One of the great challenges for board directors and executive leaders concerns written expression. How might one cast vision, report progress clearly, make a request unambiguously, or argue a point convincingly if the key messages are not clearly stated? Directors and executives owe a duty to their colleagues in this matter, for written reports are the primary vehicle for sharing ideas, proposals and data before each board meeting.
To suggest the quality of the report (especially, the clarity of the message within) may be the difference between success and failure (that is, acceptance or rejection) is, probably, a truism. So, if we are to be convincing in our argumentation, we need to write well. But how?
The first thing to acknowledge is that writing is a craft. And, as with any other craft, proficiency is something that emerges over time, as principles are learnt and applied in practice. Look to others who write well, and glean from them. Seek feedback from your readers too, and make adjustments.
I have long relied on the guidance of William Zinsser (1922–2015), especially that offered in On writing well. Another great source is the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, which provides specific instructions. How do you ensure board reports and business proposals are well written, and what tools and approaches do you use?
Today, 26th May, is my fourth and final day in the office this month. Airports, hotels, taxis, client and speaking engagements, and board meetings have been the order of the month—until today. Now, my attention is elsewhere: on other important tasks, which, if neglected, could undermine what has gone before.
Taking care of business on days like today means taking care of administration: creating and issuing invoices, collating receipts and claiming disbursements, checking in with a couple of director colleagues, and seeking feedback from family business meeting. And, regardless of whether one is a leader in a large organisation, a freelance consultant, small business owner, or an independent director and advisor, paperwork left to mount up exposes one to operational and, potentially, reputational damage.
Most months, I spend one evening per week in the office, to keep on top of things. But sometimes, travel and other commitments stand in the way of this rhythm. And, when this happens, a concerted effort is needed to get back on track. Today is that day.
How do you keep on top of administrative tasks?
Twenty-one years ago this week, I embarked on a journey to pursue a dream: to help directors and boards become value creators, realising the potential of the companies they govern. At the time—four weeks after the terror attack on the World Trade Centre—governance was hardly known as a word, and most boards had a strong compliance orientation. I had no idea whether the dream was realistic, much less attainable. But, at 39 years old, the calling was strong—compelling even. So, I took a deep breath and walked away from a great company and international role, armed solely with a strong belief that I might be able to add some value. I was told that stepping away from financial security and the makings of a stellar international career was crazy. But the decision had been made.
I found that people would happily talk about their situation and what they wanted to achieve if they thought you were genuinely interested in them. That insight has provided the foundation for everything that followed—including working with thousands of directors in 45 countries across five continents, serving on boards, delivering hundreds of talks and leading many education sessions. The 2012–2016 period dedicated to complete doctoral research, to try to answer that most difficult question of how boards influence company performance provided a breakthrough that I hope, one day, will be taken up widely: the Strategic Governance Framework. To have met and spent time with doyens of corporate governance, strategy and leadership along the way—including Bob Garratt, Bob Tricker, Charles Handy, James Lockhart, Jenny Darroch, Roger L. Martin, Rita Gunther McGrath, Silke Machold, Stuart Farquhar, Andrew Kakabadse and many more besides—has been inspirational. I am indebted to everyone who has spared a few minutes to answer questions and share insights.
Other highlights include sitting with directors in India, Eastern Europe and other places well off the beaten track, to listen; experience their thirst for insight; and receive their gratitude for what little I had to offer.
Without exception, everyone I've met and worked with has wanted to find ways to guide and steer the businesses they govern with greater effect. To have been asked to contribute has been a honour.
Thank you to every established director, board trustee, and board chair; every aspiring director; every chief executive and leadership team; every MBA student, researcher and associate; everyone who has heard me speak or read my articles (note: all my articles and blog posts remain available today); every regulator and government who sought confidential assistance; and, untold others I've never met. Thank you for considering my submissions and arguments, for believing in me, for encouraging me and for engaging me.
Today, 21 years on from stepping out of the boat, the calling remains strong. I remain available to serve for as long as boards and directors call for assistance, and my ability to contribute allows. To that end, and with the passing of the pandemic, I am available once more to travel to meet in person to understand and speak into situations. So, if you have a question or want to discuss a problem, please get in touch. I stand ready to serve.
Recently, during a meeting with a company director, I was asked if I'd be interested in seeing the company’s production facilities, to provide context for an upcoming assignment. Context is everything, so I gladly accepted the offer. As we walked, we chatted about a wide range of things. At one point, I asked how things were going since the board's decision to embrace a strategy to become a higher-performing business. His response was as telling as it was succinct:
They say ‘high performance’, but all I see is ‘average’.
The melancholic admission was unexpected, but not surprising. Apparently, the most recent board report showed that staff turnover had been creeping up, and engagement scores were trending downwards. And yet the atmosphere in the boardroom was sanguine when I visited. Clearly, something was amiss.
This vignette highlights one of the great challenges in business—strategy execution; ensuring that strategy planned becomes strategy executed. Regardless of the motivation for creating them, intentions and strategies are not worth the paper they are written on if desired outcomes are not achieved.
When things go wrong, the problem can often be traced back to one or both of two things: lack of will (the "won't" barrier), and lack of know-how (the "can't" barrier). Both are indicators of a failure of leadership; a failure to equip staff, and motivate and engage them to embrace the call to action. But the root cause may lie elsewhere. If strategy implementation is OK but expected outcomes do not follow, the problem is more likely to be one of governance. This is because ultimate responsibility for organisational performance [outcomes] stops in the boardroom, not the executive suite. Some may challenge this, on the basis that the executive is responsible for running the business and implementing the strategy. They are, but for the avoidance of doubt, responsibility of determining purpose, setting overall strategy and ensuring results are achieved lies with the board of directors. There’s no getting away from it: the buck stops at the top.
If there is a gap between what the board says it wants, and what is subsequently observed as reality, the likelihood of great outcomes is low. The ‘saying–seeing’ gap must be bridged, and the board needs to own this.
Here are some questions the board may wish to consider:
So, to the direct question: Is your board across this?
The 2018 edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum was convened in Vienna, Austria this week. This post summarises insights from the second day (click here for insights from Day 1). I didn't take as many notes on the second day, preferring instead to sit, listen and dwell on what was said. (I also missed a couple of sessions, one to finalise my own preparations to speak; another to spend time privately with a two inspirational thinkers.) However, there were, for me, two speakers that really stamped their mark on the day, as follows:
Hermann Hauser, director of Amadeus Capital Partners and chair of the European Innovation Council, delivered a strong message, arguing that humanity is on the cusp of an inflection point (moving beyond evolution to design thinking) that has the potential to 'change everything' in the reasonably near future. He identified four significant disrupters:
The implications of these disrupters are, frankly, rather daunting. Synthetic biology offers the prospect of defeating disease, but at what cost? Quantum computing has the potential to render electronic security systems useless. One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to realise the massive implications for commerce, banking and warfare. Researchers and technologists are committed to bringing these capabilities to market. But at what cost to humanity? The ethical implications are not insignificant. Recognising this, Hauser suggested that the state has an important role to play, to ensure appropriate regulatory boundaries and safeguards are established. But it must act quickly, before the genie gets out.
Martin Wolf, chief economics editor of the Financial Times, spoke passionately about the role of the state; in his view, the single-most important institution in human history. I first heard Wolf speak a few years ago. He left a strong impression on me then, and did so again as he spoke. Addressing the question of how states can 'work better', Wolf named several important roles that the state 'must' fulfil par excellence:
Such roles need to be implemented with aplomb. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to anarchy, in Wolf's view.
The 2018 edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum, the tenth annual gathering of leaders, philosophers and students of management was convened in Vienna, Austria this week, at the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace. The location was a wonderful, historical backdrop for two full days of discussions and debates on topical issues directly relevant to managers and leaders around the world.
Overall, the purpose of the Forum is to share expertise and build capability in line with Peter Drucker's philosophies. This year, the theme was management . the human dimension. It was the second time I have attended the Forum. The decision to do so was relatively straightforward; made soon after I had the opportunity to stand amongst giants in November 2017. As was the case then, the programme followed a reasonably conventional format dominated by panel-based discussions and plenaries. One major difference from last year though was the scale of the event. Some 500 people attended in 2017. The tenth anniversary edition took a step up, to enable 1000 people to join the conversation. This led to some quite different dynamics at a personal level (notably that it was much more difficult to find people or to access the speakers). As a consequence, some intimacy was lost. But this is a minor point, especially when viewed in the context of a very well-run event.
The following three summaries, presented in no particular order, provide a glimpse of the ideas shared and learnings from the first day. (If you would like to know more, please get in touch.)
Business and society: Four panelists including Jean-Dominique Senard, CEO of Michelin Group, and Yves Doz, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management at INSEAD, shared their thoughts on the importance of holding business and society together (the implication being that business and society have, or are at risk of, drifting apart). Key takeaways:
Human questions, machine answers: Hal Gregersen kicked off this session with some stark predictions:
The insight from the first of these numbers is that predictions of cataclysmic job-loss and unemployment are little more than scaremongering. However, the second number demonstrates that the impact of technology on work will continue to be very significant into the future. But we need to get past the numbers for focus on what actually matters: it is people.
People everywhere need to become more adept at using computers, especially for menial and repetitive tasks, and, even more importantly, people need to be taught to be some computers can never be: humans; empathetic, curious, social beings. As humans, our ability to thrive in a world seemingly falling head-long into the embrace of AI is to ensure we ask the 'right questions', many of which will be social, ethical and spiritual.
Other speakers added that capabilities need to prevail over skills. This might sound like semantics, but the difference between the two is both significant and important. Curiosity, situational awareness, contextual understanding and creativity are far more important than operational or tactical skills, for example. Such capabilities need to be nurtured and exercised, lest they become like unused muscles—atrophied.
Re-engaging the humanities: The aim of this fascinating session was to argue the merit of re-connecting humans with the humanities. The starting point for the discussion was an assertion that humanity's adoption of technology has come at a great cost: mankind is rapidly losing touch with what makes him distinct from other species. Simply, the pursuit of technological 'solutions' has seen many lose sight of the meaning of life.
Humans are social beings, and meaning is revealed through interaction and insight. Unlike molecules that behave in a consistent manner when they are heated (cooled) or put under pressure, humans do not. As a consequence, if organisations are to thrive in the future, conceptions need to change. Rather than using deterministic and mechanistic models to understand and explain organisations and performance, a biological 'ecosystem' may provide a more instructive. In this context, the term 'ecosystem' means a community of organisms that interact contingently and their physical environment. While such communities have defining characteristics, 'success' is dependent on many factors, and it is neither predictable or guaranteed.
A summary of observations and insights from second day is available here.
The limited liability company is a great construct; an efficient vehicle for commerce, through which to pursue an overall aim (purpose) and to distribute wealth (however defined) over an extended period. What's more, mixed levels of ownership are possible; greater economies of scale are attainable (beyond what a sole trader or entrepreneur could typically achieve); and, importantly for absentee shareholders, liability is limited to the extent of the capital invested.
Though they offer many benefits, the limited liability company is not without flaws—it is a social construction after all, and a complex dynamic one at that. The motivations, priorities and interests of various interested parties (shareholders, directors, managers and staff, amongst others) are often different. Contexts change, and egos can get in the way as well. Left unbridled, differences can fester, morale can suffer and, in more extreme cases, the company can be torn apart. Wynyard Group and Carillion are two recent example but there are many others. Family firms are not immune to such challenges. In fact, when the wildcard of family dynamics is added to the mix, family firms are actually more, not less, susceptible. Though not always visible, the spectre of undue influence often lurks as a contributing factor, as the following discussion reveals:
Failure to differentiate the roles of 'shareholder' and 'director': Let's start with some definitions. A shareholder is a person or entity that owns shares in a company. Ownership of shares affords certain rights, such as, selecting directors, receiving dividends and participating in major decisions. But those rights do not extend to running the business. That is the responsibility of managers, a delegation via the directors. In family firms, the roles of shareholder, director and manager can become blurred, especially when an influential family member holds multiple roles.
The most common expression of undue influence that I've seen over the years relates to decision-making at the board table: a director with a significant shareholding 'expects' to influence significant decisions in their favour because they own a large parcel of shares. The important distinction that is lost (sometimes it is 'conveniently' neglected) in such situations is that the board meeting is not a proxy for a shareholder meeting. Shareholders and directors vote differently. Shareholder voting is conducted on a 'one vote per share' basis, whereas each director has a single vote at the board table. Regardless of whether directors hold shares or not, every director has an equal say.
If situations like this arise, they need to be nipped in the bud. If they are not, board meetings become a farce; the other directors puppets. This is far from acceptable, especially when the duty of acting in the best interests of the company (not any particular shareholder) is factored in. In most cases that I have observed, attempts to exert such [undue] influence tends to stem from ignorance and a desire to do what they think is fair, not malice. Usually, a quiet discussion with the director concerned is often all that is needed to resolve the matter. Another family member or an outsider (an independent director if there is one, or some other trusted advisor) are useful candidates for this task.
Treating the company as little more than a personal bank account: If I had a dollar for each time I've seen this in family firms... Recently, while observing a board meeting as part of an advisory engagement, a director asked, "Why are we always so short of cash when we are supposedly highly profitable?". The discussion that followed was both enlightening and disturbing—and, sadly, it was not the first time that I'd heard it play out. One director with banking access had been buying personal items with company funds and, from time to time, had been taking 'petty cash' for personal use. He saw nothing wrong with this because "it's my firm anyway".
If a director or shareholder uses company funds to acquire personal items, or uses the company bank account as if it were their own, they are acting in their own interests (whatever those may be). Their actions may put the viability of the company at risk as well. Neither of these motivations is permissible in law. Any shareholder wanting money from the company needs to ask the company, not just take it (that's theft!). Valid payment options include shareholder salaries (payment for effort/services rendered), dividends (a share of the profits), donations (but these may be taxable) and director's fees. The company may also agree to lend money to the shareholder. Regardless of the motivation or the payment option, a written policy which outlines the rules and conditions pertaining to payments to shareholders can help mitigate misunderstandings.
Employment of family members and related matters: Another expression of undue influence is the situation in which a family member 'pulls rank' to secure employment for themselves or another family member. While any family member may nominate anyone else (including other family members), to foist a particular person onto a manager is completely unreasonable. If managers are to be held accountable for performance, they need to be free to make reasonable employment decisions themselves, in accordance with employment policy. In family firms, it is a good idea to add a section entitled 'Employment of family members' in the policy, to set out the rules the be applied whenever a family member is being considered for a role.
While none of these examples of undue influence is unique to family firms, they are usually more visible (and often more destructive) in family firms. Once discovered, they need to be resolved. If not, family relationships can become strained, even to the point of breaking down. Actions that families might consider taking to prevent or at least mitigate the types of problems summarised here include:
Boards wanting to explore matters mentioned here should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
This article is the second of three on the topic, 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The first explored some items that are currently front-of-mind for many directors and shareholders of family-controlled firms. The third article, which will present recommendations to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late 2018.
From entering the business lexicon less than quarter of a century ago, 'corporate governance' has come a long way. Prior to 2000, the term was rarely mentioned in business discussions much less amongst the general public. Boards and directors directed the affairs of the firm, and that was it. Now the term is ubiquitous. Its usage has changed over time as well: from describing the functioning of the board of directors, the term is now used to describe all manner of corporate activity, much of which bears little if any semblance to the board or governance at all.
The proclivity to use the terms 'governance' and 'corporate governance' has trickled down from big business to now infect family-controlled firms. Well-intentioned but inappropriate usage—notably advisers (typically, but only accounting firms) making assertions such as "You need governance"—has had unintended consequences. When attention is diverted away from running and overseeing the business to "implement governance" (whatever that means or entails) without justification, costs have a tendency to go up not down, and a whole new set of problems including confusion, consternation and strained relationships often follow.
Over the last two decades, I've had the privilege of working with the directors and shareholders of hundreds of family-controlled firms, ranging from 'mom and pop' operations to much larger (multi-hundred million dollar) enterprises. Awareness of (and interest in) governance has become palpable, more so if a director has just read an article or heard a talk from an expert purporting a 'best practice' governance solution. Yet directors know that a single answer rarely works everywhere. Context is crucial in business; every situation is, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. As a consequence, the universal application of a formulaic 'best practice' solution does not make much sense. Recognition of this gives rise to many questions, especially from the shareholders and directors of family-controlled firms. Here is a selection of the more frequently asked ones:
These questions are typical of those that have been front-of-mind for the directors and shareholders of the family-controlled firms that I've interacted with in recent months. Curiously, questions about social interaction, boardroom behaviour and family dynamics (the human dimensions) are asked far less often. This, despite the board being a collective of directors—people—who are required to work together in the best interests of the firm. Boards that resolve these so-called 'soft' questions tend to be more effective. But more on that next time.
This article is the first of three on the topic of 'Governance in family-controlled companies'. The second, which explores undue influence and the impact of family dynamic is available here. A final instalment, which will make suggestions to improve board effectiveness, will follow in late 2018. Boards wanting to discuss matters raised in these articles should get in touch directly to arrange a private briefing.
During the last month, I have had the privilege of working with four different boards and management groups, helping them wrestle with why the company they govern exists (its purpose, or reason for being) ahead of formulating strategy to pursue the agreed purpose. All four engagements have been invigorating, revealing many insights and much passion (and debate!) within the assembled groups.
However, three troubling signs became apparent amidst the boards' commitment to the cause. These signs, which are not uncommon, have the potential to stymie the quality of the resultant strategy and management's ability to implement the approved strategy. The following comments highlight the issues:
The temptation to embrace detail, confuse the roles of the board and management and shorten the view remain very real challenges for companies around the world. If boards are to fulfil their responsibilities well, a clear sense of purpose supported by a coherent strategy is vital—regardless of the company's size, sector or span of operations.
The great news is that increasing numbers of boards are starting to realise that material benefits are available if they contribute directly to both the process of determining purpose and formulating strategy. However, boards have some way to go before the value they have the potential of adding is actually realised, if the evidence of the past month is any indication.
One of the biggest corporate news stories to break in 2016 was the Wells Fargo 'fake accounts' scandal. Many commentators, including me, wrote op-eds. At the time, I wondered whether the company had lost sight of its corporate purpose (reason for being), or if greed and hubris had permeated the corporate culture. These were speculations based on partially formed publicly-available snippets of information. Thankfully, the company initiated a far-reaching review, to try to get to the root of the problem.
Now, six months after the scandal was uncovered, the post-scandal investigation is reportedly wrapping up. Hopefully, the underlying causes will be identified, and credible recommendations to restore customer and market confidence in this once-fine brand will be presented. I look forward to reading the report.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention.