As regular readers know, I read widely; topics I explore span (in addition to core themes of corporate governance and strategy) include philosophy, neuroscience, business, history, military strategy and more besides. I usually take notes, as an aide memoire for later reference.
Some articles are memorable, others less so. This one recently-published article piqued my attention because it reminded me of a question I face most weeks: "What do you do?" Most enquirers expect to hear a job title or a profession, to enable them to 'position' me, which is fine if the 'job' is a well-known profession or vocation, such as a doctor, teacher, plumber or lawyer. But what about a director, or an advisor? Is offering a one-word response helpful? Might it enlighten or obfuscate?
For those who understand the roles of director and advisor, one-word descriptors are adequate. But for others (the majority, even most?), the response is more likely to an awkward smile, as if to say, "I wonder what one of those is or does? Does he mean a company director, a movie director, an orchestra conductor, or something else?" or, "What is an advisor? It sounds like a fancy name for a consultant." What an unhelpful interaction!
Clarity and simplicity are vital if we are to communicate effectively. And the effectiveness of what we utter—whether our message got through—is determined by the listener not the speaker.
With this in mind, I try to read the person before answering. If they appear knowledgeable of business matters, I tend to say I work with boards, sometimes adding that I help them see around corners and govern with impact; an advisor. But if not, I say I'm a troubleshooter who works with business leaders, or something along those lines. One thing I never say: I'm a consultant—they are people who make decisions and implement things for others. I don't. Rather, I ask questions to gain insight and make suggestions. Whether the client takes up the advice or not is their decision.
So, returning to the headline question. The words we utter: do they matter? Yes, they surely do, if we are to communicate well.
A few weeks ago, while facilitating a board masterclass at Naivasha, Kenya, I had the good fortune to see some local wildlife at close range. Some people consider walking in close proximity to wild animals to be dangerous, for it may portend harm or injury, but others embrace the activity with open arms.
Thinking, that well-spring from which ideas and insights emerge, innovations are birthed, and humanity progresses and flourishes, is similarly polarising.
One of the things I have been thinking about recently is quite selfish: What direction should I take my writing in 2024? Musings is nearly twelve years old (first entry was in March 2012, which coincided with my doctoral research efforts, and sharing of conference papers and articles). While the longevity makes it a rarity, my motivation has not changed. It has been to share thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention. Apart from the introduction of 'boardcraft', a word I coined in 2020, this overarching goal has remained consistent since day one.
From humble beginnings, when entries garnered just a few readers, the blog is now widely read. Over the years, many readers have been graciously engaged in a discussion about a topical matter, or asked for help to realise potential. And that has been wonderful, thank you. And, as you might expect, some entries have garnered high attention; others less so. Readers seem to prefer pragmatic guidance over provocations or calls to think more deeply about something. Recent examples of the former include writings on questions, chairmanship, and storytelling.
Now, as we stand on the cusp of 2024, my hope is that Musings remains relevant and useful into the future. And with that, may I ask a favour? (Actually, provide an opportunity, to crowdsource Musings!)
The prospect of looking back on the year past at this juncture seems a little odd, even presumptuous, given five weeks remain in 2023. And yet, with the onset of the holiday season (Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, as relevant in your cultural setting), I have noticed minds are starting to turn; casual comments in my hearing indicate some people are starting to reflect on the year soon-to-be-gone; others upon what the future might hold.
As someone called on to think broadly about organisational challenges and opportunities, and to share insights that might be helpful to helping boards govern with impact or realise organisational potential, I too, take time to ponder. To think about what has passed, what lies ahead, and how one can help is not only smart, it is vital—if one is to learn, make adjustments to stay on track and achieve goals and, over time, become a better person.
Turn now to the person you see in the mirror. What did you set out to achieve in 2023? Did you set specific goals? If so, have you checked progress? Are you still on track? Have you taken into account changes in the environment around you and made adjustments, or have you pressed on in spite of changing circumstances? As a leader, you owe it to yourself—and all those you interact with—to check progress periodically and make adjustments if you have veered off track or lost sight of the goal.
For the record, my goal for 2023 was audacious; to ensure every director and board I had the privilege of serving, globally, derived some benefit from the interaction. The goal was audacious because 'every' set a high bar; essentially, it left no room for slippage! Thankfully, feedback to date suggests I'm doing OK. Hopefully, the feedback still to come is consistent with that received through the year. If it is, I'll wrap up the year contented; tired but contented.
Diversity of thought has been widely promoted in recent times, as a mechanism to supposedly increase decision quality in boardrooms. Superficially, the idea of thinking differently is a positive evolutionary development from earlier efforts (think: women on boards) to break what is often described as the Old Boys' Club. That the discourse and intent has begun to move beyond appointing directors on the basis of physical attributes is helpful. And yet, the idea of 'diversity of thought' has long troubled me.
How does anyone know what I am thinking, or anyone else in the boardroom for that matter? And what is diversity in this context anyway—me having different thoughts, or several of us thinking differently? Crucially, what of any link to the board's work and purpose, which is to provide steerage and guidance to achieve a strategic goal?
Researchers have published correlations based on specific datasets, but the general case (a reliable linkage between demographic diversity and organisational performance) remains elusive. The somewhat amorphous 'diversity of thought' is similarly afflicted. Recently, cognitive diversity (that is, different ways of processing information and approaching problems) has been suggested as a more reliable mechanism to achieve higher quality decisions and, by implication, outcomes. This sounds positive, but reliable explanations are yet to emerge.
Why is this so hard? Could the paucity of reliable explanations (of the relationship between board work and company performance) be due to researchers, directors' institutions and others trying to explain board work and develop 'best practice' models looking in the wrong place or using inappropriate tools? What if hypothetico-deductive techniques (in search of a deterministic best practice approach to some aspect of board work) are laid to one side and methods more common in social science used (critical realism or contingency theory, for example)? Should researchers embrace the idea that boards are social organisms, and that governance is a mechanism activated by the board?
For the record, I employed critical realism, long-term observational techniques and contingency theory when researching boards a decade ago, as part of my doctoral research. The study was ground-breaking for it revealed new insights about board work including an explanatory framework. If you want to learn more about this study, check my thesis (academic-speak) or this article (plain-speak).
In the past few weeks, I have picked up the question again (thanks to a wandering mind on long haul flights!), and have begun to wonder if fractals and chaos theory might offer a viable pathway to developing a theory of board work. Whether this might be a fruitful search or a blind alley remains unclear. Regardless, my mission is to help boards govern with impact, so the least I can do is dig further. And dig I shall.
One request: If you know about fractals, or know of anyone who possess such expertise—especially in relation to social phenomena—could we schedule a call please? I'm starting from a pretty low base!
News has emerged in recent days that the United States House of Representatives is moribund—all for the lack of a Speaker. The Speaker is the person who presides over the House; they are, in effect, the administrative head. But for several weeks now, the House has been without a Speaker—since Kevin McCarthy was removed on 3 October by a motion to vacate. The move, which was unprecedented, has left the House in a precarious position.
While several replacements have been considered, none have been appointed. And, without a Speaker, the business of the House cannot proceed. This includes appropriations, to cover expenditure on 'projects' such as the Hamas–Israeli conflict and the Ukraine war. The situation highlights a stark weakness in the system, whereby the US Government system has a single point of failure baked in.
Imagine the outcry if a company's decision-making processes stalled, for the lack of a board chair or an unexpected vacancy in the CEO role. Staff, customers, suppliers and shareholders would be upset, and rightly so. The potential for reputational damage would be high as well. Smart companies anticipate such problems by thinking ahead; they appoint deputies and establish succession plans and delegation frameworks to be activated in the event the chair, CEO or key leader is unavailable or unable to serve.
And so to the core question: Does your company have appropriate succession and delegations in place, to ensure decision-making continuity when a key leader cannot contribute? If so, that is great. But if not, now might be a good time to put things in order.
And there you have it: before many of us realised, the solar equinox has passed once more—that moment when the sun passes the celestial equator and winter (or, for those in the global south, summer) beckons.
The equinox also signals the recommencement of on-the-ground contributions in the Northern Hemisphere. To wit, I shall be in the United Kingdom and Switzerland soon—from 2nd through 13th October, in fact. My programme sees me in London, Leeds, Cambridge, Zurich and St. Gallen, for a variety of contributions:
I am looking forward to hearing the heartbeat of company directors, advisors and others, to understand recent developments and emerging trends, and to discern changes since I visited earlier this year.
I have intentionally held space available for a few informal meetings. So, if you want to meet up while I am in your neighbourhood—be it to discuss the work and impact of boards, corporate governance, or some other topic of interest—do get in touch. I would be delighted to hear from you.
One of the great joys of being an independent advisor is the opportunity to spend time with people from a wide range of backgrounds; business and social experiences; walks of life; and, in my case, countries and cultures. The depth and breadth of humanity never ceases to amaze me. Paradoxically, a common thread runs amongst the diversity: people intent on improving organisational effectiveness and making a difference spend lots of time asking questions, lots of questions.
When a question is asked from the floor after a keynote talk, during an advisory engagement or professional development workshop, or as part of a confidential discussion or informal chat, something mysterious happens: Both parties learn! This should come as no surprise, for no one has all the answers—although some people behave as if they do.
Recently, I posed several questions board directors may wish to consider. The response to that musing has been overwhelming, so I thought an open invitation might be in order.
If you have a question about any aspect of corporate governance, strategic management, board craft or the challenge of governing with impact—either personally or on behalf of a board you serve on—please ask and I will gladly respond. Use the comment link here or, if you prefer, send an email. Let's learn together!
The role of company director has become quite visible over the past couple of decades. From hardly rating a mention in the popular press or polite society fifty years ago, public awareness of boards and directors has blossomed in recent times. Questionable practices and failures of various kinds have seen boards become a source of board fascination and disdain—targets of criticism in the eyes of the business media, political class, regulators and, increasingly, the wider public. Activists, institutional investors, proxy advisors, and other stakeholders and supernumeraries have sought to exert influence and press various claims too, on both company priorities and board decision making (think: ESG, disclosures, DEI, climate change, net zero, and more besides).
While some boards have responded well to changing circumstances, others have battened down the hatches. Defensiveness can be an important response at times, but it is not a sustainable tactic given the mandate to govern (provide appropriate steerage and guidance to achieve a specified goal).
If directors are to steer and guide effectively, they need to consider information, ask questions to check progress and elicit missing information and, having debated various options, make decisions. This is crucial, for the questions directors ask may be the difference between effectiveness and ineffectiveness in role. The following list provides a useful starting point for boards intent on governing with impact:
Do you agree or disagree—I welcome your thoughts on this! Also, what other questions have you found useful?
I have spent four days in Australia this week, meeting with directors, advisors and a couple of institutional leaders in two state capitals. While the weather has been great, a few storm clouds [metaphorically, on the governance horizon] were apparent. Whether these are serious problems, or just differences of opinion, they strike me as being worthy of discussion. I’d be delighted if you would ponder the following situations, and share your thoughts to help me understand why boards, more often than not, erode value.
These examples demonstrate, to me anyway, that questions of what corporate governance is, the role of the board and how governance might be practiced are far from resolved. Directors and their advisors seem to be their own worst enemies. Flawed understandings of what governance is (the provision of steerage and guidance, to achieve an agreed strategic aim), and how it might be practiced, remain serious barriers to boards fulfilling their mandate, which is to ensure the enduring performance of the company. Why do some directors’ institutes, advisory and consulting firms, regulators, academics, and media commentators continue to discuss “best practice” and promote various matters that have little if any direct impact on achieving sustainably high levels of organisational performance? Surely attention needs to be on helping directors and boards do their job well, n’cest ce-pas? I have a few ideas to crack this problem, but I’m keen to hear what you think.
I’ve been holidaying in Scotland this week, the first of two in the Highlands after whistle-stop visits to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I prefer the countryside over cities, the wide-open spaces and the scenery. The vistas in Scotland are especially magnificent, especially if the weather is fine, which it has been this week. Today, I saw the Jacobite Steam Train in action as it crossed the famous Glenfinnian Viaduct—well almost in action, for the chance of a wayward spark starting a fire in the adjacent bracken has limited this famous tourist experience to a push-me pull-you configuration with a heritage diesel locomotive bringing up the rear. The question, in my mind and the minds of others witnessing the viaduct crossing, was, “Which locomotive is actually doing all the work?” Or, more plainly, what is driving what? From the picture, the answer is not immediately obvious. However, the very presence of the diesel locomotive provides an important clue. And so it was. Today, the Jacobite Steam Train excursion was, in fact, the Jacobite Steam Train experience, powered by diesel.
The visual imagery provides a powerful analogy for something else I saw today; a press release issued by the Institute of Directors entitled, “ESG must not neglect governance!”
The headline implies that governance (from the Greek, meaning to steer, to guide, to pilot) is little more than a component of ESG (a means of measuring corporate performance). This, despite governance being the term that describes the work of the board of directors (the means by which companies are directed and controlled). But, reading on, the situation is not quite as it first seemed. Dr. Roger Barker, head of the policy unit, acknowledged the importance of boards taking non-financial (so-called, ESG) factors into account when making decisions. But he also noted the emergence of an “ESG industry” that has started to control various agendas, with little interest in the enduring performance of the company. And, with it, boards are being subordinated to a lesser role. Barker issued a strong call: to subsume governance within ESG may well result in the important work of the board in driving business performance becoming neglected.
Bravo, Dr. Barker! This is exactly what institutions need to be telling their members and others interested in corporate performance: ESG is a measurement and reporting mechanism, no more and no less. The board of directors is duty-bound to ensure the performance of the company, now and into the future, a high calling. If it is to discharge its duties well, the board needs to remain in control, driving the agenda. In doing so, the board should consider various externalities including social and environmental factors), of course, but it should not be beholden to them or to those applying the pressure.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention.