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.
Over the past eighteen months, many commentators, critics and self-styled experts around the world used the onset of the coronavirus pandemic to promote new ways of working; postulating that working from home is somehow better or more productive than working in a group setting (in an office or boardroom, for example). Zoom became a 'thing' (lockdowns being the catalyst, of course); Microsoft Teams, too. Proponents have suggested that the conduct of board meetings and annual meetings via video link (virtual meetings) saves time and money, and increases participation.
But, as the weeks and months have passed, the novelty of working separately has began to wear off. Stories of frustration have emerged, with widespread claims that decision quality and productivity has suffered. Staff and managers who once asserted the benefits of #WFH—even to the extent that people would not have to commute to office space any more—have gone quiet. Younger staff are pining to be together again; social magnetism at work.
And what of boards and their effectiveness? Can boards maintain high levels of productivity and decision quality when directors cannot meet together in person for extended periods? Might the availability of high quality video links and board portal software supplant the need to meet together in a boardroom?
In considering these questions, let's acknowledge that the board is a social group, and social groups work better when they are together. Not having to travel to a meeting is attractive to many, but proximity trumps distance in relationships, n'est-ce pas? Also, decisions are made the under tutelage of the board chair, following interaction to discover, discuss and debate. But body language, non-verbal cues and unspoken reservations are difficult to discern when on-line. What is more, the wider context within which the board and company operate is dynamic and generally complex, and ambiguity is prevalent, due to missing information.
If boards are to be effective (measured by the board providing steerage and guidance in pursuit of agreed company purpose; making smart decisions; holding management to account for execution; and, verifying progress towards agreed strategic goals), directors need to be on their game. For this, they need to be competent in role; be actively engaged (individually and collectively); know why they are there; understand the business of the business, the company's strategy and the strategic implications thereof (just one in six directors do); and, exercise control constructively—all of which is made easier if they meet together.
Do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences!
Tennis is a wonderful game; almost anyone can play. From schoolchildren to elite professional players, the sport is exhilarating; the excitement is often palpable.
One of the reasons tennis is attractive is that it is straightforward. The boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable play are, usually, well marked. The ball is served, and if is returned and bounces within the boundaries, play continues. If not, the score is adjusted and play is restarted with another serve. But, neither the net nor the lines play the game, players do; winning or losing is the result of two players (or four, if doubles) having played against each other within the playing space.
The distinction in tennis between the rules, the playing of the game, and the score at the end has strong parallels in governance.
Boards are charged with playing the game (that is, governing—providing steerage and guidance, in pursuit of an agreed goal) within the boundaries of various statutes, regulations and policies (the rules). The 'result' is company performance, which is usually reported in the annual report and any other reports to legitimate stakeholders. As with the distinction in tennis, neither the statutes or regulations, nor the annual report are the game. The 'game' is governance, and it is played by the board. Statutes and regulations are necessary, without doubt, but they are no more governance than rules are tennis.
Another facet of tennis is the player ranking table, which identifies comparisons between players at a population level. The very best players feature at the top; lesser players, further down. Positioning on the ranking table can be a source of motivation for players (to train harder, to embrace various tactics to improve their performance, for example), But position alone does not improve playing standards, player skill or on-court conduct.
And so it is with boards and governance. The position a company occupies on a ranking table (adherence to corporate governance standards or ESG metrics, for example) provides a comparative indication of how the company measures up against others. But that is all—to read in more is folly. The likelihood of ranking companies by corporate governance scores improving standards [compliance], for example, is about as tenuous as ranking tennis players improves player conduct. Why so? Standards and rules are thresholds; boundaries that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Tennis players wanting to improve their game focus on fitness, technique, strategy and tactics. Similarly, companies intent on improving performance need to focus their attention and efforts on purpose, strategy and execution.
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?
Did you know that every living creature on Earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend over its lifetime (yes, 2,000,000,000)? I never knew that until I read this article recently. Brian Doyle writes so well. He brings science to life. Of heartbeats, he writes:
"You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old".
This article set me thinking. How I should spend the rest of my two billion heartbeats? Part of my answer is to continue to help boards govern well. Another is to nurture important relationships.
As a leader, how will you spend the rest of your heartbeats? And what impact do you hope to have?
We live in a fast-paced world, where the only constant seems to be change itself. Nine months ago, messages promoting the latest and greatest scheme (or product or idea) bombarded our senses daily, imploring us to embrace something better. Hope prevailed. Now, with the outbreak and impact of coronavirus, the situation is quite different.
Despite the ebbing and flowing of seasons and circumstances, even the onset of crises, some things remain remarkably constant; stable despite great turbulence and the best intentions of enthusiastic advocates to move things along. The corporate boardroom is one such example.
Earlier this year, during the early days of the coronavirus, I re-read Making it Happen, Sir John Harvey-Jones' reflections on leadership. Harvey-Jones, a successful businessman and industrialist, was perhaps best known for leadership of British firm ICI, culminating in his chairmanship from 1982 to 1987. His insights are timeless; arguably still relevant today, 32 years after they were first written. To illustrate the point, here is a selection of salient comments Harvey-Jones made about boards in 1988:
Do any of these points sound familiar? They probably do, because, sadly, many of Harvey-Jones' observations are still prevalent today. Given the duties of directors, why are some boards still reluctant to embrace change when circumstances change, or a crisis strikes?
Is it time your board took stock, not only of the company's strategy and business model, but of itself?
The professionalisation (sorry, a horrible word) of governance has been a topic of discussion for many years. Some directors, when describing what they do, prepend the adjective form of the word, to indicate their full-time paid work is a [company] director, and to indicate their commitment to 'professional' standards (the implication being that some are not). Others abhor such usage.
Many directors are diligent and highly engaged in their work. So why the felt need to professionalise? Studies of company and board failures reveal a consistent pattern of contributory factors, including hubris and overconfidence among directors; low levels of board-management transparency; lack of a critical attitude, genuine independence, appropriate expertise and relevant knowledge in the boardroom; and, tellingly, low levels of commitment by directors. Consequently, public confidence is mixed.
If the practice of governance is to become highly regarded, standards need to be lifted and applied. But can or should governance (that is, the practice of directing) be elevated to the status of 'profession', as medicine, law and accountancy are? And what, exactly, is a professional director? How is one different from an 'ordinary' director (or any other type of director)? What difference might professionalism make? Are better outcomes any more likely? In considering these questions, let's first define some terms:
Individuals wanting to become a medical doctor, for example, must first successfully complete several years of university-level training, after which they become a trainee intern, are provisionally registered and start to practice. A commitment to the Hippocratic oath is necessary. Doctors are also required to formally register with an approved institution, pass professional member- and fellow-level exams and complete approved professional development (on-going). Usually, a formal disciplinary process is available if an individual is found to have flouted professional standards. Law is similar, and accountancy too. On this measure, it's clear that doctors (and lawyers and accountants) are professionals; stakeholders (patients, clients) can have confidence in their work.
But what of directors and governance? Two observations are relevant. First, almost anyone can become a director, and do so with no training! In most jurisdictions, any person over a specified age (18 years old in New Zealand), who is not an undischarged bankrupt nor is before the courts, may become a director. That's it! There is no mandatory training requirement, nor is membership of a professional body or ongoing professional development necessary. Second, many directors' institutions around the world have, over the past few decades, sought to promote governance as a profession. Their good work has resulted in charters being established, and members being invited to commit to ongoing professional development and to operate in accordance with a code of ethics. But these well-intended efforts have been met with mixed success to date. Optionality seems to be part of the problem. Variable quality training programmes, and ambiguity around the primary purpose of the institution appear to have been contributing factors too.
If governance is to become recognised as a profession, as many have argued is needed, minimum standards need to be instituted, and optionality withdrawn. Prospective directors should be required to complete approved (formal) training and pass exams; serve as an intern; gain (and maintain) formal membership of an approved institution; and commit to continuing professional development. Flawed understandings of the role of the director and what corporate governance is and how it should be practiced need to be corrected too, and the power games, hubris and ineptitude apparent in some boardrooms rectified.
But, in the end, the question of professionalising governance remains contentious. Some experienced directors don't see the need, believing they are competent. Others don't want to be scrutinised. And some directors and observers continue to argue fervently in favour, because they think the likelihood of better outcomes should be much higher.
What do you think?
As a devotee of life-long learning and a student of history, I keep an eye out for ideas and examples to share with boards and directors—in the hope that some might prove useful to help boards lead more effectively, from the boardroom. Amongst the news feeds and magazines that cross my desk (actually, computer screen), this journal often contains thought provoking articles. Recently, I was looking through some older issues and stumbled across this item, which explores effective leadership. The author offers seven 'keys' to effective leadership, as follows (I've taken the liberty of attaching a comment to each—a consideration for boards and directors):
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.