Category: Director Education

Turning ‘Commonsense’ Governance Into Common Practice

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Friso van der Oord

Friso van der Oord

The most powerful names in U.S. business have published guidance on Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance (Commonsense Principles) to provide a framework to improve corporate governance and make it more long-term–oriented. Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, Laurence D. Fink of BlackRock, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and others have outlined principles covering nine broad categories of governance issues that, while nonbinding, will likely spark an important dialogue in boardrooms. Eight of the categories have direct and far-reaching implications for boards, while the final group of principles relates to the role asset managers play in the governance arena. What makes this announcement unique is the unified position these leaders have taken behind one set of commonsense principles.

At the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), an organization that is advancing exemplary leadership among our community of 17,000 director members, our position is clear: We agree with many of the principles outlined and we can help boards implement effective governance practices. In fact, the Commonsense Principles reinforce the Key Agreed Principles to Strengthen Corporate Governance for U.S. Publicly Traded Companies that we introduced a few years ago.

While recognizing that the principles are not a one-size-fits-all solution, and that practices will likely differ based on size, industry, and specific company, we’ve included a practical list of next steps below that boards can take to implement the principles.

The Case for Improved Governance

Key drivers behind the 50+ nonbinding principles are the decline in the number of publicly traded firms, with many highly performing private companies delaying initial public offerings (IPOs), essentially reducing available investment opportunities; the current lack of trust between shareholders, boards, and management teams; concerns about the dominance of short-termism in the management of companies; and the complexity of current corporate governance rules.

The Commonsense Principles identify several areas for improvement:

  • Board agendas should include a focus on major strategic issues (including material mergers and acquisitions and major capital commitments) and long-term strategy, ensuring thorough consideration of operational and financial plans, quantitative and qualitative key performance indicators, and assessment of organic and inorganic growth, among other issues. A company should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance, the business leaders suggest, and should determine whether providing earnings guidance for the company’s shareholders does more harm than good. Companies should frame their required quarterly reporting in the broader context of their articulated strategy and provide an outlook, as appropriate, for trends and metrics that reflect progress (or lack of progress) on long-term goals.
  • Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management, the principles emphasize. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chair and CEO should be separate or combined, and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities.
  • Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds, and experiences. It’s also important to balance the wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for the fresh thinking and perspectives that new board members can bring.
  • In financial reporting, the use of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) should not be obscured by the use of non-GAAP metrics.

Action Steps for Directors

You and your board/company may consider taking certain steps:

  • Review the principles in detail and benchmark your current governance approach against them.
  • Determine if identified differences are areas ripe for further discussion and possible change.
  • Engage your largest investors to get their take on the principles and how they plan to use them when assessing corporate governance effectiveness.

NACD Alignment With Commonsense Principles

Below I’ve highlighted just a few examples of how NACD aligns with the most significant principles. I have included links to NACD reports that can help boards make the Commonsense Principles common practice.

Focus on Long-Term Value Creation

The principles advocate for the creation of long-term shareholder value. Our guidance to members over the past several years has skewed unabashedly toward boards prioritizing long-term value creation. In fact, our 2015 Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on the Board and Long-Term Value Creation emphasizes the need for directors to align short-term goals—and executive compensation—with long-term strategy. The report provides tools and practical recommendations including, among others, the following:

  • Boards should consider recommending a move away from quarterly earnings guidance in favor of broader guidance parameters tied to long-term performance and strategic objectives.
  • The board’s CEO selection and evaluation processes should include an assessment of the extent to which he or she can be an effective advocate for the firm’s long-term strategy.
  • The nominating and governance committee should approach board composition and succession planning with long-term needs in mind, based on the director skills that will be most relevant to the company’s strategy in three, five, or more years.

Role of the Lead Director

The role of the lead independent director emerged as another key area where board effectiveness can improve. We at NACD believe that the lead independent director should spearhead efforts to intensify the board’s efficacy by identifying and addressing weaknesses in process and individual director performance. An effective lead independent director should be able to provide criticism that is both respectful and objective, and be able to ensure every director’s voice is heard. To put it simply, the lead independent director should bring out the very best in the board. Our NACD Blue Ribbon Commission Report on the Effective Lead Director provides practical guidance on how to do that.

Board Composition and Diversity

Public-company boards should have a diverse and complimentary mix of backgrounds, experiences, and skills, according to the Commonsense Principles. While this is an area in which we’ve not seen much movement—aside from a slight increase in gender diversity, with 79 percent of NACD survey respondents reporting they have at least one woman director on their board compared with 77 percent in 2014—our Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on the Diverse Board: Moving From Interest to Action provides very practical advice and tools, including a board-level discussion guide on diversity, that can help boards make diverse board composition a priority. Additional information can be found in NACD’s Board Diversity Resource Center.

Non-GAAP Financial Metrics

The use of non-GAAP metrics in financial reporting has been widely scrutinized by regulators. Mary Jo White, chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, stated last December that non-GAAP metrics deserve “close attention, both to make sure that our current rules are being followed and to ask whether they are sufficiently robust in light of current market practices.” NACD’s Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council, a prestigious group of Fortune 500 committee chairs, met a few months ago to discuss the use of non-GAAP metrics. The council made an important recommendation:

From a governance perspective, audit committees should ensure that there are adequate controls in place to help mitigate the risk of management bias in measuring and reporting non-GAAP measures, and that these controls are frequently assessed.

For more information, please review the brief NACD Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council: Audit Committee Oversight of Non-GAAP Financial Measures.

Further Guidance

Our resources and messaging have always been—and will continue to be—shaped by directors who actively contribute to better board-governance practice. As the largest gathering of directors in the United States, NACD’s 2016 Global Board Leaders’ Summit will convene some of the best minds in governance to continue the dialogue on how boards can adopt leading practices. We believe in and strongly support good corporate governance and will continue to provide resources to help directors effectively oversee U.S. businesses. For more information on the governance principles NACD has established, please review our Key Agreed Principles to Strengthen Corporate Governance for U.S. Publicly Traded Companies.

 

Out With the Old. In With the New.

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If you attended last year’s NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, you already know that mushrooms really are the new plastic. When Ecovative President and CEO Eben Bayer told an audience of 1,200 directors how his company could change the future of packaging during last year’s Future Trends: Short Takes on Big Ideas, we’re not sure he even believed IKEA would be knocking on his door a mere six months later.

That’s the thing with Summit; you’ll hear about concepts and emerging trends that you might not have otherwise considered, because—let’s face it—you’re not hearing them anywhere else (like board member advice from Batman producer Michael Uslan).

From future trends to big ideas, big data to getting your next board seat, leading through disruption to breaking through bias, the agenda for our largest event of the year is designed with one major thing in mind: keeping you—the director—relevant.

And speaking of relevancy, we’re excited to share our brand-new 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit website—your fresh, everything-you-need-to-know-about-Summit headquarters. Before you check out it out, however, don’t miss this 2016 Summit Trailer:

2016 Summit Trailer

We’ll see you in September!

2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit | CONVERGENCE

September 17-20, 2016
Marriott Marquis | Washington, DC

Reserve your seat today.

Early-bird pricing ends March 31.

What to Watch For in 2016

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A Message from NACD’s CEO to Our Members

Each year I find myself declaring that the profession of directorship has become more challenging than it was in the previous year. I believe we’ve now reached the point where we should recognize this escalation as the status quo, not an annual anomaly. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s director qualification disclosure requirements, the advent of proxy access, and the increasingly public role of shareholder activists have contributed to a business environment in which directors’ qualifications and performance are continually scrutinized.

Kenneth Daly NACD CEONACD’s mission is to help directors lead with confidence—and to foster stakeholders’ confidence in their directors’ ability to effectively serve their companies. I’d like to highlight three critical issues that we believe directors—of all company types—should focus on during the year ahead.

1. Director Awareness

The dramatic slowdown in China’s economy, plummeting oil prices, recent terrorist activities, and the rise of the digital economy have put a fine point on the need for directors to be aware of disruptors that may cause a drastic change in sea conditions for their organizations.

No one can be expected to anticipate every potential disruption. (Who could have seen Uber idling around the corner?) But foresight comes down to one deceptively simple practice: asking the right questions. Are board members exploring the possible impacts of a terrorist act on the company’s supply chain, investigating their organization’s vulnerability to a cyber attack, or considering new competitors that can bring products to market faster than ever before and with nominal investment?  Throughout 2016 our NACD Directorship 2020 initiative will continue to focus on disruptive forces, putting a spotlight on the issues that may affect your companies in the years to come.

Suggested NACD Resources:
Environmental and Innovative Disruption: What Directors Need to Know
Leveraging Social and Demographic Trends

2. Shareholder Activism

It goes without saying that activist investors have gotten our attention. A record-setting 355 activist campaigns were announced in 2015, including 33 against Fortune 500 companies. Last year was also a record year in terms of activist campaigns resulting in board seats—127 resulted in at least one board seat for the activist or the activist’s appointee. Our own annual survey of public-company directors found that 20 percent of respondents’ boards were approached by an activist investor in the past year. But nearly half of respondents reported that they are unprepared for an activist challenge.

Activists aren’t practicing black magic; they are performing effective due diligence and smart analytics on their holdings. Boards need to think like activists and anticipate the issues these investors may raise. Do your company’s metrics fall outside industry norms? Does your board composition have any perceived weaknesses? Do you engage with management about the assumptions that undergird your company’s strategy? In 2016, NACD will continue to provide resources that can help your boards to anticipate—and respond to—emerging issues.

Suggested NACD Resources
Identify the Enemies of Effectiveness and Think Like an Activist
Investor Perspectives: Critical Issues for Board Focus in 2016

3. Mergers & Acquisitions

M&A activity reached record levels in 2015. Given this phenomenon, it’s more critical than ever that boards understand their role in M&A. We believe it boils down to readiness and oversight.

At any given time, directors may need to consider either the sale of their own company or the purchase of another company. The board must carefully weigh all opportunities to buy or sell as part of its routine corporate oversight. Be on the lookout for NACD’s new M&A Board Resource Center, which will be available later this quarter. The center will serve as a one-stop shop to help boards participate effectively in the evaluation of proposed M&A transactions.

Suggested NACD Resources
FAQs on the Role of the Board in M&A
Recorded Webinar:  The Extent of the Board’s Role in M&A

NACD Cyber Summit
On a final note, I’d like to call your attention to the 2016 NACD Cyber Summit, which will be held on June 15 in Chicago. With Congress now considering passage of a bill that would require companies to publicly identify the “cybersecurity experts” on their boards, scrutiny of the board’s role in cybersecurity oversight has never been greater. This year’s Cyber Summit will equip directors and management with the tools they need to foster cyber resiliency and confidently oversee cyber-risk management.

If you would like to receive additional resources on the three issues mentioned above or more information about the Cyber Summit, I encourage you to contact your dedicated NACD Concierge. If you have not yet had a chance to meet the concierge assigned to you, give us a call at 202-775-0509, and we’ll connect you.

Thank you for being an NACD member. I wish you a successful year ahead.

Sincerely,

Ken