with a strategically-significant proposal, boards first need to check for alignment, by testing whether the proposal is contributory to the corporate strategy (spoiler alert: often linkages are tenuous). Assuming it is, directors should satisfy themselves that total lifetime costs have been included. Only then can the question of whether the recommendation should be embraced or rejected be debated.
Why might this be important? Directors are duty-bound to act in the best interests of the company. That means taking all relevant information into account.
If boards ignore externalities, or abuse the social, environmental and economic capitals consumed in the operation of the company, the governed company is unlikely to endure over the longer term. And in so doing, directors may be exposing themselves, unwittingly, to legal challenge as well.
The June solstice is almost upon us. Davos, the World Economic Forum's annual meeting of elite political, academic and business leaders (some would say, talkfest), is over for another year. Private jets have returned to base, and the thoughts of leaders (in the northern hemisphere, at least) are turning to summer holidays and, with it, relaxation, reading lists and an opportunity to cogitate. Meanwhile, leaders south of the equator press on, for the June solstice marks the onset of winter.
Metaphorically, the June and December solstices are signposts: marker pegs that signal pending change.
Over the past couple of years, I have been watching intently one signpost in particular, wondering whether it might portend a change in relation to board work, or whether it might be a mirage that can be ignored. ESG, a three-letter acronym for environmental, social and governance, was coined in 2005 by a group associated with the United Nations. The stated goal was to put pressure on companies to think beyond financial indicators as the primary indicator of business performance, and to report accordingly.
A veritable industry of so-called experts (many self-styled) has emerged in recent years, all claiming to help businesses respond well to ESG demands and expectations. Many business leaders, activists, politicians and directors’ institutions have latched on too, themselves motivated by various self-interests. That interest in operating sustainably and improving reporting is high is no bad thing.
However, to date, evidence to support the proposition that the embrace of ESG leads to better performance is yet to emerge. Indeed, cracks are starting to appear. Several critical thinkers have called out ESG as offering less than what has been claimed. Some have gone as far as asserting that ESG is a ‘solution’ looking for a problem (read: wasted effort). Whether it is or not remains to be seen. However, there is cause for concern: discussion has reached the point that advocates have deemed it necessary to make counter arguments, to defend ESG. That several different definitions of the term are circulating doesn't help. Boards also need to be very alert and ask probing questions, to ensure they continue to discharge their duties. In particular, boards need to assess whether ESG proposals are conducive to improved business performance, and if ESG is a harbinger of substantive change in the way businesses need to operate or yet one more TLA, a fad that will ultimately be consigned to the history books and, in time, forgotten.
That questions are being asked—openly—should be a catalyst for political, civic and business leaders to check that the aspiration (claim), intention (strategy), actions taken and resultant outcomes are aligned. On the evidence to hand, ESG is unlikely to be a panacea. Thus, a level of scepticism in relation to the purported benefits of ESG is warranted.
The role and contribution of the board of directors in companies has become a source of fascination for many; curiosity growing with each corporate failure or significant misstep emanating from the boardroom.
On paper, the role of the board is straightforward: to steer and guide the company towards agreed objectives. The legal framework within which directors operate is both stable and adequate, duties are specified and the principles are clear. So, what could possibly go wrong?
Guidance to help boards govern well is not in short supply. Many researchers have postulated the configuration of the board is material to effectiveness and outcomes; some say the key lies in board process and policy; and yet others point to boardroom behaviour. Consulting firms and directors' institutions have proposed models too. While these proposals are enticing, failure studies and other analyses suggest none provide surety in terms of helping boards operate effectively in practice.
One of the reasons reliable guidance remains elusive is that board work is far from straightforward. Long-term studies of boards informed by direct observations of boards in session are few and far between. And, boards need to consider many things, debate options, weigh up risks and, ultimately, make decisions—all within an environment characterised by ambiguity and change. And if that is not enough, the board does not operate the company, the executive does.
If a board is to have any hope of discharging its duties, much less govern well, a solid foundation is crucial. That means directors need to understand their role and duties, and make sense of information.
If a board is to exert any meaningful influence beyond the boardroom, directors first need to understand the duties of a director and role of the board. Competence gaps are not be tolerated in medicine or engineering: No one would expect a doctor to use a carpenter’s tools, or accept crayon drawings from an engineer. And yet such acceptance is tacit amongst directors and shareholders. What is more, if a director transgresses, the likelihood of being held to account before the judiciary is relatively low. A commitment to professional development, and the professionalisation of directorship, are proposed as mechanisms to close the competence gap.
Once in the boardroom, directors need to apply their collective knowledge and expertise, maturity and wisdom as they consider information, distinguish signal from noise, and make decisions. If that can be achieved, the likelihood of the board making an effective contribution greatly is enhanced.
The gap between the board's provision of steerage and guidance (i.e., governance) and business performance has been at the core of my work over the past two decades, motivating my formal research, practical enquiry and contributions as a director. If you would like an update on recent progress, please contact me.
This entry is a little more personal than most posted here. But, if you'll allow the indulgence...
Yesterday started out like many others before it: a mix of client and administration work, video calls across timezones, director commitments and writing (The craft of board work is coming along nicely). I 'logged off' a little later than usual—around midnight—having just completed a two-hour video call with members of the Global Peter Drucker Society (advance planning for the 2022 edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum to be held in Vienna late this year).
Tired but satisfied after a long day, I prepared for bed. And as I did, my mind wandered. March 24th was significant for some reason. Then I remembered; it was Musings' birthday! Yes, ten years ago, on 24 March 2012, I stepped, with some trepidation, into the blogosphere. That first step? A three-line post.
My motivation was straightforward, to share thoughts and test ideas on corporate governance, strategy and board effectiveness. At the time, I had just started on my doctoral journey (a milestone achieved in 2016). A platform to engage with academics and global leaders—and to let off steam from time to time—was going to be helpful, I thought. And so it was, and continues to be.
Today, some 712 posts later, Musings has entered middle-age. From tentative first steps, to now a library of comments on professional (corporate governance, strategy, and the craft of board work), philosophical and personal topics. Whether the thinking underpinning the articles has improved over time or not is for readers to determine. Hopefully, a progression is evident. And, while the frequency with which posts have appeared has declined a little in recent years, my desire remains as it was in 2012: that each post proved valuable to at least one person. If that was achieved, the effort was worthwhile.
Looking back over the decade, I have been most fortunate to have met and learned from many great thinkers, leaders and doyens of corporate governance and strategy. I have also had the privilege of serving aspiring and established directors, and boards, across five continents. Musings has been an enabler.
The support and encouragement shown as I have pursued my passion—to help boards realise the potential of the organisations they govern—has made a great difference to me. Hopefully, it has been beneficial to others as well. Thank you.
And, in case you are wondering, Musings, will continue to be published, for as long as readers show interest.
December is a significant month for many peoples around the world. It is the month in which two of the three great Abrahamic faiths have a major festival (Jews, Hannukah; Christians, Christmas), and the Japanese observe Omisoka. For others not professing a faith, December is significant to the extent that it marks the end of the Julian calendar. Each of these observances is distinctive, but a common thread runs through them: celebration and dedication.
Yes, December is a time to reflect on the year gone and give thanks, and to ponder what lies ahead.
Through this muse, I too wish to give thanks, to the many board directors, business leaders and students that I have had the good fortune to work with during 2021—both in person in New Zealand, and via video link in the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Caucasus region, North America and the Caribbean, India, several African and Middle Eastern countries, and closer to home in Australia. I have learnt a lot, and hope others have derived value from the interactions. Thank you.
Peering into 2022, the prospect of travelling internationally to work in person with boards and students is enticing. Once the coronavirus situation stabilises, border restrictions are relaxed and travel becomes viable again, I will accept bookings. But in the meantime, I have decided to take on a new project.
For over two decades now, I’ve had the privilege of working with aspiring and established directors on five continents, helping them wrestle with problems, consider opportunities, make decisions and learn what it means to be an effective director. Over the same period, two friends have encouraged—even nagged—me to consolidate my ideas, experiences and insights into a book. And each time it has been mentioned, I have pushed the idea away, citing lack of head space. But circumstances have changed in 2021 and the time now seems right to reconsider the prospect of writing 50,000 words about governance and the craft of board work. So, that is what I will attempt in 2022.
(*) The image shows the Marsden Cross, which marks the location of the first Christian mission settlement in New Zealand, and the spot Samuel Marsden preached the first Christian service, on 25 December, 1814.
Every year, at about this time, sages and futurists of various stripes peer out from their sanctuaries to offer opinions of what the future holds. Many speak or write deterministically, as if they have been blessed with special powers to know or postulate the future with great accuracy. Pronouncements are read with great anticipation by many, and embraced as if categorical. But some commentators are more circumspect; their contingent expressions reveal great maturity and wisdom.
“Forecasting is always a hazardous business. … no one can claim that the future is entirely inscrutable.”
One does not need to look far to see examples of the difficulties faced by those charged with forecasting and strategising. Over the last two years, for example, undertones of fear and stasis have been prominent. People and companies have frozen in response to pronouncements and dictates from national leaders. Economic and social priorities have been set to one side; the main—nay, only—focus has been on the pesky virus known as Covid19. First, borders were closed and populations were locked down, in an effort to flatten the curve. Some even tried to eliminate the virus. Then, recognising their folly, leaders embraced vaccination to reduce the effects of the virus. Most recently, mandates have seen populations divided into two classes, the vaccinated and the un-vaxxed. Naysayers have jumped in, but many of their predictions have proven to be wrong as well. Meanwhile, economies have struggled and the social fabric has frayed.
Amidst this backdrop, boards remain responsible for the performance of the companies they govern. Of those who recognise this (and not all do), some boards wait, perplexed by the unknowns, and others strike out, believing they can control the future, despite a plethora of externalities. Neither response is particularly wise.
High performing boards and leadership teams recognise that things change, often unexpectedly. They remain vigilant, watching for weak signals that might portend the emergence of something significant. They hold options open for as long as possible. Then, when it is time, they act, decisively.
The types of questions high performing boards ask (and keep asking) include:
While some of these questions may be difficult to answer, boards must persevere. Even partial answers are likely to indicate a more reliable way forward than the lazy option of blindly pursuing the supposedly categorical predictions of mediums, sages and futurists.
News of a new variant of the coronavirus emerged this week. B.1.1.529 (now Omicron, a moniker assigned by the World Health Organization) was first isolated by scientists in South Africa. Already, it has been detected in several neighbouring countries and in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Czechia, Hong Kong, Germany, Australia and Israel. Governments are reportedly “scrambling to protect their citizens from a potential outbreak". These responses are supposedly to protect but also, undoubtedly, to buy time.
Given the experiences since the coronavirus disease was first detected and subsequently declared to be a global pandemic, the reactions to the latest variant are hardly surprising. News agencies and social media commentators have been up to their usual antics; newsfeeds are abuzz. Fear is a powerful catalyst, of course. But reliable guidance to indicate whether Omicron is more or less contagious, and more or less virulent, is yet to emerge. For example, the two cases in Australia are asymptomatic and both people are fully vaccinated. A calm response is needed.
Another interesting aspect of the current situation is the response to those who first alerted the world to what they had discovered. When virologists in South Africa openly shared the results of their advanced gene sequencing tests, others (especially in so-called advanced economies) were quick to point the finger. They accused several countries in southern Africa of being the source of the outbreak, and ostracised them by banning travel—even from countries with no recorded cases—demonstrating the blame game is alive and well.
Effective leaders (boards) do not get caught up in the blame game. They take another path:
Then, having prepared and decided upon a course of action, effective boards remain engaged. They keep their eyes open, scanning for weak signals that might portend danger. If danger strikes, they engage immediately and fully—supporting the executive response but remaining calm at all times.
Is your board well-equipped to lead in an event that threatens the company’s prosperity or viability? And what is the likelihood it will oversee an appropriate response? Will it work calmly with the executives as a conjoint team to assess the situation and activate an appropriate response, or will it remain aloof and descend into finger pointing (perhaps because directors are more interested in protecting their personal reputation)? If there is any chance of the latter, consideration should be given to replacing the board with directors who are prepared to take their duties more seriously.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.