Over the past eighteen months, many commentators, critics and self-styled experts around the world used the onset of the coronavirus pandemic to promote new ways of working; postulating that working from home is somehow better or more productive than working in a group setting (in an office or boardroom, for example). Zoom became a 'thing' (lockdowns being the catalyst, of course); Microsoft Teams, too. Proponents have suggested that the conduct of board meetings and annual meetings via video link (virtual meetings) saves time and money, and increases participation.
But, as the weeks and months have passed, the novelty of working separately has began to wear off. Stories of frustration have emerged, with widespread claims that decision quality and productivity has suffered. Staff and managers who once asserted the benefits of #WFH—even to the extent that people would not have to commute to office space any more—have gone quiet. Younger staff are pining to be together again; social magnetism at work.
And what of boards and their effectiveness? Can boards maintain high levels of productivity and decision quality when directors cannot meet together in person for extended periods? Might the availability of high quality video links and board portal software supplant the need to meet together in a boardroom?
In considering these questions, let's acknowledge that the board is a social group, and social groups work better when they are together. Not having to travel to a meeting is attractive to many, but proximity trumps distance in relationships, n'est-ce pas? Also, decisions are made the under tutelage of the board chair, following interaction to discover, discuss and debate. But body language, non-verbal cues and unspoken reservations are difficult to discern when on-line. What is more, the wider context within which the board and company operate is dynamic and generally complex, and ambiguity is prevalent, due to missing information.
If boards are to be effective (measured by the board providing steerage and guidance in pursuit of agreed company purpose; making smart decisions; holding management to account for execution; and, verifying progress towards agreed strategic goals), directors need to be on their game. For this, they need to be competent in role; be actively engaged (individually and collectively); know why they are there; understand the business of the business, the company's strategy and the strategic implications thereof (just one in six directors do); and, exercise control constructively—all of which is made easier if they meet together.
Do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences!
Tennis is a wonderful game; almost anyone can play. From schoolchildren to elite professional players, the sport is exhilarating; the excitement is often palpable.
One of the reasons tennis is attractive is that it is straightforward. The boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable play are, usually, well marked. The ball is served, and if is returned and bounces within the boundaries, play continues. If not, the score is adjusted and play is restarted with another serve. But, neither the net nor the lines play the game, players do; winning or losing is the result of two players (or four, if doubles) having played against each other within the playing space.
The distinction in tennis between the rules, the playing of the game, and the score at the end has strong parallels in governance.
Boards are charged with playing the game (that is, governing—providing steerage and guidance, in pursuit of an agreed goal) within the boundaries of various statutes, regulations and policies (the rules). The 'result' is company performance, which is usually reported in the annual report and any other reports to legitimate stakeholders. As with the distinction in tennis, neither the statutes or regulations, nor the annual report are the game. The 'game' is governance, and it is played by the board. Statutes and regulations are necessary, without doubt, but they are no more governance than rules are tennis.
Another facet of tennis is the player ranking table, which identifies comparisons between players at a population level. The very best players feature at the top; lesser players, further down. Positioning on the ranking table can be a source of motivation for players (to train harder, to embrace various tactics to improve their performance, for example), But position alone does not improve playing standards, player skill or on-court conduct.
And so it is with boards and governance. The position a company occupies on a ranking table (adherence to corporate governance standards or ESG metrics, for example) provides a comparative indication of how the company measures up against others. But that is all—to read in more is folly. The likelihood of ranking companies by corporate governance scores improving standards [compliance], for example, is about as tenuous as ranking tennis players improves player conduct. Why so? Standards and rules are thresholds; boundaries that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Tennis players wanting to improve their game focus on fitness, technique, strategy and tactics. Similarly, companies intent on improving performance need to focus their attention and efforts on purpose, strategy and execution.
News of Emmanuel Faber's dismissal as executive chairman of Danone, a French food conglomerate, has caused quite a stir. Mr Faber, a fervent proponent of stakeholder capitalism and ESG, had led the company for seven years. Since 2017, he has held both the chair and chief executive roles (a situation disfavoured by many investors, academics and advisors due to concentration of power risk). Though charismatic and influential, the record shows that company performance has languished under Mr Faber's leadership, and staff turnover increased too. Clearly, something was amiss.
Sustained pressure from activist investors, disgruntled by Danone's performance (relative to its competitors, over several years), finally elicited in a response. The Danone board decided to separate the chairman and chief executive roles; Faber would remain chairman of the board and a new chief executive would be recruited. But this attempt by Faber to placate the activists while also retaining power was received poorly. Faber was, in the eyes of the activists, a lead actor and, therefore, a big part of the problem. He had to go they thought. Realising this, the board ousted Faber.
Proponents of both stakeholder capitalism and shareholder capitalism have taken Faber's demise as an opportunity to come out from their respective corners to argue the merits of their favoured ideology. The purpose of this muse is not to add to that discourse; it is to consider another matter brought in to view by the case at hand: that of misalignment.
If a Chief Executive acts against the direction of the board (or without the board's knowledge), or if a board is disunited over a strategically important matter (purpose or strategy, especially), company performance (however measured) will inevitably suffer. Danone is a case in point.
Matters of misalignment, either amongst directors or between the board and chief executive, need to be resolved promptly. Similarly, if purpose and strategy are clear, coherent and agreed, but subsequent implementation is poor or ineffective (the saying–seeing gap), the board probably has a leadership problem. Attempts to satisfy all interests—appeasement—rarely achieve satisfactory or enduring outcomes, as Neville Chamberlain discovered in 1938–1939.
Directors need to be alert (individually and collectively, as a board); united in their resolve to pursue agreed goals; and, their tolerance for underperformance must be low. If the board is complacent in the face of misalignment or poor strategy execution, and it does not act, it becomes part of the problem. Sooner or later, shareholders will notice, and it is reasonable to expect they will act, to protect their investment.
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?
Did you know that every living creature on Earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend over its lifetime (yes, 2,000,000,000)? I never knew that until I read this article recently. Brian Doyle writes so well. He brings science to life. Of heartbeats, he writes:
"You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old".
This article set me thinking. How I should spend the rest of my two billion heartbeats? Part of my answer is to continue to help boards govern well. Another is to nurture important relationships.
As a leader, how will you spend the rest of your heartbeats? And what impact do you hope to have?
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 when circumstances change, or a crisis strikes?
Is it time your board took stock, not only of the company's strategy and business model, but of itself?
The professionalisation (sorry, a horrible word) of governance has been a topic of discussion for many years. Some directors, when describing what they do, prepend the adjective form of the word, to indicate their full-time paid work is a [company] director, and to indicate their commitment to 'professional' standards (the implication being that some are not). Others abhor such usage.
Many directors are diligent and highly engaged in their work. So why the felt need to professionalise? Studies of company and board failures reveal a consistent pattern of contributory factors, including hubris and overconfidence among directors; low levels of board-management transparency; lack of a critical attitude, genuine independence, appropriate expertise and relevant knowledge in the boardroom; and, tellingly, low levels of commitment by directors. Consequently, public confidence is mixed.
If the practice of governance is to become highly regarded, standards need to be lifted and applied. But can or should governance (that is, the practice of directing) be elevated to the status of 'profession', as medicine, law and accountancy are? And what, exactly, is a professional director? How is one different from an 'ordinary' director (or any other type of director)? What difference might professionalism make? Are better outcomes any more likely? In considering these questions, let's first define some terms:
Individuals wanting to become a medical doctor, for example, must first successfully complete several years of university-level training, after which they become a trainee intern, are provisionally registered and start to practice. A commitment to the Hippocratic oath is necessary. Doctors are also required to formally register with an approved institution, pass professional member- and fellow-level exams and complete approved professional development (on-going). Usually, a formal disciplinary process is available if an individual is found to have flouted professional standards. Law is similar, and accountancy too. On this measure, it's clear that doctors (and lawyers and accountants) are professionals; stakeholders (patients, clients) can have confidence in their work.
But what of directors and governance? Two observations are relevant. First, almost anyone can become a director, and do so with no training! In most jurisdictions, any person over a specified age (18 years old in New Zealand), who is not an undischarged bankrupt nor is before the courts, may become a director. That's it! There is no mandatory training requirement, nor is membership of a professional body or ongoing professional development necessary. Second, many directors' institutions around the world have, over the past few decades, sought to promote governance as a profession. Their good work has resulted in charters being established, and members being invited to commit to ongoing professional development and to operate in accordance with a code of ethics. But these well-intended efforts have been met with mixed success to date. Optionality seems to be part of the problem. Variable quality training programmes, and ambiguity around the primary purpose of the institution appear to have been contributing factors too.
If governance is to become recognised as a profession, as many have argued is needed, minimum standards need to be instituted, and optionality withdrawn. Prospective directors should be required to complete approved (formal) training and pass exams; serve as an intern; gain (and maintain) formal membership of an approved institution; and commit to continuing professional development. Flawed understandings of the role of the director and what corporate governance is and how it should be practiced need to be corrected too, and the power games, hubris and ineptitude apparent in some boardrooms rectified.
But, in the end, the question of professionalising governance remains contentious. Some experienced directors don't see the need, believing they are competent. Others don't want to be scrutinised. And some directors and observers continue to argue fervently in favour, because they think the likelihood of better outcomes should be much higher.
What do you think?
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):
The unexpected outbreak and spread of Covid-19 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 work through these and other related questions, careful judgement (wisdom and maturity) is needed, to both balance competing interests (resourcing the crisis versus 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.
To suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is the news story of the year is, as they say, a bit of an understatement. And it is easy to understand why. The personal, community and economic impact has been dramatic. Many thousands of people have died; untold millions have lost their jobs or soon will; community life has been put on hold; and economic activity has, largely, ground to a halt.
As of today (14 April), nearly 2,000,000 people are known to have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The actual number is unknown, but it will be far greater, without doubt. About 120,000 deaths have been linked to the virus as well—although most were due to co-morbidities. Only a small portion of the reported fatalities were directly due to COVID-19 (data from Italy suggests 12 per cent).
Understandably, most of the reportage has concentrated on the headline numbers, decisions by politicians, and the public health response. But personal stories have featured too. As you would expect, partisan biases are also on display: Trump has been slammed and Ardern lauded.
Despite the seemingly strong alignment apparent across the reportage, the picture being painted is far from complete (the situation is still developing, after all), and it may not be accurate either. Underlying data may be misunderstood, misinterpreted or missing. Yet decisions need to be made, and decisions have consequences, just as sticks have two ends.
The challenge for politicians is no different from that boards of directors face all the time. The best and most effective boards are those who seek counsel from a diverse range of perspectives (including competing options) before they make a decision.
This article, positioned prominently on the front page of the Dominion Post today, highlights the emerging situation in New Zealand and the challenge for political decision-makers. It is well worth reading, as much for the language used as the story itself. The first sentence in the print edition read, "A group of public health experts has broken ranks on the Government's lockdown strategy ...". (The online edition was subsequently edited, at 8.28am, to read, "A group of public health experts has challenged the Government's public health strategy ...".) The cited experts argue that, with the border secure, various restrictions in place can (should) be relaxed, to enable people to return to a level of normalcy. This view is at odds with the advice the government seems to be relying on, but it remains valid as an option nonetheless and, therefore, merits consideration.
Whether the government decides to balance the best interests of the economy and society, or to hold tightly to the current course, should become clear soon. Regardless, its decisions will have consequences, just as every stick has two ends. Politicians, as boards of directors, ignore this truism at their peril.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.