We live in a fast-paced world, where the only constant seems to be change itself. Nine months ago, messages promoting the latest and greatest scheme (or product or idea) bombarded our senses daily, imploring us to embrace something better. Hope prevailed. Now, with the outbreak and impact of coronavirus, the situation is quite different.
Despite the ebbing and flowing of seasons and circumstances, even the onset of crises, some things remain remarkably constant; stable despite great turbulence and the best intentions of enthusiastic advocates to move things along. The corporate boardroom is one such example.
Earlier this year, during the early days of the coronavirus, I re-read Making it Happen, Sir John Harvey-Jones' reflections on leadership. Harvey-Jones, a successful businessman and industrialist, was perhaps best known for leadership of British firm ICI, culminating in his chairmanship from 1982 to 1987. His insights are timeless; arguably still relevant today, 32 years after they were first written. To illustrate the point, here is a selection of salient comments Harvey-Jones made about boards in 1988:
Do any of these points sound familiar? They probably do, because, sadly, many of Harvey-Jones' observations are still prevalent today. Given the duties of directors, why are some boards still reluctant to embrace change with the same enthusiasm as demonstrated elsewhere when circumstances change, or a crisis strikes?
Is it time your board took stock, not only of the company's business model, but of itself?
An earlier version of this muse was posted in 2014.
As a devotee of life-long learning and a student of history, I keep an eye out for ideas and examples to share with boards and directors—in the hope that some might prove useful to help boards lead more effectively, from the boardroom. Amongst the news feeds and magazines that cross my desk (actually, computer screen), this journal often contains thought provoking articles. Recently, I was looking through some older issues and stumbled across this item, which explores effective leadership. The author offers seven 'keys' to effective leadership, as follows (I've taken the liberty of attaching a comment to each—a consideration for boards and directors):
Last week, Scott Arrol, CEO of NZHIT (New Zealand's peak body for those involved the digital health sector), got in touch to ask a few questions about the contribution of boards during times of crisis—a topical subject! The primary challenge for boards in such times is working out how to respond. The playbook that may have served well in the past is, probably, of little use now that the operating context has been flipped on its head. Despite this, the board remains responsible for business performance, so respond it must.
During our conversation (which was recorded, see below), we touched on the following points:
If you'd like to explore any of these or related points further, please get in touch.
The global crisis brought about by COVID19 has precipitated a range of reactions and emotional responses. These have included fear (of catching the virus, becoming very sick or even losing life); frustration (that civil liberties have been withdrawn); anger (the prospect of high levels of state control after the immediate crisis has passed); praise (the selfless actions of first responders and healthcare professionals); disappointment (of not being able to spend time with loved ones); beatification (of some political leaders); confusion (about the conflicting official guidance); and more besides. Inherent biases are also on display, as people turn to social media to express themselves (or react to what others have written). Some have supported the government's actions and public health responses; others have been highly critical, even vitriolic.
It's perfectly natural for people to react to what they read and hear about the situation and the uncertainty foisted upon them—and to be curious about the motivations of leaders and what the future might hold.
In times of great crisis (when chaos tends to reign), the most important priority for a leader (board of directors, executive team, community leaders or the government) is to re-establish a sense of stability and order, noting the fine line between providing leadership and imposing one's will.
Effective leaders tend to roll their sleeves up, identify options, openly encourage alternative perspectives, make decisions based on best-available data and assumptions thought valid at the time of the decision, and explain why decisions have been taken. But as the situation develops—and it will, both naturally and in response to various interventions—progress and data need to be reviewed. Effective leaders display an openness to reverse or amend earlier decisions promptly if new data do not conform to a priori assumptions. Transparency and accountability are both crucial to maintain the confidence and support of stakeholders.
But effective leaders also look beyond the immediate crisis. They ask questions to discover what the future might hold, and whether the crisis presents an opportunity to do things differently. But they don't pursue change for change sake. Over the past two or three weeks, a bevy of visions of what a post-COVID19 world could or should look like have been published by think-tank groups; futurists; independent consultants; journalists; social media commentators; self-styled experts; company leaders and other pundits. Amongst those shared to date, 'digital transformation'; 'locking in new ways of working'; 'a post-office world'; 'the end of globalisation'; 'balanced capitalism'; 'a more inclusive society' and other similar phrases have featured prominently. Some of the proposals I have seen are coherent and merit further investigation; others are little more than bias-laden and thinly-veiled attempts to influence public opinion in favour the author's favoured ideology. Hopefully, political leaders have been considering options to rebuild the economy and social fabric too, but these are yet to be revealed.
With so many options (and many more to come, no doubt), business, political and community leaders face a daunting challenge: of threshing the wheat from the chaff, and making strategically-important decisions in the best interests of others, not self. To decide where and how to move next, in the midst of great ambiguity and uncertainty, is not for the faint-hearted. Wisdom and maturity are invaluable capabilities in this context.
Many tools and frameworks are now available to help leaders make sense of a multiplicity of options, and to respond well given the prevailing context. The Cynefin Framework is worthy of consideration. (Hat-tip to a Netherlands-based colleague who reminded me of it recently.)
Regardless of which approach or framework you use, high-level sense-making and systems thinking expertise is vital. Heterodox perspectives are to be encouraged too. Without these, leaders run the risk of becoming introspective, leaning in on natural biases or, worse, preferred ideologies. Also, great care must be exercised to ensure intended visions are made plain, strategies are coherent and decisions are evidence-based. If such care is not taken, those concerned by what they deem to be inappropriate experimentation or investigation might bite back. Curiosity killed the cat, after all.
The COVID19-induced crisis presents leaders (politicians, boards of directors, community leaders) with a golden opportunity to take stock and, having thought carefully, make decisions in the best interests of the constituency, company, community they serve. Effective decision-making in chaotic situations is far from straightforward, but our future prosperity depends on it.
The unexpected outbreak and spread of Covid-19 early this year has had a seismic effect on the lives and well being of people, around the world. Politicians and government officials have activated crisis response plans (some more quickly and effectively than others) and business leaders have reached for their continuity plans. Amongst the turbulence, little if anything is clear—except that SARS-CoV-2 has our attention.
Horizons have shortened, and most if not all resources have been diverted to deal with the situation. This is reasonable, but it also exposes the company to a significant risk. Business leaders (especially boards) need to keep one eye on the future, because the crisis will eventually pass. When it does, companies need to be ready to 'go' in the post-crisis environment, lest they be outgunned by others.
The most pressing questions for boards as they look to the future relate to the wider operating context, the answers of which inform strategic choices.
As boards start to work through these and other related questions, careful judgement (wisdom and maturity) is needed, to both balance competing interests (resourcing the crisis v. strategising the future) and to avoid traps that have the potential to stymie the company's recovery. Here are three pitfalls that can entrap boards:
The temptations to look just ahead; embrace detail; mitigate all risks; confuse strategy and tactics; conflate the roles of governance and management; and be highly optimistic are very real—more than many would care to admit. But they are by no means insurmountable.
Boards intent on ensuring the company is well-positioned to emerge from a crisis intact know that high quality steerage and guidance is vital: a clear sense of purpose (reason for being), a coherent and appropriately resourced strategy that is relevant to the circumstances, a dedicated team and effective oversight. They also know that this principle holds regardless of the company's size, sector or span of operations.
A much brighter future awaits those companies that do not lose sight of the bigger picture as they work through the mire towards solid ground.
It has been said that a leader without any followers is, in reality, just a person going for a walk. Followers are, by definition, necessary. But the presence of followers is an incomplete measure of a leader's effectiveness. Messages of praise by acolytes and enthralled observers are rarely useful indicators either.
The winning of an election by a national politician, civic leader or a company director reveals little about the quality or effectiveness of their subsequent leadership. It simply shows they were more popular than their rivals on the day of the election! Consider the UK Prime Minister's victorious 'peace in our time' utterance in 1938 (which proved to be short-sighted, even deluded); the Watergate scandal (second-term presidential hubris); the Christchurch City Council's consents debacle (leadership ineptitude); and Wells Fargo's mis-selling of accounts (executive-level malfeasance). Chamberlain, Nixon, Parker and Stumpf were all thought to be leading well, but all ultimately stumbled when it mattered.
That leadership is a function, not a position, is axiomatic. And like magnetism and gravity, leadership cannot be seen directly; only through its effects. Indicators of leadership effect include the behaviours, decisions and actions of a leader as an overall goal is pursued.
The past three weeks have produced innumerable examples of leadership behaviours and use of positional power to exert influence or make decisions in response of the COVID-19 outbreak. Here's a few examples:
An amalgam of factors contribute to any leader's effectiveness. These include (but are not limited to):
Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has been lauded for her handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. She is widely regarded as being a great and empathetic communicator, which should not be surprising given her training is in public relations and communications. The form is good, but what of the substance of her messages? Is Ms Ardern actually providing strong leadership, as many have opined? The factors listed above is one means of considering these questions:
The picture that emerges here is one of a communicator who is endearing, building esprit de corps. But oratory without substance is not sufficient. Leaders need to set out a credible goal, clearly; be decisive and consistent; and insist that decisions are acted on, in full.
Calls for the Prime Minister to move beyond both empathetic sound bites and measures that would not look entirely out of place in a socialist regime are gaining traction. The time to consider the future is now; to forge the pathway towards economic recovery and the restoration of civil liberties within a functional civil society, is a matter of great urgency. And that is where the extent, quality and effectiveness of the Prime Minister's leadership will be laid bare. Leadership when it matters.
Leadership is topical in most spheres of human endeavour; companies are no exception. To encourage others to achieve great things is the stuff of effective leaders. The most successful are widely-lauded. But leadership can take many forms, of course. Cast your eye over the last 100 years or so and you'll discern leadership in action in different ways. The era of the titan (Rockerfeller, Carnegie and Morgan being notable examples) saw leaders exert control over companies powerfully. The emergence of the management class in the inter-war years saw the emphasis change, the efficient operation of companies came to the fore. Since the turn of the century and the entry of corporate governance into the business lexicon, leadership has taken another form: the oversight of companies from the boardroom.
Often, perhaps typically, leadership is understood to be an individual endeavour; a person exerting influence. But leadership has a collective dimension too—the board of directors is an instructive case. While individuals (directors, trustees) contribute to board discussion and process, it is the board (not directors) that decides. Leadership in this context is, exclusively, collective.
Collective leadership requires a different approach. Directors need to work together to reach consensus for a start. This article has some more great tips that boards may wish to consider as they seek to lead effectively:
How does your board measure up? More pointedly, does your board even know the effect of its decisions? Nearly thirty years ago, the challenge of explaining board influence over company performance was famously described by Sir Adrian Cadbury, a doyen of corporate governance, as being "a most difficult of question". Thankfully, some progress has been made in recent years, as researchers have entered the boardroom to conduct long-term observational studies of boards in session, and leaders such as Charles Hewlett have shared insights from their experience. While robust explanations remain elusive, one thing is now clear: neither the structure nor composition of the board is a direct predictor of its effectiveness, let alone company performance. If boards are to contribute effectively in the future, they need think, act and behave differently.
Trust is one of those social building blocks that is crucial for getting things done with others. Board work by no means exempt. When directors a faced with making strategically-important decisions, they must rely on information from and interaction with their board colleagues, the chief executive and any other advisors who may have been invited to contribute. Then, after consideration and having made a decision, the board needs to follow through, by ensuring the decision is implemented well. But, and sadly, the levels of trust both between directors and with external stakeholder groups is often lower than what is needed for effective decision-making. The following comments, originally published in 2016 by EpsenFuller (subsequently acquired by ZRG Partners), make the point deftly:
Board directors today face a variety of challenges. Whether it is a case of corruption or the increasing threat of cybercriminals, their performance in dealing with these issues is the subject of considerable attention, explained The Huffington Post (Jan. 25, Loeb). Investors, consumers and NGOs alike are looking to boards for accountability in terms of company performance. Yet, a recent study found that public trust in boards of directors is lower than that of CEOs. A mere 44 per cent of survey participants claimed to have trust in a company's board—five per cent less than trust in CEOs. Influential constituencies are demanding that boards perform at exceptional levels while maintaining distinct independence from company executives.
That some directors do themselves no favours (through poor behaviour, malfeasance, hubris and failing to complete actions, for example) is self-evident. But all is not lost. High levels of performance are possible—if all of the directors commit to working together (both as a board and with management) and reach agreement on the company's core purpose; the strategy to be pursued to achieve the agreed purpose; how performance will be measured; and the values that will underpin behaviour standards, decisions, and everything the company does and stands for.
Perhaps if more boards embraced this mindset (working together), with the company's best interests to the fore, the trust problem that generates so much tension (not to mention column inches) would gradually become a thing of the past. Is this expectation worth striving for, or do you think it is too ambitious?
A situation developing at Hutt City Council (a local council not far from where I live) is instructive for boards everywhere. It concerns a proposal to make a grant to Hutt Valley Tennis, a tennis club, to assist with the redevelopment of its tennis facility. The entity and the size of the grant, $850,000, are largely immaterial. What is significant about the matter is that one of the Hutt City councillors is married to the president of Hutt Valley Tennis (a potential conflict of interest, perhaps?), and that the decision required a casting vote by the Mayor to break a deadlock. The local newspaper has just reported the matter, and a newspaper columnist has chimed in offering an opinion as well.
On the conflict of interest: Questions have been raised as to whether Councillor Milne had a conflict of interest, because his wife is the President of the organisation that stands to benefit from the proposal. Milne registered his interest but denied there was a conflict of interest because his wife is a volunteer, and neither he nor his wife has a financial interest in it. But financial interest is not the appropriate test. A more appropriate test is whether the person can reasonably be expected to make an independent and objective decision, or other factors might lead to bias. Hutt Valley Tennis identified a potential conflict, and Milne registered interest. Yet Milne proceeded to participate in the decision-making anyway. On this matter, Milne appears to have missed a vital point: perception is reality (i.e., conflicts are assessed by others, not self). If there was any doubt at all, caution should have been exercised. To argue that there was not an actual conflict is inappropriate, some might suggest arrogant. Better for Milne to have removed any doubt by excusing himself from the discussion (by leaving the room), especially as he had already declared an interest. He should not have participated in the decision either. Standing one step back, the Mayor is not beyond scrutiny in this matter. Why did he not ask Milne to leave the discussion, and why was Milne not excluded from the decision?
On decision thresholds: Local councils, like company boards, make decisions in the collective. This means that every resolution results in either a 'yes' or a 'no' decision (notwithstanding any deferral or request for more information). In local government, the minimum threshold for a binding decision is typically a simple majority, with the Mayor holding a casting 'vote' in the cases of a deadlock. But is a sensible means of collective decision-making? What of the downstream effects and consequences? To proceed following a split decision raises all sorts of questions, not the least of which is the opposed councillors' commitment to uphold (or undermine) the decision. A better threshold is consensus, whereby every councillor (director, in the case of boards) has space to speak for or against a proposal, and debate points, on the understanding that they support the decision afterwards (because their warrant requires them to act in the best interests of the entire constituency). If consensus cannot be reached, it is better to defer the decision, pending more information and/or discussion.
Thankfully, the Hutt City Council has recognised the situation for what it is. The council has decided to nullify the initial decision and reconsider the proposal next week. Milne has announced that he will not participate.
With 2018 consigned to history and holiday season break all but over, most business leaders and boards of directors are turning their attention to what the year ahead (and beyond) holds. Even a cursory glance reveals a plethora of issues that may have an impact on business continuity and, potentially, continuance.
Consider these indicators:
And that's just the start.
As is usual at this time of the year, business and governance commentators have stuck their collective necks out, promulgating a variety of predictions given the indicators (as real or imagined as each indicator may be); each behaving as if they possess levels of predictive insight beyond what a reasonably educated person might be able determine by tossing a coin. But do they? They cannot all be correct—in fact, none may be.
The challenge for boards, of course, is working out how to respond well.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that boards have become confused by what's going on around them. Increasing numbers have grown quite tired of 'conventional wisdoms' and so-called 'best practices' (plurals intentional). Some have responded by taking defensive positions, and others are boldly trying things without first understanding the contextual relevance.
My response to enquiries from boards is straightforward: open your eyes to the possibilities, think and act strategically, but don't be impetuous. Check the current context, because things change, often in unexpected ways. Helping boards respond well typically involves sharing insights from research and practice; facilitating discussions; and providing contextually-relevant and evidence-based guidance. If you want to discuss options to respond well to a changing world around you, or lift the effectiveness of your board, please get in touch.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.