I have just arrived back in New Zealand, from ten days in the UK and Europe. My meetings with directors, advisors, academics, students and directors’ institutions had two primary objectives: to listen and to share. The listening aspect was to gain firsthand knowledge of issues and opportunities; the sharing aspect to provide updates on the craft of board work and my experiences as a practicing director.
Learnings (a few immediate observations, in no particular order):
Amongst it all, there were some gems:
Several followup visits are now being planned, to advise, assess, educate and speak on topical board and organisational performance matters. If you want to discuss a matter of interest, or check my availability to assist, contact me for a confidential, obligation-free discussion.
The headline picture, showing a derelict property in Soho, London, is analogous to the state of governance in many places in Europe: structurally sound but outwardly messy.
The transition to electric vehicles looms large for many. Most of the major manufacturers are scrambling to offer new and exciting models to entice both corporate and private buyers. Enticements are being offered by some governments to encourage adoption. Regulators are active too, especially in Europe and California, with announced intentions to ban new vehicles powered by petrol or diesel.
The opportunity to embrace a transport technology that is cleaner, quieter and considerably cheaper to operate (than petrol or diesel alternatives) is attractive—once the initial purchase price hurdle leapt. The purported benefits seem to be significant, but does the reality match the rhetoric? As with any proposal to embrace system-level change, the costs of moving from one technology to another are far from trivial. If an assessment is to be complete, the total lifetime costs (TLCs) need to be considered; that is, the sum total of all costs incurred over a product/system’s lifetime (includes manufacture, operation, disposal).
In the case of electric vehicles, what of the economic, environmental and social costs of extracting metals for battery ingredients; logistics and manufacturing; replacement of batteries when they are spent; battery disposal; and, of upgrading the power generation and distribution network to provide adequate electrical power to recharge batteries? Many of these are being quietly ignored, it seems. Not my problem, some argue, as if out of sight is out of mind. This short article argues that when the TLCs are factored in, the benefits associated with a seemingly compelling technology (in this case the adoption of electric powered vehicles and other devices with battery power packs) may not be as great as what has been claimed.
And so to the purpose of this muse, which is not to argue the benefits or otherwise of adopting electrically powered vehicles. Rather, it is to table an issue often overlooked by board of directors considering so-called strategic projects: total lifetime costs.
When faced with a strategically-significant proposal, boards first need to check for alignment, by testing whether the proposal is contributory to the corporate strategy (spoiler alert: often linkages are tenuous). Assuming it is, directors should satisfy themselves that total lifetime costs have been included. Only then can the question of whether the recommendation should be embraced or rejected be debated.
Why might this be important? Directors are duty-bound to act in the best interests of the company. That means taking all relevant information into account.
If boards ignore externalities, or abuse the social, environmental and economic capitals consumed in the operation of the company, the governed company is unlikely to endure over the longer term. And in so doing, directors may be exposing themselves, unwittingly, to legal challenge as well.
What of 2022, and beyond?
Every year, at about this time, sages and futurists of various stripes peer out from their sanctuaries to offer opinions of what the future holds. Many speak or write deterministically, as if they have been blessed with special powers to know or postulate the future with great accuracy. Pronouncements are read with great anticipation by many, and embraced as if categorical. But some commentators are more circumspect; their contingent expressions reveal great maturity and wisdom.
“Forecasting is always a hazardous business. … no one can claim that the future is entirely inscrutable.”
One does not need to look far to see examples of the difficulties faced by those charged with forecasting and strategising. Over the last two years, for example, undertones of fear and stasis have been prominent. People and companies have frozen in response to pronouncements and dictates from national leaders. Economic and social priorities have been set to one side; the main—nay, only—focus has been on the pesky virus known as Covid19. First, borders were closed and populations were locked down, in an effort to flatten the curve. Some even tried to eliminate the virus. Then, recognising their folly, leaders embraced vaccination to reduce the effects of the virus. Most recently, mandates have seen populations divided into two classes, the vaccinated and the un-vaxxed. Naysayers have jumped in, but many of their predictions have proven to be wrong as well. Meanwhile, economies have struggled and the social fabric has frayed.
Amidst this backdrop, boards remain responsible for the performance of the companies they govern. Of those who recognise this (and not all do), some boards wait, perplexed by the unknowns, and others strike out, believing they can control the future, despite a plethora of externalities. Neither response is particularly wise.
High performing boards and leadership teams recognise that things change, often unexpectedly. They remain vigilant, watching for weak signals that might portend the emergence of something significant. They hold options open for as long as possible. Then, when it is time, they act, decisively.
The types of questions high performing boards ask (and keep asking) include:
While some of these questions may be difficult to answer, boards must persevere. Even partial answers are likely to indicate a more reliable way forward than the lazy option of blindly pursuing the supposedly categorical predictions of mediums, sages and futurists.
As summer gives way to autumn in the Northern Hemisphere—and soon winter—so various externalities that frame the work of boards and enduring performance of companies continue to press in. Topical externalities include climatic change; shifting geo-political forces; technological disruptions; diversity, equity and inclusion demands; ever-increasing levels of regulation; the emergence of ESG; and, stakeholder capitalism.
The challenge for all directors and boards, whether they acknowledge it or not (or even notice or care!), is to respond well in the face of what is patently a dynamic environment—to ensure the fiduciary duty they accepted when agreeing to serve as a director is fulfilled. Steerage and guidance—the essence of corporate governance—requires every director, and the board collectively, to be alert, to both set a course and to respond well in the face of externalities. The mind’s eye needs to be looking ahead, to ensure the reason for the journey remains clear, and that decisions are made in the context of advancing towards the objective. Quite how that should be achieved is the underlying question that has driven my life’s work.
Following an extended break from writing—a consequence of dealing with the passing of our patriarch—I have ‘arrived’ back at my desk to think and write again, about organisational performance, governance, strategy and the craft of board work.
If you have a question, or would like to learn more about a particular aspect of board work or the impact boards can have on organisational performance, please let me know! If we are to journey far, we need to explore relevant topics and learn together.
Misalignment: The elephant in the room
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.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel in a plane without any knowledge of where you might be headed? While this prospect may excite some, the idea of flying without a destination or purpose in mind beggars belief for most people.
Successful air travel is predicated on knowing the destination; a precursor to the pilot creating a flight plan to make the journey and arrive safely. Air travel is, generally, safe and straightforward when this principle is applied. But things can go wrong, and if they do, pilots must be ready to respond well. For that, years of training and accumulated experience are vital. And vigilance too: continuously reading onboard and external signals to verify progress, and to spot and respond to any emerging problems.
Successful governance is directly analogous. Knowledge of the destination and how to get there (purpose and strategy) is vital, as is constant monitoring of both the general direction (to verify progress is being made towards the desired goal) and the current situation (to detect any emerging problems).
Boards are, in general, reasonably good at reading and understanding the current situation. But they are not nearly as good when it comes to general direction. Knowledge and agreement around the ultimate goal, how to get there and how progress might be measured remains problematic. If directors and boards lack clarity on these matters, their ability to govern well and ensure the performance of the company into the future is lost. The consequential risks are high. Chances are, the board and the company will be knocked around—moving but not making progress, just like a cork in a washing machine.
Does your board have this in hand?
Bridging the ‘saying–seeing’ gap
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?
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.
The 2018 edition of the Global Peter Drucker Forum, the tenth annual gathering of leaders, philosophers and students of management was convened in Vienna, Austria this week, at the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace. The location was a wonderful, historical backdrop for two full days of discussions and debates on topical issues directly relevant to managers and leaders around the world.
Overall, the purpose of the Forum is to share expertise and build capability in line with Peter Drucker's philosophies. This year, the theme was management . the human dimension. It was the second time I have attended the Forum. The decision to do so was relatively straightforward; made soon after I had the opportunity to stand amongst giants in November 2017. As was the case then, the programme followed a reasonably conventional format dominated by panel-based discussions and plenaries. One major difference from last year though was the scale of the event. Some 500 people attended in 2017. The tenth anniversary edition took a step up, to enable 1000 people to join the conversation. This led to some quite different dynamics at a personal level (notably that it was much more difficult to find people or to access the speakers). As a consequence, some intimacy was lost. But this is a minor point, especially when viewed in the context of a very well-run event.
The following three summaries, presented in no particular order, provide a glimpse of the ideas shared and learnings from the first day. (If you would like to know more, please get in touch.)
Business and society: Four panelists including Jean-Dominique Senard, CEO of Michelin Group, and Yves Doz, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management at INSEAD, shared their thoughts on the importance of holding business and society together (the implication being that business and society have, or are at risk of, drifting apart). Key takeaways:
Human questions, machine answers: Hal Gregersen kicked off this session with some stark predictions:
The insight from the first of these numbers is that predictions of cataclysmic job-loss and unemployment are little more than scaremongering. However, the second number demonstrates that the impact of technology on work will continue to be very significant into the future. But we need to get past the numbers for focus on what actually matters: it is people.
People everywhere need to become more adept at using computers, especially for menial and repetitive tasks, and, even more importantly, people need to be taught to be some computers can never be: humans; empathetic, curious, social beings. As humans, our ability to thrive in a world seemingly falling head-long into the embrace of AI is to ensure we ask the 'right questions', many of which will be social, ethical and spiritual.
Other speakers added that capabilities need to prevail over skills. This might sound like semantics, but the difference between the two is both significant and important. Curiosity, situational awareness, contextual understanding and creativity are far more important than operational or tactical skills, for example. Such capabilities need to be nurtured and exercised, lest they become like unused muscles—atrophied.
Re-engaging the humanities: The aim of this fascinating session was to argue the merit of re-connecting humans with the humanities. The starting point for the discussion was an assertion that humanity's adoption of technology has come at a great cost: mankind is rapidly losing touch with what makes him distinct from other species. Simply, the pursuit of technological 'solutions' has seen many lose sight of the meaning of life.
Humans are social beings, and meaning is revealed through interaction and insight. Unlike molecules that behave in a consistent manner when they are heated (cooled) or put under pressure, humans do not. As a consequence, if organisations are to thrive in the future, conceptions need to change. Rather than using deterministic and mechanistic models to understand and explain organisations and performance, a biological 'ecosystem' may provide a more instructive. In this context, the term 'ecosystem' means a community of organisms that interact contingently and their physical environment. While such communities have defining characteristics, 'success' is dependent on many factors, and it is neither predictable or guaranteed.
A summary of observations and insights from second day is available here.
The third stopover of my trip across Western Europe sees me in the beautiful city of Vienna, for the Global Peter Drucker Forum on 28–29 November. This year, the organisers expanded the programme to include a half-day 'innovation leadership summit' (summarised here) and an afternoon of round table and workshop sessions (more on that later).
About 170 people gathered at the House of Industry, the headquarters of the Federation of Austrian Industries. The beautiful building was inaugurated by Franz Josef in 1911. The format of the summit was straightforward: three panel-based sessions—discussions that explored innovation from three perspectives. A lot of thought-provoking material was shared. Here's a few of the insights that stood out (for me, anyway):
A new innovation landscape
Julie Teigland, Regional Managing Partner of EY Germany, Switzerland and Austria, chaired the first session. Panel members included Curtis Carlson, Founder and CEO of The Practice of Innovation and former CEO of SRI (who developed SIRI); Rita McGrath, Professional at Columbia Business School; and Georg Kopetz, Co-founder of Executive Board TTTech.
Insights: McGrath kicked off the discussion by asserted that strategy and innovation "go together". We can't talk. about one without also discussing the other. 'Digital' is a game-changer because it undermines many of the obstacles (barriers to entry) of market-based contracting. Barriers to entry and the ability to scale are undermined. With it, a fundamental shift, from firms to markets, is underway.
Carlson picked up the discussion by asking whether entrepreneurship is the 'right' thing to be focused on. He noted that, since 1987, fewer than 20 per cent of startups have created any value at all. The problem is that entrepreneurs are pursuing two vital activities in the wrong order. The creation of value needs to precede entrepreneurship. When entrepreneurs focus first on value, then magic can, and often does, happen.
Kopetz entered the discussion by asserting the 'born digital' means 'born global'. There is no option. If you are operating in the electronic world, sovereign borders are meaningless. However, scaling is tough; and collaboration is necessary. Interestingly, nearly all major innovations and step changes occur outside major companies, despite such companies being better resourced the most start-ups.
Making innovation work
Denise Kenyon-Rouvinez, Director of the IMD Global Family Business Center, chaired the second session. Panel members included Betsey Zeigler, CEO of 1871; Alex Osterwalder, Entrepreneur and Business Model Innovator; Yoshi Takashige, VP Marketing Strategy and Vision at Fujitsu; and Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and MIT Sloan School of Management.
Insights: Having set the scene in the first session, the purpose of this session was to 'talk dirty'. Innovation is most likely to occur when people crash into each other. When the do, they tell stories, share ideas and commit to dreams. The natural; outflow is an intelligent human-centric society; one that places people at the centre, not processes or things.
Gregersen added that the 'digital economy' emerged, in effect, from the convergence of globalisation, innovation and transformation. Being new, all of these elements operate on the edge of uncertainty. Success (in terms of establishing capability) is dependent on leaders being happy to be wrong, create uncomfortable spaces and remain quiet as they listen carefully for weak signals. Yet somewhat paradoxically, isolation (quiet) is the enemy of innovation; and discovery depends on contact.
Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School chaired the third session just before lunch. Panel members included Vineet Nayar, CEO of Sampark Foundation; Peter Oswald, CEO of Mondi Group; Gilbert Rühl, CEO of Klöckner & Co SE; and Helmut Reisinger, CEO of Orange Business Services.
Insights: The purpose of this session was to listen to established chief executives as they offered coal-face insights about innovation, leadership and 'getting things done' in an increasing volatile world. A natural curiosity, combined with a well-developed propensity to both ask questions and listen carefully to answers, is crucial if the protagonistics are to be effective leaders.
Standing back, this Summit created space for interactions between delegates and with the speaker panel. As such it provided a wonderful 'on ramp' to the main event, the Global Peter Drucker Forum, but more on that soon.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention.