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.
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?
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.
My speaking and advisory tour of several European cities got off to a great start on Sunday evening. The first port of call was Stockholm. Liselotte Hägertz Engstam, an established director and board chair in the Nordics, hosted a seminar at Tändstickspalatset; a great venue. The theme was [the] Board's role in innovation strategy and governing new digital business models. Some 35–40 directors and board chairs with just over 100 board mandates between them, gathered to hear two speakers, namely, Stephanie Woerner and yours truly. The following paragraphs tell the story.
Digital business model and board contributions
Stephanie Woerner, a Research scientist at Sloan School of Management in Boston, explored value creation in the digital economy. She observed that many (most?) corporations were somewhat lumberous, offered rather average customer service and, tellingly, were ill-equipped to take advantage of emerging 'digital opportunities'. As such, they are at risk of losing out to younger, more nimble businesses. Woerner identified six questions that companies need to resolve if they are to compete effectively in the digital economy:
Then, Woerner spoke about digital savviness, making two points along the way. First, 62% of directors claim to be 'digital savvy' (and, presumably, ready to tackle emergent challenges), but only 24% are indeed savvy. Second, the presence of three digital savvy directors is sufficient to drive improved [financial] performance outcomes. With that, I sat up. How might a quantitative analysis be a reliable predictor of a contingent outcome? A person at the table I was seated at was similarly exercised. She interjected, asking what the term 'digital savvy' meant. "Great question. We used the experience and qualifications of board members as a proxy." Woerner went on the explain how this has been arrived at: a keyword analysis of resumés (searching for words such as technology, CIO, disruption, software). The presence of such words on a resumé was deemed sufficient to categorise someone as being digitally savvy. You could have heard a pin drop.
While Woerner's assertion (that boards need to be knowledgeable of emerging technology trends) is intuitively reasonable, the underpinning research appeared to be flawed. Others seemed to agree, suggesting it is more important for directors to have a curious mind, read widely and ask probing questions. Notwithstanding this, Woerner's core point was on the money: boards need to get up to speed with technological innovations and the opportunities they present.
Making a difference, from the boardroom
I spoke second, the task being to both build on Woerner's comments and add some insights of my own. I started by acknowledging today's reality, that change seems to be the only constant. Woerner set a great platform so there was no need to labour the point, except to say that directors need to work hard to keep up. Importantly, contemporary recommendations including so-called 'best practices' provide little assurance of better board practice much less improved firm performance.
An important duty of all boards is ensure the future performance of the governed company. If boards are to make a difference, they need to make informed decisions about the future direction of the company, and verify whether desired performance outcomes are actually being achieved or not. Four crucial questions that boards need to ask were tabled, these being:
After suggesting some practical considerations, I introduced the strategic governance framework, an option for more effective contributions (as revealed from my doctoral research and subsequently lauded by both practicing directors and scholars around the world).
The seminar presented two perspectives, namely, that directors need to become a lot more digital savvy if they are to contribute effectively in the boardroom, and that effectiveness is a function of director capability, board activity and underlying behavioural characteristics of directors, not what they look like.
Board readiness to lead well in the emerging 'digital' world is a concern—made worse given boards tend to pay much more attention to historical performance than wrestling with the [largely unknown] future. This is the elephant in the room. 'Digital' is but a symptom, I suspect. If boards are to have any hope of influencing firm performance, what they do in the boardroom (i.e., corporate governance) needs to change.
What can Plato, a philosopher who lived over 2400 years ago possibly teach the leaders of modern companies? After all, the modern form of company only came into being in the last few hundred years, two millenia after Plato died. As it happens, when it comes to strategy and decision-making, Plato can teach us a lot—a point made by the author of this article. Here's an excerpt:
Plato likened the guidance of a state to the navigation, piloting, and crewing of a ship at sea. The analogy holds for the strategist and a war effort. The strategist is the navigator with skills that few others have but he may not always be the captain who leads the crew, those that must actually carry out the strategy. Strategy is not responsive to constant or wild adjustments; the hand on the rudder must be subtle and steady; the mind behind it focused on the north star of the political end state. It is for this reason that one could expect that the navalist’s mind more easily grasps the nature of strategy than that of the continentalist. For centuries, ship’s captains engaged in strategy both military and diplomatic with little guidance and no recourse to seek more just by the nature of communications and the distance that a ship could carry them.
This is one of the best summaries that I have read in a long time. Though written in the context of naval strategy and referring to Plato, the roles and tasks described here are directly applicable to companies and boards. The author writes that strategy (strategos: the art of command) is something developed at senior levels, with the long-term purpose (north star) in mind. The captain's job is to implement the strategy. Teamwork between the strategist and the captain is both expected and crucial.
The correspondence to companies and boards is stark. 'Guidance' (first sentence) corresponds to governance (kybernetes: to steer, to guide to pilot), for example. The senior-most decision-maker is the board of directors; the chief executive is 'the captain'. In naval terms, the best chance of making progress towards the 'north star' occurs when the strategist and captain collaborate closely—and so it is with the modern corporation.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.