Unlike previous editions of the EIASM corporate governance workshop that I've attended, the 2017 keynote session was delivered by three luminaries, not one. W. Lee Howell, Bob Garratt and Tom Donaldson—men of considerable gravitas in their respective fields—led the keynote session together. Each spoke separately, and a panel discussion followed.
Lee Howell opened the session with a telling quote: "Being right too soon is socially irresponsible" (Heinlein). This quote, a reference to impetuous decision-making on the basis of seemingly-strong (and sometimes quite weak) evidence, notes a common weakness amongst strong leaders, more so in complex environments. Though not named explicitly, Howell's opening comments carried strong implications for those advocating diversity in boardrooms and other structural 'remedies'.
Howell followed by describing the efforts of the World Economic Forum (the Davos meeting in particular) to improve decision-making quality in the face of rapid change, technological advancements, globalisation and high levels of cultural and social complexity. He said that WEF is intentionally pursuing four priorities to achieve the desired outcome—these being
Howell's comments set the scene. Though provocative in the minds of some, the assertion that business is not independent from government and civil society was generally accepted across the largely academic audience. The implications for boards are not insignificant.
Bob Garratt spoke next. He opened with a strong critique—that corporate governance as we have known it is dead. Though aimed more so at the practitioner, regulator and director institute communities, this opening gambit had the effect of capturing the attention of everyone in the room. The implication, of course, is that if the understanding of corporate governance is somehow wrong, then much current research may actually be futile—a point that Garratt and I have discussed and are in strong agreement.
Whereas corporate governance was conceived as a term to describe the effective work of the board of directors as it seeks to drive business performance, Garratt noted the demise of the term, to now one closely associated with the task of compliance and the associated activity box-ticking (though this is generally denied by directors when they are interviewed). In an oblique reference to his new book, Garratt asserted that the rot must be stopped. Continuing, he noted four international trends that boards need to respond to if the value creation mandate that they can and should be pursuing is to be realised—specifically,
The third speaker was Tom Donaldson. He mounted a challenge to boards and directors, arguing that they need to embrace 'second order values thinking' as a means of moving beyond short-termism, hubris and self-centred decision-making. The critical difference between first order and second order values is that first order values tend to be non-intrinsic, whereas second order values are intrinsic. Interestingly, most management theorists think in terms of first order values.
Donaldson closed with a strong challenge. Noting that boards of directors are uniquely positioned to act on the basis of intrinsic values, openly and without double-speak, Donaldson called on boards to embrace an inclusivity, meaning to act beyond pure and unadulterated self-interest. A strong call, one Peter Drucker and Henry Mintzberg would both have endorsed.
Together, these three speakers' comments had the effect of shining much-needed light on the ills of normative board practices (read: corporate governance). Helpfully though, the speakers did not stop their criticism of board practice. They suggested possible solutions, and supported them with strong arguments. Directors and directors' institutes could do far worse than to investigate these ideas and test their relevance and applicability.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.