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.
Twice this week, I have been asked about my reading and thinking habits. One enquirer wanted to know much time I spend reading and pondering insights garnered from various authors; the other whether I schedule [slow] thinking time.
Although neither asked explicitly, both enquirers seemed to assume that quiet time and the notion of reading widely are important to me. And, indeed they are. But, why?
The practice of reading serves, I think, two inherent objectives: to maintain currency with trends and developments, and to become a better person. The objective is not to become a technical expert capable of regurgitating data and ideas (ChatGPT can do that), but a more holistic thinker—one who discerns problems and opportunities, considers them from different perspectives, asks appropriate questions and draws relevant conclusions. More succinctly, someone who leads a reflective life.
May I propose something? To philosophise is to breathe. In my experience, and that of others who I have been fortunate to interact with, the ideas that emerge from the practice of philosophising provide a solid foundation for that which follows. And yet many business leaders and board directors claim to be too busy to take time to ponder (think about) possibilities that might lie below the surface or around the corner. Quite why such a (seemingly) bedrock activity is neglected is a curiosity to me; high quality thinking is an antecedent of effective leadership and governance, n'cest ce-pas?
When people I interact with, especially friends and clients, say they see a better me (someone who is on top of his game, is nice to be around and who offers relevant and considered advice), such observations tend to coincide with a period of reading literature (or other so-called 'brainy' books) and thinking deeply about the questions posed by the authors. While comments like this are gratifying, they serve a higher purpose: to remind me to make time, regardless of what else is going on around me.
(And, in case you are wondering, my answers to the enquirers were, "About 12–15 hours each week" and, "Yes.")
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!
Board are funny things. They are comprised of selected individuals (directors, board members) charged with meeting together to consider various matters for the purpose of making decisions. While it is true to say directors meet, decisions are made by the collective whole—the board—not individual directors. Therefore, every decision is unanimous. Complicating matters, boards only 'exist' when directors meet, and board work is, largely, endogenous; so, they need to be coordinated—someone needs to 'drive' the board.
The term 'chairman' (also, 'board chair, 'chair' or sometimes, 'chairperson') is the term used to identify the board member who carries such responsibilities—these being to convene the board’s meetings, ensure duties are discharged, and that steerage and guidance (that is, governance) is effective. But, as all directors are equal in law, the chair's role is exercised through influence, not command in any controlling sense. Given this, how should a board chair, well, chair the board?
While there is no one 'best' way of chairing, the following characteristics are conducive to better outcomes:
Governance is tough because, inter alia, things change, sometimes unexpectedly; boards often need to make decisions without all the information they want; linkages between decisions and outcomes are contingent; and, directors' duties are unbounded.
If boards are to govern with impact, chairs need to be alert: to ensure directors are actively engaged, and that they identify and consider relevant information, think critically and, together, make smart decisions in the best interests of the company. The chairs' priority is to convene the board and its work, and keep directors on track and the organisation safe. For this, a deft hand is needed.
I have just arrived back in New Zealand, from ten days in the UK and Europe. My meetings with directors, advisors, academics, students and directors’ institutions had two primary objectives: to listen and to share. The listening aspect was to gain firsthand knowledge of issues and opportunities; the sharing aspect to provide updates on the craft of board work and my experiences as a practicing director.
Learnings (a few immediate observations, in no particular order):
Amongst it all, there were some gems:
Several followup visits are now being planned, to advise, assess, educate and speak on topical board and organisational performance matters. If you want to discuss a matter of interest, or check my availability to assist, contact me for a confidential, obligation-free discussion.
The headline picture, showing a derelict property in Soho, London, is analogous to the state of governance in many places in Europe: structurally sound but outwardly messy.
‘That’ time of the year has arrived once more. For many, the time to put the tools down and relax for a few days is nigh. From the hustle and bustle of public life, families are gathering. Some will celebrate the significance of Christmas, others will celebrate because any opportunity for a party with friends and family is a good one. Amongst it all, some will work on, especially in healthcare, emergency services, process manufacturing, retail and hospitality; we should not forget them for they too have family and friends.
I am one amongst many who carve out a little time and space towards the end of December to reflect on the year gone. Often, my mind is drawn towards relationships and experiences. This year is no exception.
Before signing off this last post for the year, a note of heartfelt thanks. Thank you to everyone who has seen fit to consider my ideas, challenge my thinking, and invite me to work alongside them this year. To have been afforded the opportunity to contribute, globally, has been delightful. The calling, to serve and support boards intent on realising organisational performance, remains strong. Consequently, the work will continue in 2023, starting in early January with responses to a long list of enquiries to assess, advise, coach and speak.
Now, I have one report to complete, a client event to attend, and a few Christmas errands to run. Then, I shall set the tablet and pencil down, in favour of a book or two, my vegetable garden, a few small jobs around the house, and some quality family time.
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. 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 visit to the United Kingdom and Europe, to continue the advisory work there.
From November 16th through 25th, I will visit the UK, several EU countries, and elsewhere as required, to respond to requests to speak, and 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.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention.