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.
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.
The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has shaken communities and commercial activity around the world, to the very core. Since late February, strict restrictions on human movement both between countries and, now, within communities have been imposed, in the hope of containing the virus and, in one case, of eradicating it. The scale of the impact on lives, social structures and economic activity has yet to be measured, but it will be large, I suspect. The scars will remain tender for some time in many cases.
Unsurprisingly, many people have been inventive in response to the situation they now find themselves in. Neighbours are meeting at a distance, and internet traffic has grown exponentially as people have taken up online entertainment options and relied heavily on social media to keep in touch with each other. All of this is to be expected; humans are social beings, after all.
The vacuum left from the pausing of economic activity has been filled by creative thinkers and opportunists offering all manner of webinars, 'best practice' check lists and other forms of guidance to help individuals, groups and businesses reconfigure their lives and businesses. The Internet is now awash with them. Some are well-informed and helpful, but most of the ones I've seen are little more than attention-seeking noise.
My own work patterns have changed too, mainly as a result of the restrictions on movement now in place. These include using electronic communications tools such as video conferencing in place of in-person board, coaching and other client meetings; and the telephone and email to keep in touch with colleagues and clients. The following points summarise my experiences as I have sought to govern at distance this past month:
One final point. These are my experiences. Some may be familiar, others less so. Regardless, if you have any questions or comments, please get in touch. If you are prepared to add your experiences, as similar or different as they may be, I'd be delighted to hear them and am sure others would be too. Please leave a reply below.
Information (and mis-information) about the spread of COVID-19 around the world is clogging our airwaves, inboxes and social media feeds as quickly as the virus itself is spreading. But amongst it all, there are some things we can hold as self-evident. Many people are suffering, some are dying. New phrases are entering the lexicon, such as, social distancing (should be physical distancing, I think) and self isolation. Governments are responding with a variety of controls to limit movement. Borders have been closed, and lockdowns are being imposed in some areas. Airlines have reduced capacity, grounding fleets. Many businesses, especially SMEs, are in turmoil. People are on edge—lives have been put on hold.
While COVID-19 has spooked many people, not to mention the stock markets and wider economy, life must go on—and it will, albeit with some adjustments, of course.
The challenge for those who direct the affairs of companies—boards—is one of governing well in the face of what is, patently, a very different environment from that which existed even two weeks ago.
Businesses face continuity and safety risks every day. Routinely, staff and managers spot, assess, prioritise and respond to operational risks every day; that is their job. But when risks have strategic implications (i.e., an occurrence is likely to have a major effect on strategy execution, future business success or even company viability), the board must become involved. COVID-19 is one such risk. The board needs to understand the potential short- and longer-term impact (using information from credible sources and tools such as scenario planning, for example), consider various options and make informed decisions.
Some practical questions that the board may wish to consider include:
One final point. COVID-19 is no longer a strategic risk. It is upon us. Boards everywhere need to deal with it as well as they can, given the most reliable information available, with the best interests of the company to the fore. That means providing close support to management; more so if big decisions are needed, such as releasing staff or partial closures. However, and most importantly, boards should not panic. Neither should the board react to suggestions being advanced by some that an event such as the COVID-19 outbreak should be seen as a catalyst to redefine corporate governance. Corporate governance remains corporate governance—the means by which the company is directed and controlled. What might be appropriate though is a review, to consider how the board practices corporate governance. But that should wait until the current crisis in in hand. Fix the problem first, then learn from it.
A kerfuffle has broken out on the East Coast of the US, between Lucian Bebchuk, an esteemed professor at Harvard University, and Martin Lipton, partner at New York law firm Wachell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Specifically, Lipton has mounted a strong attack on an article published by Bebchuk (a critical examination of 'stakeholder governance'). That Lipton has objected should not be surprising. After all, he is a lawyer with vested interests and he has a long record of promoting stakeholder governance.
This is what Bebchuk asserted:
Stakeholderism, we demonstrate, would not benefit stakeholders as its supporters claim. To examine the expected consequences of stakeholderism, we analyze the incentives of corporate leaders, empirically investigate whether they have in the past used their discretion to protect stakeholders, and examine whether recent commitments to adopt stakeholderism can be expected to bring about a meaningful change. Our analysis concludes that acceptance of stakeholderism should not be expected to make stakeholders better off.
Lipton's counter to these assertions was strident:
We reject Professor Bebchuk's economic, empirical and conceptual arguments. They are ill-conceived and ignore real-world challenges companies and directors face today.
This debate exposes something awkward—that when partisans announce their views people react, especially if they denounce other perspectives. This tactic may well pique interest and sell column inches, but it rarely results in viable outcomes that can be sustained over time.
My own research, and experience both as an advisor and serving company director, suggests that either-or argumentation, a characteristic of determinism, is deeply flawed. To pursue profit as an exclusive goal inevitably results in selfishness and inequity. Similarly, the pursuit of priorities espoused by ESG proponents introduces a another, and not insignificant, risk—of exposing the companies and the economy more generally to an 'Icarus moment'.
Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, summed things up well in his January 2019 letter:
Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose—in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked. Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time—not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities. Similarly, when a company truly understands andexpresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability. Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behaviour and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders.
Fink's position highlights that a balanced perspective is probably 'best'. But how might it be achieved? The pathway may be hiding in plain sight. If the board is to fulfil its duty to ensure value is created over time, it needs to look well beyond selfish interests and motivations. This means considering the wider context within which the company operates, creating a viable strategy, determining appropriate 'performance' measures and only then governing accordingly.
Bebchuk was brave to call out the messianic assertions of the stakeholder capitalism camp. Perhaps Lipton might take stock, and meet with Bebchuk—the purpose being to explore the nuances of each other's views, in search of a more balanced understanding of the purpose of companies and role of the board.
Dave Rennie, a rugby coach from New Zealand, has just been appointed as coach of the Australian national team, the Wallabies. This appointment has raised eyebrows, not only because of the passport the appointee carries, but because of the appointment process.
It turns out the Rugby Australia had been speaking with Rennie for six months prior to the appointment being announced. Superficially, this appears to have been a smart move on Rugby Australia's part; a succession planning exemplar. But was it, or was it an act of disloyalty against the incumbent, Michael Cheika? The incumbent only made his intentions clear during rugby's showpiece, the Rugby World Cup, vowing to resign if the Wallabies did not win the William Webb Ellis Cup. Cheika and Raelene Castle, chief executive of Rugby Australia, were hardly the best of buddies, for sure. But when does strength in leadership (Castle has form) cross the line, becoming bullying?
This case exposes an interesting dilemma for boards of directors. When does the board's duty of loyalty to the incumbent chief executive cease? Is it reasonable, for example, to publicly support the incumbent while also scheming in the shadows to replace him or her? If the board finds itself in a position of lacking confidence in the chief executive (regardless of the reason), it owes a moral duty to both the chief executive and the organisation for which it is responsible to act both swiftly and with integrity. Rugby Australia appears to have done neither. While Castle probably operated within the law (she is on record as saying that formal contract negotiations did not take place until after the Rugby World Cup), the moral high ground was forfeited long ago. And that, sadly, places both Castle and the Rugby Australia in a rather awkward position.
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?
ESG (environmental, social, governance), an indicator and measure of corporate priorities and performance, has become topical in business circles, very topical. Its emergence has coincided with a rising tide of concerns about the effects of the doctrine of shareholder maximisation, as espoused by Milton Friedman some fifty years ago. A bevy of academics, consultants and politicians have responded by jumping on a bandwagon; much has been written, arguments abound. The objective of much of this rhetoric seems to have been to establish a counterbalance to perceived excesses of capitalism (because capitalism is evil, apparently).
The idea of using a range of financial and non-financial measures to assess company performance is not new. It was normal practice until the early 1970s. But things began to change relatively quickly after Friedman's thesis was published. A broad church of managers, boards, shareholders and activists embraced the thesis (with evangelical zeal in some cases) to justify a primary, even exclusive, focus on profit maximisation. And with it, interest in other (non-financial) indicators of corporate performance waned—until the emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and, more recently, ESG.
ESG has gained an enthusiastic following. Many proponents have argued that the widespread adoption of ESG principles could redress some of the imbalances and inequities that have become apparent in recent decades. Is that reasonable? Is ESG all it is cracked up to be?
Drucker's insight is salient (what gets measured gets managed), but the use of ESG as an appropriate measure of corporate performance doesn't sit that comfortably with me. Two things stand in the way:
If ESG contains such flaws, what other options might provide a better (more complete) indication of enduring company performance?
SEE (social, economic, environmental) merits close consideration. It reinstates the economic dimension to its rightful place, alongside the social and environmental dimensions. Thus, the three capitals that fuel sustained business performance, economic growth and societal well-being are re-united. If a company is to thrive over time (read: achieve and sustain high levels of performance, however measured), all three capitals need to be measured, managed and protected, as Christopher Luxon so ably asserted, in 2015.
And what of 'G'? Rightly understood, governance is about providing steerage and guidance (a lesson dating from the Greeks), the means by which companies are directed and controlled (hat tip to Sir Adrian Cadbury). As such, governance is a function performed—not a consequential outcome or result—and Drucker's maxim should be applied.
So, to the courageous question: has the time to SEE beyond ESG arrived? I think so.
In 2014, I observed that aspects of corporate governance and board work had not changed much in 25 years. Having just re-read the book that informed that conclusion (Making it Happen, by John Harvey-Jones), I've been reflecting on the relevance of the author's comments in today's world, especially ruminations on board effectiveness and three defining hallmarks of a successful director:
Are these hallmarks still applicable in today's fast-paced, technically-savvy world?
Some commentators assert that board effectiveness is the result of compliance with corporate governance codes and various structural forms. Others, including me, place a heavier emphasis on the capabilities and behaviours of directors on the basis that the board is a social group: men and women who need to work together. (That is not to say compliance is inappropriate. It is necessary but it is not sufficient.)
Today marks the beginning of a lull following a busy programme of international and domestic commitments since early February. Over a 110-day period, I have spent time in Australia (four times), England (twice), the US (twice), Germany (twice), Ireland, Sweden and Lithuania—and at home in New Zealand; interacting with over 520 directors, chairs and chief executives from 19 countries. Formal and informal discussions at conferences, seminars, masterclass sessions, education workshops, dinners, advisory engagements and board meetings were instructive to understanding what's currently top-of-mind for boards around the world. The following notes are a brief summation of my observations. I hope you find them useful.
Diversity and inclusion: These topics continue to dominate governance discussions in many countries. But, and noticeably, the discourse has matured somewhat over the last six months. The frequency with which the rather blunt (and often politically-motivated) instruments of gender and quota is mentioned is starting to subside, as directors and nomination committees start to realise the importance of diverse perspectives and options to inform strategic thinking and strategising. Long may this continue, as board effectiveness is dependent on what boards do, not what they look like.
Big data and AI: What a hot topic! Globally, boards are being encouraged by, inter alia, futurists, academics and consultants to get on board (if you'll excuse the pun) with the promise that developments in this area will change the face of decision-making and improve corporate governance. Some assert that these developments will obviate the need for board of directors in just a few years. The directors I spoke with agree that these tools can help managers make sense of complex data to produce information, even knowledge. But these same directors have significant reservations when it comes to strategic decision-making. Automated systems are poor substitutes for humans when it comes to making sense of (even recognising) contextual nuances, non-verbal cues and other subtleties. Unless and until this changes, the likelihood that boards will continue to be comprised of real people engaged in meaningful discussion remains high.
Corporate governance codes: The number of corporate governance codes introduced in markets has been steadily rising over the last decade. Most western nations, and a growing number of Asian and developing nations, have implemented codes to supplement statutory arrangements. Many directors and institutions around the world continue to look to proclamations that the UK is the vanguard when it comes to corporate governance thinking and related guidance: the recently-updated UK corporate governance and stewardship codes are held up as evidence of good practice. While the quality of board work in the UK has improved over the last decade, a strong compliance focus continues the pervade director thinking—across the business community in the UK and beyond. The reason is stark: codes are little more than rulebooks. Further, rules don't drive performance, they define boundaries. The more time boards spend either complying with the rules or finding ways to get around them, the less time is left for what actually matters, company performance. In many discussions over the past few months, I've pointed people to the ground-breaking work of contributors such as Bob Tricker, Sir Adrian Cadbury and Bob Garratt. These doyens provided much-needed impetus to help boards understand their responsibility for company performance. The emergent opportunity for regulators and directors' institutions is to consider alternative responses to ineptitude and malfeasance: instead of creating more rules all the time, why not hold boards to account to the existing statutes, most of which seem to be eminently suitable?
Best practice: Many individual directors (and boards collectively) are starting to move beyond 'best practice' as an aspirational goal. Further, directors and boards are demanding to hear educators and thinkers who are also practicing directors, not trainers delivering off-the-shelf courses. Context is everything. The evidence? When a director asks to explore the difference between theory and practice you know something in his prior experience has missed the mark. Practising directors know that the board is a complex and socially-dynamic entity, and that the operational environment is far from static. Directors' institutes, consulting firms and trainers need to stake stock and move beyond definitive 'best practice' claims, lest they be left behind and become monuments to irrelevance. Enough said.
Governance remains a fashionable topic: If I had a dollar every time I've heard 'governance' promoted as a career in recent months, or the term used in discussions (including, sadly, often inappropriately), I would be really well off. But the act of invoking a term during a discussion is no panacea to whatever situation is being discussed. More capable directors are needed to contribute to the effective governance of enterprises, of that I am sure. But the established pattern of selecting directors from a pool of seemingly successful executives—as if a reward—is folly. The findings from a growing number of failure studies from around the world attest to this. The role of a director is quite different from that of a manager or executive. Managers and executives have hierarchical authority and decisions are made by individuals. In contrast, directors lead by influence and decisions are always collective. The challenge for those aspiring to receive a board appointment is to set their managerial mindset aside, to enable a more strategic mindset and commitment to the tenet of collective responsibility to emerge.
Standing back from these interactions, the board landscape seems troubled. But I remain hopeful. Progress is being made (albeit more slowly than many would wish) and a pattern is slowly emerging. Increasing numbers of directors are acknowledging that the board's primary role is to ensure performance goals are achieved, and that the appropriate motivation for effective boardroom contributions is service, not self.
The challenge is to press on. If the number of requests from those wanting to understand what capabilities are needed in directors, what boards need to do before and during board meetings, and desirable behavioural characteristics is any indication, boards are getting more serious about making a difference—and that points to a brighter future. If a tipping point can be reached, arguments centred on board structure and composition that have dominated the discourse can be consigned to their rightful place: history. I look forward to that day.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.