Twice this week, I have been asked about my reading and thinking habits. One enquirer wanted to know much time I spend reading and pondering insights garnered from various authors; the other whether I schedule [slow] thinking time.
Although neither asked explicitly, both enquirers seemed to assume that quiet time and the notion of reading widely are important to me. And, indeed they are. But, why?
The practice of reading serves, I think, two inherent objectives: to maintain currency with trends and developments, and to become a better person. The objective is not to become a technical expert capable of regurgitating data and ideas (ChatGPT can do that), but a more holistic thinker—one who discerns problems and opportunities, considers them from different perspectives, asks appropriate questions and draws relevant conclusions. More succinctly, someone who leads a reflective life.
May I propose something? To philosophise is to breathe. In my experience, and that of others who I have been fortunate to interact with, the ideas that emerge from the practice of philosophising provide a solid foundation for that which follows. And yet many business leaders and board directors claim to be too busy to take time to ponder (think about) possibilities that might lie below the surface or around the corner. Quite why such a (seemingly) bedrock activity is neglected is a curiosity to me; high quality thinking is an antecedent of effective leadership and governance, n'cest ce-pas?
When people I interact with, especially friends and clients, say they see a better me (someone who is on top of his game, is nice to be around and who offers relevant and considered advice), such observations tend to coincide with a period of reading literature (or other so-called 'brainy' books) and thinking deeply about the questions posed by the authors. While comments like this are gratifying, they serve a higher purpose: to remind me to make time, regardless of what else is going on around me.
(And, in case you are wondering, my answers to the enquirers were, "About 12–15 hours each week" and, "Yes.")
Diversity of thought has been widely promoted in recent times, as a mechanism to supposedly increase decision quality in boardrooms. Superficially, the idea of thinking differently is a positive evolutionary development from earlier efforts (think: women on boards) to break what is often described as the Old Boys' Club. That the discourse and intent has begun to move beyond appointing directors on the basis of physical attributes is helpful. And yet, the idea of 'diversity of thought' has long troubled me.
How does anyone know what I am thinking, or anyone else in the boardroom for that matter? And what is diversity in this context anyway—me having different thoughts, or several of us thinking differently? Crucially, what of any link to the board's work and purpose, which is to provide steerage and guidance to achieve a strategic goal?
Researchers have published correlations based on specific datasets, but the general case (a reliable linkage between demographic diversity and organisational performance) remains elusive. The somewhat amorphous 'diversity of thought' is similarly afflicted. Recently, cognitive diversity (that is, different ways of processing information and approaching problems) has been suggested as a more reliable mechanism to achieve higher quality decisions and, by implication, outcomes. This sounds positive, but reliable explanations are yet to emerge.
Why is this so hard? Could the paucity of reliable explanations (of the relationship between board work and company performance) be due to researchers, directors' institutions and others trying to explain board work and develop 'best practice' models looking in the wrong place or using inappropriate tools? What if hypothetico-deductive techniques (in search of a deterministic best practice approach to some aspect of board work) are laid to one side and methods more common in social science used (critical realism or contingency theory, for example)? Should researchers embrace the idea that boards are social organisms, and that governance is a mechanism activated by the board?
For the record, I employed critical realism, long-term observational techniques and contingency theory when researching boards a decade ago, as part of my doctoral research. The study was ground-breaking for it revealed new insights about board work including an explanatory framework. If you want to learn more about this study, check my thesis (academic-speak) or this article (plain-speak).
In the past few weeks, I have picked up the question again (thanks to a wandering mind on long haul flights!), and have begun to wonder if fractals and chaos theory might offer a viable pathway to developing a theory of board work. Whether this might be a fruitful search or a blind alley remains unclear. Regardless, my mission is to help boards govern with impact, so the least I can do is dig further. And dig I shall.
One request: If you know about fractals, or know of anyone who possess such expertise—especially in relation to social phenomena—could we schedule a call please? I'm starting from a pretty low base!
One of the great challenges for board directors and executive leaders concerns written expression. How might one cast vision, report progress clearly, make a request unambiguously, or argue a point convincingly if the key messages are not clearly stated? Directors and executives owe a duty to their colleagues in this matter, for written reports are the primary vehicle for sharing ideas, proposals and data before each board meeting.
To suggest the quality of the report (especially, the clarity of the message within) may be the difference between success and failure (that is, acceptance or rejection) is, probably, a truism. So, if we are to be convincing in our argumentation, we need to write well. But how?
The first thing to acknowledge is that writing is a craft. And, as with any other craft, proficiency is something that emerges over time, as principles are learnt and applied in practice. Look to others who write well, and glean from them. Seek feedback from your readers too, and make adjustments.
I have long relied on the guidance of William Zinsser (1922–2015), especially that offered in On writing well. Another great source is the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, which provides specific instructions. How do you ensure board reports and business proposals are well written, and what tools and approaches do you use?
One of the great joys of being an independent advisor is the opportunity to spend time with people from a wide range of backgrounds; business and social experiences; walks of life; and, in my case, countries and cultures. The depth and breadth of humanity never ceases to amaze me. Paradoxically, a common thread runs amongst the diversity: people intent on improving organisational effectiveness and making a difference spend lots of time asking questions, lots of questions.
When a question is asked from the floor after a keynote talk, during an advisory engagement or professional development workshop, or as part of a confidential discussion or informal chat, something mysterious happens: Both parties learn! This should come as no surprise, for no one has all the answers—although some people behave as if they do.
Recently, I posed several questions board directors may wish to consider. The response to that musing has been overwhelming, so I thought an open invitation might be in order.
If you have a question about any aspect of corporate governance, strategic management, board craft or the challenge of governing with impact—either personally or on behalf of a board you serve on—please ask and I will gladly respond. Use the comment link here or, if you prefer, send an email. Let's learn together!
The role of company director has become quite visible over the past couple of decades. From hardly rating a mention in the popular press or polite society fifty years ago, public awareness of boards and directors has blossomed in recent times. Questionable practices and failures of various kinds have seen boards become a source of board fascination and disdain—targets of criticism in the eyes of the business media, political class, regulators and, increasingly, the wider public. Activists, institutional investors, proxy advisors, and other stakeholders and supernumeraries have sought to exert influence and press various claims too, on both company priorities and board decision making (think: ESG, disclosures, DEI, climate change, net zero, and more besides).
While some boards have responded well to changing circumstances, others have battened down the hatches. Defensiveness can be an important response at times, but it is not a sustainable tactic given the mandate to govern (provide appropriate steerage and guidance to achieve a specified goal).
If directors are to steer and guide effectively, they need to consider information, ask questions to check progress and elicit missing information and, having debated various options, make decisions. This is crucial, for the questions directors ask may be the difference between effectiveness and ineffectiveness in role. The following list provides a useful starting point for boards intent on governing with impact:
Do you agree or disagree—I welcome your thoughts on this! Also, what other questions have you found useful?
I have spent four days in Australia this week, meeting with directors, advisors and a couple of institutional leaders in two state capitals. While the weather has been great, a few storm clouds [metaphorically, on the governance horizon] were apparent. Whether these are serious problems, or just differences of opinion, they strike me as being worthy of discussion. I’d be delighted if you would ponder the following situations, and share your thoughts to help me understand why boards, more often than not, erode value.
These examples demonstrate, to me anyway, that questions of what corporate governance is, the role of the board and how governance might be practiced are far from resolved. Directors and their advisors seem to be their own worst enemies. Flawed understandings of what governance is (the provision of steerage and guidance, to achieve an agreed strategic aim), and how it might be practiced, remain serious barriers to boards fulfilling their mandate, which is to ensure the enduring performance of the company. Why do some directors’ institutes, advisory and consulting firms, regulators, academics, and media commentators continue to discuss “best practice” and promote various matters that have little if any direct impact on achieving sustainably high levels of organisational performance? Surely attention needs to be on helping directors and boards do their job well, n’cest ce-pas? I have a few ideas to crack this problem, but I’m keen to hear what you think.
Several times in the past six weeks, I have been asked to share some thoughts on artificial intelligence and board work; specifically, the impact of emerging AI capabilities on corporate governance and, even, the need for board of directors. The rapid emergence and now widespread awareness of ChatGPT has been a catalyst for many of these enquiries, it seems. I have been fascinated by the unfolding situation, not only because of a longstanding interest (I studied artificial intelligence at university nearly four decades ago), but also the speed by which awareness has spread, and expectations climbed to such stratospheric heights, is unprecedented. Claims have been made that computer-based tools will soon supplant the need for human directors and, with it, board meetings. Some, especially those with jaundiced perceptions of boards, their work and any value they add, have confided this may be a good thing. Others have reserved judgement—for now at least—saying the situation is far too fluid and complex to make anything approaching an informed or reliable decision, much less widespread change.
That so many people are questioning 'conventional' corporate governance practices feels a little bit like ground hog day. While I do not claim any particular expertise in the topic of artificial intelligence, I have read widely, asked many questions (of myself and others) and pondered both the purported capability and potential impact (of artificial intelligence) on board work.
The departure points for my enquiry has been, as always, definitional. What is artificial intelligence, and what conception of governance does one hold? My responses to these questions are as follows:
So, the proposition to be considered is, "Can a computer replace a social group charged with steering and guidance an organisation in a complex and dynamic environment?"
Those people wondering whether AI might be a viable mechanism to support or even replace boards have much to ponder. What is the role of a board of directors in companies? How might the operating context beyond the organisation be assessed? Where does accountability for statutory compliance and overall performance lie? And, to whom should the Chief Executive and management of the company report? If one holds the view that the board is the ultimate decision-making authority within a company (a responsibility delegated by shareholders), and that this (decision-making despite uncertainty and ambiguity) is 'core business', the board has a vital role to play.
My early training in computers and technology taught me that computers respond to instruction; they cannot 'think' autonomously or handle ambiguity, and they lack feelings and intuition. They do what they are 'told'; if the 'telling' is poor, the result is likely to be poor: the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" springs to mind.
But that was then. Computing power is far greater today than it was even five years ago, much less forty. Has the evolutionary development of computing capability reached the point whereby computers can displace humans? For a large and growing list of tasks and activities, yes, of course. The analysis of data is a relevant case in point. But for many other enquiries, the answers remains a resounding no. How might a computer make sense of the unspoken feelings, intuition and biases of staff, customers and board directors, and reach a credible decision? For this, a much higher order of capability is necessary. And, with that, I stand with those reserving judgement.
What of the future? AI may become a viable mechanism to expedite board decision-making, of course. But the likelihood of directors being supplanted any time soon is low (those failing in their duties excepted). For that, artificial general intelligence (AGI) is likely to be necessary, and some moral and ethical questions will need to be resolved as well. If that is achieved, I may take a stronger position.
Regardless of whether this muse is sound or not, directors, shareholders, regulators and their various advisors need to be alert, because the situation may change quite quickly.
The practice of corporate governance has garnered much attention over the past couple of decades; curiosity about boards growing each time news of a corporate failure and serious misstep becomes public. While those with axes to grind are quick to jump on their hobbyhorses, failure studies indicate that suggestions of hubris, malfeasance, narcissism, ineptitude, incompetence and poor engagement are not without basis.
More recently, a wider group of so-called stakeholders and claimants have raised their voices, arguing that companies are having a negative effect on a range of social and environmental concerns. The ESG initiative, established in 2005 to put pressure on boards to report their activities and performance more fully, has become a movement (even an industry for personal and professional gain in the eyes of some).
On the weight of evidence presented in the media, it would be easy to conclude that practices of companies, and the system that underlies modern commerce—capitalism—are detrimental to sustainable life and wellbeing. Firing shots at boards and companies is easy, because they are visible and command media attention. But are such responses justified? What if the assumptions and motivations that underpin investor, regulator and activist critiques are flawed, or the bases for regulatory interventions ill-advised?
Some companies deserve criticism, of course. They should be called out and held to account. But many (most) operate within their means. Unsurprisingly, the boards of some reputable companies are reportedly pushing back on the expectations of some institutional investors, which, they say, have become over-prescriptive and formulaic. Alongside, some boards say new disclosure reporting rules being introduced, by the FSB Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) amongst others, are counterproductive—for they add costs without any apparent benefit.
Together, this begs an awkward question: Are the actions of some, who claim to be acting in the name of sustainability and a fairer society, actually an attempt to exert power and control for their own purposes? And, if so, are current attempts to establish regulations to enforce certain practices on companies reasonable or are they a bridge too far? It is little wonder that relationships between some boards and shareholders are starting to fracture, and society is becoming tribal.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks thinking about problem solving; my attention drawn, in particular, to problems that fall between simple (for which answers are self-evident) and wicked (easily defined, but for which an answer is elusive due to incomplete or contradictory information, or changing requirements). Difficult problems are those that can be solved, but answers are far from evident, even following careful enquiry. The BBC Series, The Bomb, explores a case in point. Nuclear fission was discovered to be theoretically possible (Leo Szilard), but considerable effort over the following decade was required to finally tackle the problem in practice.
So-called ‘difficult problems’ require, clearly, intentional enquiry and, often, patience. As with gravity and magnetism, the underlying explanation (resolution) cannot be observed directly, only through its effects. So, deep and critical thinking is needed, if a resolution is to be discovered.
Such problems are familiar territory for boards: if they were straightforward, management teams would resolve them. And therein lies the challenge for directors: the underlying cause of a problem raised to board level tends to be hidden under that which can be seen. And what is more, any linkage between the problem, the underlying cause, what can be observed, and any subsequent effects or impacts (note: plural) is tenuous and, almost certainly, contingent.
If boards are to be effective in their work (governance: the means by which companies are directed and controlled), directors need to be alert, astute and actively engaged—more so because resolutions to difficult problems cannot be discerned directly. Thus, directors need to think beyond what is written in board reports, and what is apparent when reading other materials. Those who think they can get away with quickly reading board papers a few days before the upcoming meeting are kidding themselves.
If directors are prepared to read widely across a range of topics, allocating 1–2 hours per day for six days every week, to consider ideas and think deeply, the likelihood of uncovering possibilities and solution options is greatly enhanced. Indeed, the correlation between, on one hand, time spent reading and thinking deeply, and on the other, high quality decisions is stark. Time and critical thinking matters, if directors are to add value.
During June, I spent most of my discretionary time reviewing articles about corporate scandals and failures, as reported in the mainstream media and academic press, and discussed on social media. They made fascinating reading, not only for the summaries, but also the amount of finger-pointing and defensiveness—an indication that accountability was missing in action in most cases.
Consider the Carillion, Wirecard and Petrobas cases, all mentioned in a recent Financial Times feature article (paywall, sorry). The discussion concentrated on the accounting and audit professions; the questions being whether they should have detected the problems, and whether ethics should be a consideration. These are good questions, but they sound a little like positioning an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Disclosures, in the form of annual reports, audit statements, and various ESG-related reports, are necessary. But they are just that; disclosure reports. And the more complex the reporting and disclosure requirements, the more time management and the board needs to spend preparing and checking reports, to meet expectations. And with greater focus on reporting and compliance, the greater the likelihood that accountability will become discretionary.
Accountability is one of four foundational elements of corporate governance. There are two aspects, namely, boards are charged with holding management to account, and they need to provide an account to legitimate stakeholders. (The others are the formulation and approval of corporate purpose and strategy; policymaking; and, monitoring and supervising management, to ensure the company is operated and strategy achieved within prevailing statutory and regulatory boundaries. Together, these four elements comprise the Learning Board Framework, a proposal described in The fish rots from the head, a book written by Bob Garratt, a doyen of corporate governance and board work, circa 1996. The LBF is the single-best approach to board activity that I have come across in my twenty-five years of board and governance practice and research, bar none.)
As in life, enduring success in business (meaning, achieving and sustaining high levels of organisational performance) can be attributed to many things. These include, inter alia, a great idea, a clear and coherent strategy, excellent execution, capable and highly-motivated people, forces of nature, timing, effective leadership, luck (yes, luck), and more besides. Yes, success has many sources, even to the point of being idiosyncratic.
Failure is different. Even a cursory study of corporate failures reveals several common themes, most of which can be readily traced back to the boardroom:
Almost all of these themes emerge from poor behaviour and a leakage of accountability. Knowing what to do is one thing, knowing how to behave (and behaving) is quite another. Fortunately, help is at hand. Insights from research suggest five underlying behaviours are necessary if boards are to contribute well. These include strategic competence, a sense of purpose, active engagement, collective efficacy and constructive control. If any one of these is absent, the likelihood of the board exerting any meaningful influence or adding any value drops to nought. (If you want more information on this, please get in touch.)
One final comment: The role of director is founded on trust—the fiduciary responsibility. And from this flows accountability—in role and in relationship. If boards place a low value on accountability, by not holding management to account for the achievement of operational and strategic goals; rubber-stamping advice from suppliers such as lawyers, accountants and auditors; or, not providing a candid account of performance to shareholders, regulators and other stakeholders, they deserve what comes their way.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and boardcraft; our place in the world; and other topics that catch my attention.