Over the last few months, I have re-read quite a few books and articles about models of governance, to see how my doctoral research might build on the suggestions of earlier contributors. Many years ago my father taught me that building on the work of others is smart, but only when the prior work is solid—a stable foundation being crucial to anything that follows.
The "Learning Board", developed and suggested by Bob Garratt nearly twenty years ago, is one of the models that has captured my attention. Garratt published his suggestions in a profoundly titled book The Fish Rots from the Head (3rd edition). Garratt highlights four key tasks of directors within the context of a board's lifecycle:
He suggests that boards need to balance four intellectual viewpoints simultaneously in order to achieve the four key tasks. When they do, overall effectiveness can be enhanced.
I found this to be very helpful, because it provides a useful context for my work (an investigation of how boards can influence company performance, and the influence of strategic decision-making). Regardless of my efforts though, I commend Garratt's book to aspiring and established directors. It's easy to read, and logical in its approach to the topic.
I read two straight talking articles this week that provided welcome relief from the rather superficial and politically correct reporting that seems to dominate newspapers like the Dominion Post these days:
Thank you for Messrs Morgan, Guthrie and du Fresne for your forthright articles which, I suspect, reflect the views of the majority of New Zealanders. The time for the silent majority to push back on those self-indulgent folk who make an art-form of political correctness and living off the state is upon us.
The production of silver bullets—panaceas—is a growth industry. New books, all claiming to contain "the" answer, appear in the bookstores almost daily. Sadly, many are far more self-indulgent than helpful to the reader. Yet we lap them up, as we search for ways to be more effective in our professional and personal lives.
I've become a bit jaundiced by the self-help gravy-train of late, however one of the books from my summer reading list has restored my faith somewhat: History Lessons: what business and management can learn from the great leaders of history. Jonathan Gifford, the author, asserts that there is no one model leadership model or kind of leader that can hope to be effective in all situations. Leadership is a complex phenomenon, and different attributes need to come to the fore in different situations. What a breath of fresh air.
Gifford identifies eight skills and abilities that represent many of the essential things that any leader should be able to do and—ideally—be good at. He uses great leaders from history (not all of whom will be well known in the Western world) to illustrate his points.
The book is easy to read. I commend it as a great investment, to aspiring and established leaders. But be warmed: it will make you think about your current leadership situation.
I had a fantastic meeting with my PhD supervisor earlier this week, to review my approach to the research methodology chapter of my thesis. When we stopped for some lunch and a walk outside, James showed me two articles from the 19 October 2013 issue of The Economist. They blew my mind. Entitled How science goes wrong and Trouble at the lab, the articles outlined how much of the so-called scientific research conducted by academics is actually a load of rubbish. For example:
The examples and supporting narrative floored me—it was sobering reading. The points about how research is conducted, how research articles are reviewed and, most importantly, how research is funded (the funding mechanisms drives the behaviours) were enlightening. The lingering question in my mind, having dwelt on these articles over the last two days, is this: just what research can we accept then? The answer probably lies in the maxim recorded in the first sentence of the 'goes wrong' article: 'trust, but verify'.
The exercise was a timely and helpful wakeup call for my own efforts, to ensure my work is 'good science'. Thank you James.
I had a wonderful Christmas Day yesterday with my family: giving and receiving gifts, eating together, telling stories and relaxing. This year, I was blessed to receive three books (I'd sent some signals), and no e-anything! I have come to really enjoy reading for pleasure in recent years, as a diversion from the copious volume of journal articles and books that I have to deal with for my research. The books I received as gifts are:
I am seriously tempted to start reading these straight away, but two books currently on loan from the local library need to take priority:
In case you are wondering whether I am a glutton for punishment, I also have two books on order from Amazon:
Given the rate at which I read, these books are likely to keep me gainfully occupied well into Autumn! Do you read? If so, what titles are you currently enjoying?
Every now and again, an article lifts itself above the many that I read each day to capture my attention. This one is one of those. It is short, easy to read and, crucially, on the money.
The task of exposing the twelfth and last page of my desk calendar, in a couple of days' time, signals the arrival of the Christmas season in our household. As happens each year, my mind moves to the prospect of spending time with family and friends; to BBQs; to warm weather (as happens when one lives in the Southern Hemisphere); and, to the books that I'd like to read over the holiday period. This year, there are just three titles on my list. Hopefully one or more of them finds their way under the Christmas tree later in the month!
The Victorian City, by Judith Flanders.
Flanders has written several books about Victorian London, none of which I've read. This particular title caught my eye when I was browsing in a local book store, perhaps as a result of my heightened awareness of the great city following my recent visit there.
The Men who United the States, by Simon Winchester.
Winchester ranks amongst my favourite story-telling authors. I've enjoyed The Surgeon of Crowthorne, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and The River at the Centre of the World in the past. If this new title is comparable, then I suspect that I'm in for a treat.
Strategy: A History, by Lawrence Freedman.
This newly published title has received critical acclaim from several well-regarded reviewers. It offers an expansive view of strategy and strategic thinking, from ancient military strategists (Achilles, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli) to modern business strategists (Drucker, Sloan). At 768 pages, I may take a while to get through this one!
A somewhat satirical opinion piece, written by Joe Bennett, caught my eye this morning. As I read it, over my morning coffee, I smiled, for the opinion piece is very well written. But afterwards, as I sipped on my coffee again, I winced, for the images conjured in Bennett's mind and exposed through prose, cut a little closer to the bone than many who are au fait with boards and governance would care to admit.
Most of the directors that I know, and boards that I am familiar with, work hard, as they seek to optimise business performance and build shareholder value. They read their board papers carefully and critically before meetings, prepare well and ask searching questions. They also spend time understanding the business of the business, so they can contribute meaningfully to strategic discussions, and make informed decisions about the strategic future of the business. In other words, they engage actively in the process of governance.
However, some (perhaps the majority?) directors and boards still don't engage in this way. They adopt a more passive modus operandi of monitoring past performance. They spend little, if any, time considering strategic options and marking out the future of the business. In extreme cases, they behave as Bennett suggests. Sadly, the self-serving, fat cat imagery described by Bennett will remain part of the psyche—for as long as it continues to describe how some boards behave at least. I long for the day that such imagery becomes folklore, of the way things used to be, but no longer are.
Universities provide ideal conditions within which eccentric personalities—learned but oft socially-challenged individuals with a tenuous connection with the real world—tend to congregate. The article Academic Tumbleweeds summarises the situation eloquently.
Over the years, I too have criticised those academics for whom the pursuit of knowledge is the end, because social ineptness, eccentricity and misguided thinking often follow. This is not to criticise universities per se, for they have a crucial role to play in society. By way of example, it is unhelpful, even perhaps unethical, for business school academics to pursue a neo-Marxist anti-business agenda—but that is how some, whose primary interest is the pursuit of knowledge, behave. It's almost a sport it seems.
One of my concerns in embarking on my journey was to avoid becoming caught by the stereotype—thus my decision to work from home and to intersperse other activities, in order to maintain contact with reality. These other activities have included a few teaching, facilitation and short advisory assignments, and a couple of board appointments. Is it a reasonable approach? No doubt the proof will come when the usefulness of my research is tested in the real world. Hopefully, it won't be found wanting and the somewhat derogatory academic tumbleweed label will not be required.
One of the most common requests I get in my advisory and research work, and at speaking engagements, is to provide a definition of 'governance'. I think it keeps coming up because there's no universally accepted definition. To press the point, when Africa Zanella asked for a definition of governance on LinkedIn recently, her question generated over 50 replies.
Notwithstanding this, we need to try understand what governance is and what it is not. Here's my take (which also appears as one of the 50 replies): I have come to understand that governance is an activity. It has a purpose (what) and a process (how).
To be effective in governance, boards need to understand their purpose, and have a process through which to determine performance goals (develop a strategic plan, together with management) and oversee performance against plan (a monitoring regime). In contrast, the primary role of management is to implement the approved plan (having contributed to its development, with the board).
Hopefully, this view is helpful. Love to hear what you think!
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.