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!
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.
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’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.
When aiming to achieve something in business, is it better to be good, or effective, or both? Should boards for example pursue good governance, or prioritise effectiveness? And, are these qualifiers mutually exclusive, or can a board claim both? These 'challenge' questions have beset contemporary boards of directors, more so as various stakeholders have sought to impose their expectations and ideological preferences onto corporate values, purpose, strategy and decision making.
If these questions are to be considered and answered well, agreement on the meaning of the adjectives is necessary. To wit:
Instinctively, good governance sounds attractive. It satisfies a human condition; of doing the right thing and acting in the best interests of someone else (a particular stakeholder interest, for example). But what if doing the right thing has the effect of compromising the competitive position of the company; the achievement of agreed performance objectives; or, potentially, the viability of the company? And, what might be considered good by one person or group may not be upheld elsewhere. Turning to effectiveness, the threshold is more objective—either the goal is achieved or it is not. But, what if the pursuit of an agreed objective results in environmental or social harm, or some other negative consequence? That is not acceptable either.
Given the extremes, some sort of balance is needed, in the same way that every board must ensure conformance requirements are satisfied (compliance, value protection) and performance objectives are achieved (value creation). If this is reasonable, should a different adjective be used, to more adequately describe the value of the board's work?
My recommendation: drop goodness and effectiveness, for one (at least) is highly subjective and has become emotively charged (think, what ESG has become), and the other focuses more on the goal without necessarily considering unintended consequences. Ultimately, in extremis, neither is sustainable without the other. Instead, boards should pursue enduring impact.
Boards that strive to be effective in role without incurring social or environmental harms are more likely to exert a positive and enduring influence beyond the boardroom (that is, have impact). As a result, they should be well-regarded by shareholders and legitimate stakeholders as well. The Strategic Governance Framework offers insights to boards intent on realising the full potential of the companies they govern.
And with little more than a blink, January 2023 is, nearly, done. January is, for me, a time to relax, reflect on the year past, spend time with family and friends, read and get ready for what lies ahead.
In the last ten days, things have started to ramp up again: international calls, my first board meeting for the year, and local enquiries—all indicators that minds are turning to board work and the pursuit of sustainable performance once more. Soon, I shall be travelling again too, in response to requests to discuss corporate governance, board work, and the role of the board in realising organisational potential.
After a good break, I not only feel ready for what lies ahead, but excited at the opportunity to help boards and directors, academics and regulators grapple with some complex issues. The first three trips for the year are scheduled, as below—and planning is already underway for several more in the months to come.
While events and engagements are being loaded into the diary daily, some gaps remain, mainly in Singapore and England. So, if you want to take advantage of me being in your neighbourhood, best to get in touch soon! If you want to talk or meet, but the timing doesn't suit, let me know anyway—there will be opportunities later in the year.
The claim, that a picture is worth a thousand words, is widely known. Pictures are valuable because they capture one's attention, often evoking memories of significant or special events (as real of imaginary as they may be), or of possibilities. Indeed, the phrases 'every picture tells a story' and 'the picture tells the story' encapsulate the essence of pictures—they tell stories. But visual images are not the only means of stimulation and sharing ideas. Words are important too, especially when the ideas they convey are presented as a story.
Over the seasonal break, I have been delving into a selection of books, in search of stories and ideas. The very practice of reading is, I find, a powerful enabler—to provoke, gain insight, form opinions, and learn and build knowledge about all manner of things. I have also gone back through the Musings archives and re-read many older posts. Several that piqued my attention were re-posted on LinkedIn (check my feed) to share with a new generation of readers. To my great surprise, many of these re-posts garnered considerable attention and engagement. That some ideas continue to be relevant is gratifying. Thank you to readers who have engaged with those posts.
Notice the mechanism at play: hearts and minds are captured through 'story'. Pictures and words are important without doubt, but they are, simply, delivery channels: two of four mechanisms (the others being aural and kinesthetic (experiential)—together, VARK) to communicate the message.
Information and its effective delivery is crucial in organisations too; board work in particular. In such situations, stories can be incredibly influential for informed decision-making, a precursor of all that follows:
As managers and directors, the way we present and consume written reports, and ask and answers questions, is material to informed decision-making. Ultimately, the board's provision of effective steerage and guidance to achieve the organisation's strategic goals depends on it. Such is the craft of board work. With this in mind, what refinements might you consider to lift your game in 2023, and lift the effectiveness of your board?
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.
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.