The unexpected outbreak and spread of Covid-19 early this year 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 start to work through these and other related questions, careful judgement (wisdom and maturity) is needed, to both balance competing interests (resourcing the crisis v. 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.
One of the perennial challenges boards of directors need to deal with concerns boundaries—the question of how to govern effectively without stepping over the 'line' into management, in particular.
The theory is easy: the board's governance role includes setting direction (purpose, strategy) and boundaries (policy), allocating resources and holding management to account for results in accordance with specified parameters. The role of the manager is to run the company within specified parameters and report progress. The board is also responsible for providing an overall account to shareholders and legitimate stakeholders. And there should be a clear separation between the parties. This seems remarkably straightforward.
But in practice, the going is often far from straightforward. Divisions of labour may be unclear or, worse, assumed. And, contrary to institutional 'best practice' guidance, the board and management actually need to be proximate if decisions are to be informed and management is to action them well. The challenge is greater again if individuals hold director and manager roles, as is often the case in smaller, privately-held companies. Inevitably, opportunities for confusion surface, pressure on resources mounts, and progress towards overall goals may stall (assuming a goal has been determined). Yet board duties remain, undiminished.
In times of crisis, the situation is complicated by matters well outside the board's control, and time is of the essence. Understandably, the board's attention moves from oversight and strategic opportunities, to the very short-term—stabilising the company and protecting assets. The decision cycle speeds up, necessarily, as new information comes to hand. Previous decisions may need to be retracted and changed. All of this is quite normal and appropriate in crisis situations. However, if the board goes further and gets directly involved company operations including instructing staff, specifying how things should be done and even doing them, then it is stepping well across the ‘line’ and into management. This is overreach, and it can be dangerous because it undermines the foundations that underpin strong board–management interaction. The casualties are many and varied, but three of more common ones are:
The resultant (negative) impact on company performance could be significant. Yet these casualties can be avoided, if the board chooses to work collegially with management to get through the crisis. For this, trust is crucial. The board should also ensure a well-defined division of labour is in place, and it must delegate well with clear lines of accountability, and maintain strong and open lines of communication.
The parallels for governments and citizens are stark. In times of crisis, governments often use powers such as declaring a state of emergency and suspending civil liberties while order is being restored. If these decisions are taken, as has happened in many countries following the COVID-19 outbreak, they need to be accompanied by self-evident measures such as 'no gatherings of greater than 100 people', or 'maintain a 2m separation from any other person'. If people are clear about what is required, and why, they can make adjustments to fit within the requirements. However, if petty and nonsensical procedural rules are also introduced (how far one may drive, alone, for example), the linkage of trust breaks and some undesirable consequences may follow. In extreme cases, the people may even revolt.
The temptation to overreach is great. Power is an enticing thing, after all. But politicians, like boards, must avoid the temptation to overreach if at all possible. If the board (government) focuses on 'what' is needed and 'why', and management (the people) concentrates on 'how', the likelihood of a great outcome is much higher.
To suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is the news story of the year is, as they say, a bit of an understatement. And it is easy to understand why. The personal, community and economic impact has been dramatic. Many thousands of people have died; untold millions have lost their jobs or soon will; community life has been put on hold; and economic activity has, largely, ground to a halt.
As of today (14 April), nearly 2,000,000 people are known to have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The actual number is unknown, but it will be far greater, without doubt. About 120,000 deaths have been linked to the virus as well—although most were due to co-morbidities. Only a small portion of the reported fatalities were directly due to COVID-19 (data from Italy suggests 12 per cent).
Understandably, most of the reportage has concentrated on the headline numbers, decisions by politicians, and the public health response. But personal stories have featured too. As you would expect, partisan biases are also on display: Trump has been slammed and Ardern lauded.
Despite the seemingly strong alignment apparent across the reportage, the picture being painted is far from complete (the situation is still developing, after all), and it may not be accurate either. Underlying data may be misunderstood, misinterpreted or missing. Yet decisions need to be made, and decisions have consequences, just as sticks have two ends.
The challenge for politicians is no different from that boards of directors face all the time. The best and most effective boards are those who seek counsel from a diverse range of perspectives (including competing options) before they make a decision.
This article, positioned prominently on the front page of the Dominion Post today, highlights the emerging situation in New Zealand and the challenge for political decision-makers. It is well worth reading, as much for the language used as the story itself. The first sentence in the print edition read, "A group of public health experts has broken ranks on the Government's lockdown strategy ...". (The online edition was subsequently edited, at 8.28am, to read, "A group of public health experts has challenged the Government's public health strategy ...".) The cited experts argue that, with the border secure, various restrictions in place can (should) be relaxed, to enable people to return to a level of normalcy. This view is at odds with the advice the government seems to be relying on, but it remains valid as an option nonetheless and, therefore, merits consideration.
Whether the government decides to balance the best interests of the economy and society, or to hold tightly to the current course, should become clear soon. Regardless, its decisions will have consequences, just as every stick has two ends. Politicians, as boards of directors, ignore this truism at their peril.
The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has shaken communities and commercial activity around the world, to the very core. Since late February, strict restrictions on human movement both between countries and, now, within communities have been imposed, in the hope of containing the virus and, in one case, of eradicating it. The scale of the impact on lives, social structures and economic activity has yet to be measured, but it will be large, I suspect. The scars will remain tender for some time in many cases.
Unsurprisingly, many people have been inventive in response to the situation they now find themselves in. Neighbours are meeting at a distance, and internet traffic has grown exponentially as people have taken up online entertainment options and relied heavily on social media to keep in touch with each other. All of this is to be expected; humans are social beings, after all.
The vacuum left from the pausing of economic activity has been filled by creative thinkers and opportunists offering all manner of webinars, 'best practice' check lists and other forms of guidance to help individuals, groups and businesses reconfigure their lives and businesses. The Internet is now awash with them. Some are well-informed and helpful, but most of the ones I've seen are little more than attention-seeking noise.
My own work patterns have changed too, mainly as a result of the restrictions on movement now in place. These include using electronic communications tools such as video conferencing in place of in-person board, coaching and other client meetings; and the telephone and email to keep in touch with colleagues and clients. The following points summarise my experiences as I have sought to govern at distance this past month:
One final point. These are my experiences. Some may be familiar, others less so. Regardless, if you have any questions or comments, please get in touch. If you are prepared to add your experiences, as similar or different as they may be, I'd be delighted to hear them and am sure others would be too. Please leave a reply below.
It has been said that a leader without any followers is, in reality, just a person going for a walk. Followers are, by definition, necessary. But the presence of followers is an incomplete measure of a leader's effectiveness. Messages of praise by acolytes and enthralled observers are rarely useful indicators either.
The winning of an election by a national politician, civic leader or a company director reveals little about the quality or effectiveness of their subsequent leadership. It simply shows they were more popular than their rivals on the day of the election! Consider the UK Prime Minister's victorious 'peace in our time' utterance in 1938 (which proved to be short-sighted, even deluded); the Watergate scandal (second-term presidential hubris); the Christchurch City Council's consents debacle (leadership ineptitude); and Wells Fargo's mis-selling of accounts (executive-level malfeasance). Chamberlain, Nixon, Parker and Stumpf were all thought to be leading well, but all ultimately stumbled when it mattered.
That leadership is a function, not a position, is axiomatic. And like magnetism and gravity, leadership cannot be seen directly; only through its effects. Indicators of leadership effect include the behaviours, decisions and actions of a leader as an overall goal is pursued.
The past three weeks have produced innumerable examples of leadership behaviours and use of positional power to exert influence or make decisions in response of the COVID-19 outbreak. Here's a few examples:
An amalgam of factors contribute to any leader's effectiveness. These include (but are not limited to):
Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has been lauded for her handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. She is widely regarded as being a great and empathetic communicator, which should not be surprising given her training is in public relations and communications. The form is good, but what of the substance of her messages? Is Ms Ardern actually providing strong leadership, as many have opined? The factors listed above is one means of considering these questions:
The picture that emerges here is one of a communicator who is endearing, building esprit de corps. But oratory without substance is not sufficient. Leaders need to set out a credible goal, clearly; be decisive and consistent; and insist that decisions are acted on, in full.
Calls for the Prime Minister to move beyond both empathetic sound bites and measures that would not look entirely out of place in a socialist regime are gaining traction. The time to consider the future is now; to forge the pathway towards economic recovery and the restoration of civil liberties within a functional civil society, is a matter of great urgency. And that is where the extent, quality and effectiveness of the Prime Minister's leadership will be laid bare. Leadership when it matters.
Like many people, I've been reading reports of the spread of COVID-19, and the impact it is clearly having on both the health and well-being of communities, and the economy. The number of confirmed cases is growing. Daily reports in New Zealand show confirmed and probable cases (April 3: 772 cases, 96 probable). Globally, the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 also continues to climb, even though the vast majority of the deceased had comorbidities.
Stepping beyond the human elements for a moment (anxiety, cabin-fever, ambivalence, physical distancing), aspects of the reportage have confused me (and others as well, I know), to the point I wonder about the underlying motivations of some of the reporters.
Consider the case count: How many people have or have had COVID-19 in New Zealand? The following data lifted from the Ministry of Health website:
The New Zealand media is reporting the total (797, 868) as the number of cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand. But, when the Ministry of Health's criteria is applied (definition of a probable case, here), the actual number of cases is the lower number (723, 772). The WHO, too, is reporting these same official numbers.
The question that emerges from this analysis is straightforward: Why does the media persist in overstating the case count? Is it ineptitude, bias, or something more sinister?
Fatalities: Official reports from around the world have been clear: many (most, but perhaps not all) of the patients who have died had comorbidities at the time of death. Was COVID-19 actually the cause of all the reported deaths (as the media has implied), or was it a contributory factor alongside other factors?
In and of themselves, these misrepresentations by the media are probably of little consequence—until you consider that they may be indicative of a bigger problem that does merit attention.
If New Zealand is to climb out of the hole it is now in, some bold decisions are needed. Decision-makers need to think strategically, not tactically. There is widespread agreement that the social and economic costs of the measures currently being taken in New Zealand in response to the COVID-19 outbreak are going to be very high. The effects of the community lockdown, widespread economic destabilisation and imposition of high levels of sovereign debt will probably linger for a long time. They may be generational.
The decision to stop was easy; it has been made (although questions remain over whether the border is actually closed). The looming decisions concern when and how to restart. Ultimately, the quality of these decisions will be, to a large extent, dependent on the quality of evidence presented. If the government is to expedite the economic recovery, it needs to set ideology and worst-case models aside, and enlist seasoned, non-partisan critical thinkers to analyse the raw data, draw rational conclusions and present pragmatic recommendations. Without this, the real cost will continue to climb; a winter of discontent indeed.
The global onset of the COVID-19 virus has precipitated a wide range of reactions in the community, from ambivalence to anxiety. Many governments have stepped in to support their citizens. Some have imposed community-wide lockdowns and social distancing protocols in an effort to break the spread of the contagion; others have implemented rigorous testing and quarantine regimes to identify and isolate those affected.
Business leaders have been considering their options too. Working from home has become a 'thing', as has the use of video conferencing and other online tools. Amongst the many responses, one in particular caught my eye this week: proposals by the directors' institutes of several countries—notably Australia, New Zealand and Britain, and Germany and others as well—to temporarily suspend director liability in the case of insolvency.
Superficially, this sounds like a reasonable idea. When a force majeure event strikes, the impact on sales, working capital and jobs may be very significant. The effect may be immediate, especially if the company is prevented from trading due to a lockdown. If the affected company cannot restructure its cost base, draw on financial reserves or secure finance quickly, business continuity will be at risk. Insolvency may follow, and all jobs will be lost. Thus goes the argument. But on the flip side (there always is one), the suspension of director liability and allowance to trade whilst insolvent may open the door for abuse, despite the honourable intention of keeping the economy functioning.
Insolvency has always been a red line for boards and companies. This proposal makes it porous, by absolving directors of responsibility for trading while insolvent. Some questions worth considering as lawmakers assess the proposal:
While a force majeure event can catch even the most well-run companies out, those with strong balance sheets and highly-engaged boards are better placed to respond well. They probably do not need the protection of the proposed provision, because they are more likely to have a robust risk assessment and mitigation framework in place, and strategic risks will have been assessed at most board meetings. But those companies being run close to the wire, or with inadequately engaged boards or weaker systems, may be caught flat footed. And if they are, what then? Should directors be protected, or be held to account?
Lawmakers need to tackle these types of questions, and resolve ambiguities thoroughly. If they don't, expect scurrilous directors to exploit the inevitable loopholes—to defend against other, board-induced, problems such as ineptitude, incompetence, negligence or malfeasance, for example.
Enquiry is appropriate, regardless of the catalyst, because sunlight, as they say, is a great disinfectant.
Information (and mis-information) about the spread of COVID-19 around the world is clogging our airwaves, inboxes and social media feeds as quickly as the virus itself is spreading. But amongst it all, there are some things we can hold as self-evident. Many people are suffering, some are dying. New phrases are entering the lexicon, such as, social distancing (should be physical distancing, I think) and self isolation. Governments are responding with a variety of controls to limit movement. Borders have been closed, and lockdowns are being imposed in some areas. Airlines have reduced capacity, grounding fleets. Many businesses, especially SMEs, are in turmoil. People are on edge—lives have been put on hold.
While COVID-19 has spooked many people, not to mention the stock markets and wider economy, life must go on—and it will, albeit with some adjustments, of course.
The challenge for those who direct the affairs of companies—boards—is one of governing well in the face of what is, patently, a very different environment from that which existed even two weeks ago.
Businesses face continuity and safety risks every day. Routinely, staff and managers spot, assess, prioritise and respond to operational risks every day; that is their job. But when risks have strategic implications (i.e., an occurrence is likely to have a major effect on strategy execution, future business success or even company viability), the board must become involved. COVID-19 is one such risk. The board needs to understand the potential short- and longer-term impact (using information from credible sources and tools such as scenario planning, for example), consider various options and make informed decisions.
Some practical questions that the board may wish to consider include:
One final point. COVID-19 is no longer a strategic risk. It is upon us. Boards everywhere need to deal with it as well as they can, given the most reliable information available, with the best interests of the company to the fore. That means providing close support to management; more so if big decisions are needed, such as releasing staff or partial closures. However, and most importantly, boards should not panic. Neither should the board react to suggestions being advanced by some that an event such as the COVID-19 outbreak should be seen as a catalyst to redefine corporate governance. Corporate governance remains corporate governance—the means by which the company is directed and controlled. What might be appropriate though is a review, to consider how the board practices corporate governance. But that should wait until the current crisis in in hand. Fix the problem first, then learn from it.
A kerfuffle has broken out on the East Coast of the US, between Lucian Bebchuk, an esteemed professor at Harvard University, and Martin Lipton, partner at New York law firm Wachell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Specifically, Lipton has mounted a strong attack on an article published by Bebchuk (a critical examination of 'stakeholder governance'). That Lipton has objected should not be surprising. After all, he is a lawyer with vested interests and he has a long record of promoting stakeholder governance.
This is what Bebchuk asserted:
Stakeholderism, we demonstrate, would not benefit stakeholders as its supporters claim. To examine the expected consequences of stakeholderism, we analyze the incentives of corporate leaders, empirically investigate whether they have in the past used their discretion to protect stakeholders, and examine whether recent commitments to adopt stakeholderism can be expected to bring about a meaningful change. Our analysis concludes that acceptance of stakeholderism should not be expected to make stakeholders better off.
Lipton's counter to these assertions was strident:
We reject Professor Bebchuk's economic, empirical and conceptual arguments. They are ill-conceived and ignore real-world challenges companies and directors face today.
This debate exposes something awkward—that when partisans announce their views people react, especially if they denounce other perspectives. This tactic may well pique interest and sell column inches, but it rarely results in viable outcomes that can be sustained over time.
My own research, and experience both as an advisor and serving company director, suggests that either-or argumentation, a characteristic of determinism, is deeply flawed. To pursue profit as an exclusive goal inevitably results in selfishness and inequity. Similarly, the pursuit of priorities espoused by ESG proponents introduces a another, and not insignificant, risk—of exposing the companies and the economy more generally to an 'Icarus moment'.
Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, summed things up well in his January 2019 letter:
Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose—in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked. Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time—not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities. Similarly, when a company truly understands andexpresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability. Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behaviour and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders.
Fink's position highlights that a balanced perspective is probably 'best'. But how might it be achieved? The pathway may be hiding in plain sight. If the board is to fulfil its duty to ensure value is created over time, it needs to look well beyond selfish interests and motivations. This means considering the wider context within which the company operates, creating a viable strategy, determining appropriate 'performance' measures and only then governing accordingly.
Bebchuk was brave to call out the messianic assertions of the stakeholder capitalism camp. Perhaps Lipton might take stock, and meet with Bebchuk—the purpose being to explore the nuances of each other's views, in search of a more balanced understanding of the purpose of companies and role of the board.
Dave Rennie, a rugby coach from New Zealand, has just been appointed as coach of the Australian national team, the Wallabies. This appointment has raised eyebrows, not only because of the passport the appointee carries, but because of the appointment process.
It turns out the Rugby Australia had been speaking with Rennie for six months prior to the appointment being announced. Superficially, this appears to have been a smart move on Rugby Australia's part; a succession planning exemplar. But was it, or was it an act of disloyalty against the incumbent, Michael Cheika? The incumbent only made his intentions clear during rugby's showpiece, the Rugby World Cup, vowing to resign if the Wallabies did not win the William Webb Ellis Cup. Cheika and Raelene Castle, chief executive of Rugby Australia, were hardly the best of buddies, for sure. But when does strength in leadership (Castle has form) cross the line, becoming bullying?
This case exposes an interesting dilemma for boards of directors. When does the board's duty of loyalty to the incumbent chief executive cease? Is it reasonable, for example, to publicly support the incumbent while also scheming in the shadows to replace him or her? If the board finds itself in a position of lacking confidence in the chief executive (regardless of the reason), it owes a moral duty to both the chief executive and the organisation for which it is responsible to act both swiftly and with integrity. Rugby Australia appears to have done neither. While Castle probably operated within the law (she is on record as saying that formal contract negotiations did not take place until after the Rugby World Cup), the moral high ground was forfeited long ago. And that, sadly, places both Castle and the Rugby Australia in a rather awkward position.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.