Many commentators—academics and practitioners alike—have suggested that corporate governance is an complex task. I agree. In the context of maximising company performance, Boards must satisfy many demanding (and often competing) priorities: the legal and compliance requirements of their jurisdiction; monitoring of company performance; management of risk; future directions (strategy); hiring (and sometimes firing) of the CEO. It's a busy job, and it's one that takes time and commitment to do well.
The steady stream of corporate failures in recent years, and board indiscretions, suggests many Boards are simply not doing their job well however. Why is this?
Researchers have investigated many aspects of governance, including structure, composition and boardroom behaviour, in an effort to understand how boards work and how they contribute to performance. Independent directors have been held up as crucial to maintaining distance from the CEO and overseeing performance effectively. Gender (and other) diversity has been promoted heavily in many quarters. The forming of a strong team through high levels of engagement and "desirable" behaviours has also been explored. As yet, none of the research has exposed any conclusive results in terms of increased company performance.
In my view, the prevailing theory of governance (agency theory), which underpins most governance frameworks today, is flawed. It is an adversarial model that assumes management cannot be trusted and needs to be closely monitored. This theory (and various incarnations arising from it) has not delivered the results the original proponents expected—despite many decades of trying.
Rather than continue to dogmatically pursue a flawed model, we need to move on. The goal posts need to be moved—from a focus on compliance, structure, composition and behaviour, to a focus on strategy and value. The notion of a strategic board suggests a focus on future performance and value maximisation; on engaging with management and other stakeholders to develop strategy (together, not in isolation); on high levels of engagement, to understand the business and the market; on critical thinking and an independence of thought; and, on robust debates which explore a wide range of strategic options (diversity to avoid groupthink).
Imagine what Board meetings might be like if the focus changed. They'd probably last longer. There may be heated discussions. Directors would be read their papers before meetings, and they would be engaged. Necessarily, directors would sit on fewer Boards, because they'd be spending more time (making better decisions) on each one. But perhaps, if Boards were bold enough to change their focus, they might become more effective. Perhaps. Here's hoping.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.