The 11th European Conference on Management, Leadership and Governance (ECMLG) got underway this morning, at the Military Academy in Lisbon, Portugal. Nearly 90 researchers, from 28 countries have assembled to present their research and debate emergent ideas and models.
The overall theme of the conference was set by Colonel Nuno Lemos Pires when he delivered the opening keynote address From Leaders to Commanders. His talk provided some interesting contrasts between leadership in a civilian context and a military context:
Notwithstanding these contrasts and tensions, Pires then described several attributes of effective military leadership that appear to be applicable in the civilian context:
Leadership is a complex topic. In drawing both contrasts and parallels, including a direct challenge of the 'command and control' perception of military leadership, Pires set the scene well set for an interesting two days ahead.
Are you interested in emerging research on boards and corporate governance, and its practical application in boardrooms? If so, two upcoming conferences may appeal (I will be speaking at both of them):
Session summaries will be posted here, so check back later in the week for update, and then again in a couple of weeks time, on 12–13 November. Please let me know if you are interested in a particular paper or session: I will do my best to attend and report on it for you.
News that Volkswagen AG has been systematically pulling the wool over the eyes of its customers, regulators and the stock market has resulted in a predictable and rightful backlash this week. The stock price has plummeted, the brand reputation is in tatters and the chief executive is gone (albeit with a stellar severance package and not before attempting to deflect blame towards others).
The crisis raises all manner of issues, and many different levels. That the board apparently knew nothing of the problem is a bitter pill to swallow. Why not? Was the board asleep at the wheel, or was something else amiss? That it then made all manner of comments heightened the concern.
Once the emission cloud settles and people gather to understand the root cause, the folk at Volkswagen could do far worse than to look in the mirror—and specifically at how corporate governance is practised. That the two-layer board structure lacked knowledge suggests either ignorance (the board was asleep) or collusion. Neither option covers the boards in glory.
Might this sad case take us closer to a tipping point, of finally admitting the extant conception of corporate governance (a compliance framework of processes and controls, predominantly) is conducive to neither long-term business performance nor value creation? And, if so, will action be taken to embrace new conceptions of corporate governance, board practice and value creation? For the good of all stakeholders and society more generally, I hope the answer is yes.
Are you troubled by the Volkswagen experience? If you want to explore new conceptions of corporate governance that are informed by robust research and real-world experience, and test their applicability in your boardroom, please get in touch. I stand ready to help.
In November 1787, George Washington offered this advice in a letter to his nephew Bushrod:
“Rise but seldom—let this be on important matters—and then make yourself thoroughly acquainted with the subject. Never be agitated by more than a decent warmth, & offer your sentiments with modest diffidence—opinions thus given, are listened to with more attention than when delivered in a dictatorial stile. The latter, if attended to at all, although they may force conviction, is sure to convey disgust also.”
What profound advice. Could it still be relevant in the always-on and rather selfish culture that has pervaded the twenty-first century? We live in a world infested by sound-bites in search of ears. Sadly, many offer little more than noise. The paucity of in-depth or critical thought is stark, yet we continue on—often blindly—in pursuit of change.
If real progress is to be made to effect change, whether it be in the halls of power, boardrooms, executive suites or on the factory floor, might a 'rise but seldom' philosophy offer more hope than the prevailing sound-bite culture? On Washington's example, the answer could be 'yes'.
If any of these questions triggered a thought in your mind, then perhaps we should talk. I will be in the UK in 1–11 September (for speaking engagements including the results of my latest research). If you would like to learn more about board practice, corporate governance, strategy and value creation, please get in touch so we can schedule a discussion. I'd be glad to learn about your business and understand how I can help.
The topic of gender diversity on boards has received a lot attention in recent years. Researchers, interest groups and the media have chased various agendas. Much has been written and many claims have been made. However, compelling conclusions remain elusive. The topic received more attention during the first session of the second day of the International Governance Workshop in Barcelona.
Three speakers presented the results of their research, conducted in the Polish and Spanish contexts. The studies explored variations on the theme of the impact of women on various financial and non-financial measures. All of the studies were quantitative analyses, conducted using publicly available data and statistical techniques. I have been critical of the use of such techniques for social research in the past. Reductivist approaches rarely provide insight beyond straightforward correlations. Sadly, I heard nothing to suggest otherwise in these talks.
The challenge for board research is to move beyond the 'big three' assumptions--ontological reductionism, that a single objective reality might exist, and that a constant conjunction between variables constitutes a causal explanation—are inapplicable to board research, because boards and the context within which they exist, companies, are social constructions. Rather, the more demanding route, of qualitative research that explores boards in situ is more likely to reveal explanations that shareholders and director nomination committees can rely on.
I remain convinced that women and people from a diverse range of background affect board practice. However, simple empirical research is not the appropriate pathway to understand and explain whether this is correct is not. More subtle approaches, that consider the context and behavioural nuances of individual directors appears to be crucial.
A team of researchers from Spain, France and New Zealand have been collaborating on an interesting project: one of understanding how board roles and contributions change in different firm circumstances. Khlif, Karoui and Ingley have identified five 'roles' that appear to emerge as firm circumstances change in two dimensions, as follows:
The difference in the way the boards work (in terms of performing control, service, strategy and mediating tasks) appears to vary quite markedly when the difference between ownership and directorship is high (the directors are not owners), and when the difference between ownership and management is high (the managers and directors are not the same people).
The paper offered some interesting insights relating to the emergence of corporate governance as a system within SMEs, and highlighted the need for a holistic, integrated consideration of board roles and board research, one that takes the company objectives and configuration into account. The research, to understand what this insight might actually mean is continuing apace.
The second International Governance Workshop got underway at Toulouse Business School, Barcelona Campus on Thursday 11 June 2015. Professor Morten Huse, an esteemed corporate governance scholar from Norway, provided the opening day keynote. Huse has been studying boards for a long time—the mid 1970s—so when he speaks, people tend to listen. Here's four of the points from his talk:
Huse's talk set the scene for a lively debate through the balance of the conference. It will be very interesting to see how this develops.
The annual International Governance Workshop, hosted by the Toulouse Business School, starts tomorrow in Barcelona. Although only in its second year, this conference is an important gathering because it has attracted many of the world's leading corporate governance and board researchers. To be in the same room as these people, to hear them present and debate the results of emergent research is truly an honour. In contrast to the scale of the ICGN annual conference, the IGW is more intimate and more focussed. However, the programme of topics to be explored is no less significant.
Session summaries will be posted here, as usual, so you can keep up to date. My paper will be delivered on Thursday afternoon.
Martin Wolf CBE, Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times, delivered a rousing keynote talk to wrap up the final day of the ICGN annual conference. After observing that the limited liability, joint-owned corporation had been the cause and consequence of almost all economic activity over the last two hundred years, Wolf posed and commented on four questions. He qualified his comments by saying that he expected they might raise some profound questions. Indeed, some of Wolf's comments were controversial—the evidence being the questions asked by some members of the audience after he finished speaking.
What is a limited liability corporation? They are a semi-permanent entity designed to outlast small-medium enterprises (because founders retire—the corner store conundrum) and markets, and they are a construct for the consolidation of relational and implicit contracts. Their genius is the importation of older hierarchical forms (to get things done) into the market system. With scale comes efficiency, endurance and effectiveness (but not always!).
What is their purpose? The apparent purpose of the LLC is to generate economic value. However, this is insufficient. Wolf asserted that LLCs should also pursue a wider remit, by seeking to 'add value' in social terms (through the provision of payments for services rendered—wages and salaries—for example).
What is their operational goal? The oft-quoted goal, of maximising shareholder returns, is far too simplistic, according to Wolf. It is selfish and can only lead to failure elsewhere in society. Rather, the operational goal of LLCs needs to include ethical constraints to protect all participants and in so doing ensure the good of society (at no point did Wolf pursue or even imply any form of Marxist agenda).
Who should control them? Economically, shareholders bear residual risks following corporate activity and, therefore, shareholders should possess control rights. Wolf challenged this commonly-held view as folly because shareholders are unable to exert full control over the affairs of the corporation. Managers may manipulate the affairs of the company, sometimes to the detriment of shareholders and other stakeholders. Short-term incentives, implemented to motivate managers towards the maximisation of shareholder returns, rarely position the company for longer-term success.
Wolf concluded by saying that LLCs are a wonderful construct. However, he went on to say that the two associated doctrines (of shareholder control and value maximisation) are unhelpful because they are too short-sighted. He told the shareholders in the room that "it is in your interest not to control the corporation completely". Other parties—large bondholders, for example—also bear residual risks. Why would they not have decision rights?
Wolf's comments were demonstrably controversial (amongst some of the audience at least). However, the poor reputation of big business amongst the general populace suggest Wolf's comments might be closer to the 'truth' than what many in the audience might care to admit.
Wolf closed with this demanding challenge: A better approach might be "to let a hundred flowers bloom", so that the best [control] model might rise up and be applied for a given situation—the beneficiary being society at large.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.