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 interactions that is crucial for getting things done with others. Boards are by no means exempt. When directors a faced with making strategically-important decisions, they must rely on their board colleagues, the chief executive and any other advisors who may have been invited to contribute. Then, having made a decision, the board needs to follow through, by ensuring the decision is implemented well. However, the sad reality is that levels of trust both between directors and with external stakeholder groups is often lower than 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. In order to remedy the current performance-expectation gap, boards should take a few key steps. For starters, boards should adopt some form of both internal and external assessments. Measurement criteria should span from trust to overall effectiveness at achieving board objectives. In order to ensure optimal independence, term limits should be instated and enforced to help safeguard against excessively friendly relationships between board members and executive leaders. Implementing improvements in a similar vein to the ones mentioned above can help boards work toward a future of increased transparency, which will hopefully translate to a rise in trust among powerful constituencies.
That some directors do themselves no favours (through poor behaviour, malfeasance and demonstrations of hubris) is self-evident. But all is not lost. The commentary includes several recommendations to enhance trust levels including scheduling meaningful evaluations, imposing term limits and ensuring independence of thought. Although not explicitly stated, high performing boards also reach agreement on the company's core purpose, the strategy to be pursued to achieve said purpose, and the values that will underpin behaviour standards, decision, and everything the company does and stands for.
Perhaps if more boards embraced these recommendations and worked 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.
Several times in recent weeks, I have been asked about advisory boards. Individually, none of the requests are especially remarkable. But when several questions are posed in close succession (such as those listed below), by people in several different countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Ireland, it may be timely (again) to review the phenomenon.
The spate of enquiries set me thinking. Advisory boards have, at various times, been both topical and the source of much confusion and debate. But why the heightened level of interest at this time? Has the recently-published HBR article on shadow boards been a catalyst, or is something else going on? It's almost impossible to tell, except to observe that the person posing the question—usually an entrepreneur—wants to know more. Either they've read or heard about advisory boards, or been advised by someone that they 'need' one (their accountant, a firm specialising in setting up advisory boards, some other consultant). The recommendation is typically justified by it being a stepping stone, "before taking on a full board". The implication is that the entrepreneur does not have to give up control. And therein lies a common misunderstanding: that an advisory board provides a bridge to, or is a substitute for, a board of directors. It is not (*).
Before going any further, let's lay down some definitions:
Turning now to the question posed in the title of this muse: Are advisory boards a good thing? The answer depends on the purpose and function of the group of advisors (let's not use the term 'board' just now).
It's important to note that the 'deemed director' / 'shadow board' risk is borne by the advisor(s), not the manager, entrepreneur or company. But it is easily mitigated. Here are some suggestions:
While this is not an exhaustive list of mitigations, they are globally applicable.
The bottom lines? (Yes, there are two)
(*) If the entity is a company, a board needs to be in place from day one, regardless of whether advice is sought from third parties or not. The role of the board (i.e., corporate governance) typically includes setting corporate purpose and strategy; policymaking; advising, monitoring and supervising management; holding management to account for performance and compliance with relevant statutes; and providing an account (from both a performance and a compliance perspective) to shareholders and legitimate stakeholders. The formality with which these functions are enacted is, appropriately, contextual. Click here for more information.
In 2014, I observed that aspects of corporate governance and board work had not changed much in 25 years. Having just re-read the book that informed that conclusion (Making it Happen, by John Harvey-Jones), I've been reflecting on the relevance of the author's comments in today's world, especially ruminations on board effectiveness and three defining hallmarks of a successful director:
Are these hallmarks still applicable in today's fast-paced, technically-savvy world?
Some commentators assert that board effectiveness is the result of compliance with corporate governance codes and various structural forms. Others, including me, place a heavier emphasis on the capabilities and behaviours of directors on the basis that the board is a social group: men and women who need to work together. (That is not to say compliance is inappropriate. It is necessary but it is not sufficient.)
Today marks the beginning of a lull following a busy programme of international and domestic commitments since early February. Over a 110-day period, I have spent time in Australia (four times), England (twice), the US (twice), Germany (twice), Ireland, Sweden and Lithuania—and at home in New Zealand; interacting with over 520 directors, chairs and chief executives from 19 countries. Formal and informal discussions at conferences, seminars, masterclass sessions, education workshops, dinners, advisory engagements and board meetings were instructive to understanding what's currently top-of-mind for boards around the world. The following notes are a brief summation of my observations. I hope you find them useful.
Diversity and inclusion: These topics continue to dominate governance discussions in many countries. But, and noticeably, the discourse has matured somewhat over the last six months. The frequency with which the rather blunt (and often politically-motivated) instruments of gender and quota is mentioned is starting to subside, as directors and nomination committees start to realise the importance of diverse perspectives and options to inform strategic thinking and strategising. Long may this continue, as board effectiveness is dependent on what boards do, not what they look like.
Big data and AI: What a hot topic! Globally, boards are being encouraged by, inter alia, futurists, academics and consultants to get on board (if you'll excuse the pun) with the promise that developments in this area will change the face of decision-making and improve corporate governance. Some assert that these developments will obviate the need for board of directors in just a few years. The directors I spoke with agree that these tools can help managers make sense of complex data to produce information, even knowledge. But these same directors have significant reservations when it comes to strategic decision-making. Automated systems are poor substitutes for humans when it comes to making sense of (even recognising) contextual nuances, non-verbal cues and other subtleties. Unless and until this changes, the likelihood that boards will continue to be comprised of real people engaged in meaningful discussion remains high.
Corporate governance codes: The number of corporate governance codes introduced in markets has been steadily rising over the last decade. Most western nations, and a growing number of Asian and developing nations, have implemented codes to supplement statutory arrangements. Many directors and institutions around the world continue to look to proclamations that the UK is the vanguard when it comes to corporate governance thinking and related guidance: the recently-updated UK corporate governance and stewardship codes are held up as evidence of good practice. While the quality of board work in the UK has improved over the last decade, a strong compliance focus continues the pervade director thinking—across the business community in the UK and beyond. The reason is stark: codes are little more than rulebooks. Further, rules don't drive performance, they define boundaries. The more time boards spend either complying with the rules or finding ways to get around them, the less time is left for what actually matters, company performance. In many discussions over the past few months, I've pointed people to the ground-breaking work of contributors such as Bob Tricker, Sir Adrian Cadbury and Bob Garratt. These doyens provided much-needed impetus to help boards understand their responsibility for company performance. The emergent opportunity for regulators and directors' institutions is to consider alternative responses to ineptitude and malfeasance: instead of creating more rules all the time, why not hold boards to account to the existing statutes, most of which seem to be eminently suitable?
Best practice: Many individual directors (and boards collectively) are starting to move beyond 'best practice' as an aspirational goal. Further, directors and boards are demanding to hear educators and thinkers who are also practicing directors, not trainers delivering off-the-shelf courses. Context is everything. The evidence? When a director asks to explore the difference between theory and practice you know something in his prior experience has missed the mark. Practising directors know that the board is a complex and socially-dynamic entity, and that the operational environment is far from static. Directors' institutes, consulting firms and trainers need to stake stock and move beyond definitive 'best practice' claims, lest they be left behind and become monuments to irrelevance. Enough said.
Governance remains a fashionable topic: If I had a dollar every time I've heard 'governance' promoted as a career in recent months, or the term used in discussions (including, sadly, often inappropriately), I would be really well off. But the act of invoking a term during a discussion is no panacea to whatever situation is being discussed. More capable directors are needed to contribute to the effective governance of enterprises, of that I am sure. But the established pattern of selecting directors from a pool of seemingly successful executives—as if a reward—is folly. The findings from a growing number of failure studies from around the world attest to this. The role of a director is quite different from that of a manager or executive. Managers and executives have hierarchical authority and decisions are made by individuals. In contrast, directors lead by influence and decisions are always collective. The challenge for those aspiring to receive a board appointment is to set their managerial mindset aside, to enable a more strategic mindset and commitment to the tenet of collective responsibility to emerge.
Standing back from these interactions, the board landscape seems troubled. But I remain hopeful. Progress is being made (albeit more slowly than many would wish) and a pattern is slowly emerging. Increasing numbers of directors are acknowledging that the board's primary role is to ensure performance goals are achieved, and that the appropriate motivation for effective boardroom contributions is service, not self.
The challenge is to press on. If the number of requests from those wanting to understand what capabilities are needed in directors, what boards need to do before and during board meetings, and desirable behavioural characteristics is any indication, boards are getting more serious about making a difference—and that points to a brighter future. If a tipping point can be reached, arguments centred on board structure and composition that have dominated the discourse can be consigned to their rightful place: history. I look forward to that day.
Over the last twenty years, I have spent countless hours serving on and advising boards, and thinking about governance and the characteristics of effective boards. To have been invited to work with boards around the world as they have sought to realise the full potential of the enterprises they govern has been a real privilege. But with such privilege comes responsibility—the importance of standing back from time-to-time to take stock and reflect on learnings cannot be overstated, which is exactly what I have been doing over the last few days.
Two things in particular stand out just now. First, boards are increasingly aware that ultimate responsibility for enterprise performance lies with the board itself (not the CEO); and second, social media is starting to get in the way of effective learning.
That awareness is trending upwards is great news. But the supplementary question of how high performance is achieved and sustained remains problematic. The market is awash with best practice recommendations and supposedly definitive guidance ("five ways to...."), many of which have been implemented diligently. But alas, company failures continue to be blots on the landscape.
Directors want reliable guidance, but many directors struggle to sort the wheat from the chaff. They say that the plethora of often discordant information is more a hindrance than it is helpful. Privately, some admit that they have become confused about the purpose of the board, what corporate governance is and how it should be practiced. Others have suggested that the question itself (of the board's role in achieving high enterprise performance) is 'wicked', meaning it is easy to describe, but really difficult if not impossible to solve due to incomplete or contradictory information and a highly contextual setting—a moving target camouflaged in a landscape that is far from static.
The other thing that has become relatively clear in recent times is the role and impact of social media: it seems to be getting in the way of meaningful debate on big questions and wicked problems. Yes, news feeds and the 'like' button can be additive, but self-proclaimed experts offering opinions disguised as 'solutions' generally add little except noise and clutter. If progress is to be made, more reliable guidance is needed to help boards focus on what actually matters—enterprise performance. For this, researchers need to go to the source (the boardroom), to discover, analyse and report what really happens when the board is in session, including what boards do; how decisions are made; and how power is wielded and influence is exerted. Interviews, surveys and the quantitive analysis of large datasets all have their place, but the direct (and ideally, long-term) observation of boards in action is the gold standard. Researchers, advisors and directors need to continue to pursue meaningful dialogue—not sound bites—both with each other and at conferences and other interactive forums (workshops and masterclasses, for example) to explore situations, discover what works (and what doesn't) and, crucially, understand the contextual limitations and nuances of various options. A commitment to read widely and critically is also important.
Press on we must; the question of how boards influence enterprise performance is far too important to ignore. Tough problems need time and space for critical thought and analysis. Thus my decisions to step away from Twitter and to change my use of LinkedIn—to create more space for critical thinking and analysis. My hope is that what emerges will be of some use to helping boards address something that has remained constant: responsibility for enterprise performance starts—and ends—with the board.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.