I arrived back in New Zealand this morning from six productive days in London (client and new business meetings) and three days in Milan (EIASM conference: day one and day two summaries). My first morning back is typically consumed attending to any non-urgent mail (envelopes and packages, not email) that may have arrived. Today was no different. Then the phone rang. The person on the other end, a director named Simon (not his real name) wanted some advice. He was struggling to settle a dispute that had been simmering in a family business boardroom for a couple of months. Tempers were starting to become frayed.
The board in question comprised six directors, three of whom were also shareholders (one was the managing director). The other three (including Simon) were independent directors. The dispute arose when one of the non-executive directors (who held approximately 28 per cent of the company's shares) disagreed with the other directors on a strategically important issue. After some discussion, Simon revealed that the director expected to influence the decision "commensurate with my shareholding". The other directors were not sure how to proceed. Thankfully, they sought external guidance before things got out of hand.
This vignette is not uncommon in family-owned businesses (regardless of size, sector or complexity). It occurs when when non-executive directors want to exert 'power' and the board as a whole is not adequately informed about its duties and responsibilities. Unchecked it has the potential to cause significant damage. Fortunately, and notwithstanding the social tensions, the issue is far from insoluble.
While debate (including vigorous debate) is to be encouraged in the boardroom (the research literature has associated vigorous debate with higher quality decision-making), directors need to understand that no one director necessarily has any more (or less) power than any other. When it comes to decision-making, all have an equal 'say'—one vote—because the board being a collective of peers required to make decisions together.
Problems can occur if non-executive directors attempt to wield 'power' through their shareholding, even though shareholding has no relevance in the boardroom at all. Non-executive directors can (sometimes conveniently) lose sight of this, especially when an issue of importance to them is being debated or they hold strongly-held views on an issue. In the heat of the moment, they can confuse their director and shareholder decision rights (one vote per director v. one vote per share, respectively). Director decision rights apply when the board is in session (during board meetings). In contrast, shareholder decision rights apply in shareholder meetings only (e.g., the annual general meeting). Directors need to both comprehend this distinction and act accordingly, if the board is to be a place of productive decision-making.
If you'd like to know more, about decision-making in the boardroom or any other aspect of good board practice, please let me know. I'd be delighted to serve you.
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Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.