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.
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.
The regulatory burden on U.S. public companies continues to increase and the government’s role has expanded from that of just regulator to, in some cases, shareholder. That might leave some directors wondering how far into the boardroom Uncle Sam can reach.
A panel of financial industry and government experts convened last fall to discuss the influence of the federal government when it acts as either a shareholder or a regulator. The Clearing House Association and the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance facilitated the discussion with a program called The Government as Regulator and/or Shareholder—The Impact on Director Duties, which included the following speakers and panel members:
Rolin P. Bissell, partner, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor LLP
Amy Borrus, interim executive director, Council of Institutional Investors
Laban P. Jackson, Jr., director, JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Peter A. Langerman, CEO, Franklin Mutual Advisers, LLC
Giovanni P. Prezioso, partner, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
Gregg L. Rozansky, managing director, The Clearing House Association
Mary Schapiro, former chair, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
Collins J. Seitz, Jr., justice, Supreme Court of Delaware
Charles M. Elson, director of the Weinberg Center and professor of finance, moderated the discussion.
The panel offered a wide range of perspectives, but a few common themes emerged that are applicable to directors across a variety of industries.
Most panelists agreed that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was a response proportional to the 2008 global financial crisis, butexpressed frustration with certain government bailouts and the political motivations influencing them. Several panelists indicated they felt uneasy about the broad scale of intervention that the federal government made into the private sector to bail out failing companies. The panelists cited the example of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s $85 billion bailout of American International Group (AIG) to illustrate how far agencies reached—even in the face of the internal corruption at the company. AIG’s credit default swaps lost the company $30 billion and are often blamed as a major reason the company collapsed in 2008. Controversy swirled when in March 2009, publicly disclosed information revealed that after the bailout, employees of AIG’s financial services division were going to be paid $218 million in bonuses. A June 2010 report by the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP)—a five-member group created by Congress in 2008 to oversee the U.S. Treasury’s actions—concluded that the Federal Reserve Board’s close relations to powerful people on Wall Street influenced its decision to help AIG.
While the panelists were critical of the bailouts, they agreed that Dodd-Frank was a reasonable response to help prevent future failure of companies. Directors’ bandwidth, however, to address their corporation’s most important strategic matters, including emerging risks, may be limited by the need to spend time ensuring compliance with Dodd-Frank. Most agreed that they do not expect a lessening of regulations in the near future.
Panelists also agreed that the Delaware court system—one of the most powerful legal arbiters of U.S. corporate governance—is not designed to address scenarios in which the federal government acts as an investor. When the federal government intervenes by investing in a company to salvage it, the government becomes a shareholder with greater legal privileges than a traditional, human shareholder who might challenge corporate decisions in the Delaware courts. In the event that the government challenges a company in the federal court system, the federal government would be tried in legal institutions where the ultimate power of appeal is granted by its own founding documents. Challenges to federal sovereign immunity and the federal government as shareholder would be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.
The line between the government as a stockholder and regulator could be blurred when the regulatory influence over the company is pervasive. This issue may be particularly acute for wholly owned subsidiaries of public companies when the government closely reviews company decision-making and expresses views on what is in the best interest of the subsidiary.
Relationships between regulators and directors—though once strained by mistrust after the financial crisis—are beginning to improve. A panelist observed that, in several global markets, relationships between regulators and directors have steadily normalized over the past year and a half, in contrast to more tense interactions of previous years. As global regulatory standards are established, markets recover and stabilize, and businesses and regulators deepen their understanding of each other.
Forming relationships with regulators should be a strategic priority for directors. Most panelists insisted that good relationships with representatives from regulatory agencies are essential. Boards should aim to keep a level of candor with regulatory contacts that could be helpful when pushing back against regulatory action and when directors have suggestions for upcoming regulations. Directors should also acknowledge that regulators have an important function to carry out in a high-pressure, multi-stakes market environment that is a challenge to navigate for regulators and companies alike. A “kicking and screaming” approach to relationships with regulators was frowned upon, as it is not productive and is insensitive to the fact that developing or implementing regulation is demanding and complex.
Directors seeking to strengthen their oversight of corporate compliance and ethics programs can access the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) publication Director Essentials: Strengthening Compliance and Ethics Oversight. The guide provides an overview of the board’s role in compliance oversight and offers practical insights about fulfilling regulatory expectations.
Front and center for boards and senior management is the call to align the company’s day-to-day activities with long-term value creation, said Bill McCracken, co-chair of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) that produced the newly-released report on The Board and Long-Term Value Creation. McCracken, who is also a director of NACD and the MDU Resources Group, president of Executive Consulting Group, and the former CEO of CA Technologies, co-chaired the commission with Dr. Karen Horn, director of Eli Lilly & Co., Norfolk Southern Corp., and T. Rowe Price Mutual Funds, and vice chair of the NACD board.
What’s the first step for boards in creating long-term value? “Draw a clear line between the daily objectives and long-term strategy,” said McCracken. “Ask, ‘Have we done a good job articulating that? Do investors buy into the strategy? And does the company have the capabilities it needs to execute that strategy?’”
Dona D. Young—chair of the nominating and governance committee for Foot Locker Inc. and a director of Aegon N.V. and Save the Children—served as moderator for a panel that also included Margaret M. Foran, a director at Occidental Petroleum and the chief governance officer, vice president, and corporate secretary of Prudential Financial; and Brian L. Schorr, partner and chief legal officer of Trian Fund Management LP, director of the Bronx High School of Science Endowment Fund, and a trustee of the New York University School of Law. Young and Foran were both BRC Commissioners in 2015; Schorr was a member of the 2014 BRC, which focused on the board’s role in strategy development.
The panel discussion amplified four key findings from this report:
Make short-term goals the building blocks of long-term strategy.
“It’s clear that short-term is not at odds with long-term,” Young said. “How do we integrate that concept in our companies?”
Panelists agreed that directors should determine how to break down long-term goals into measureable short-term milestones at the quarterly, half-year, and annual marks. As Schorr noted, “performance can’t be back-loaded: if a company consistently misses those short-term marks year-after-year, shareholders will question the integrity of the long-term goal you’re moving toward.” Among the BRC report’s tools for directors are examples of long-term-oriented performance metrics in nine different categories.
Directors also need to test the organization’s alignment between short-term metrics and long-term strategy with actual performance. Start off with your premise—or the long-term goal your organization is moving toward—and conduct historical look-backs on a regular basis, Foran said. “Were we right about our predictions? Did we reward the right things?”
Independent inquiry is not optional.
In order to be effective at setting those long-term goals and their relevant short-term milestones, directors must be knowledgeable about both the company and industry.
“We have to do our own homework and not rely solely on management [for information],” Young said. “How do board members engage in independent inquiry without making management feel like we don’t trust them?”
Directors should be reading press releases and analyst reports—not only those issued by their own company but also those of peers and competitors within the industry—to get a sense of what the trends are, Foran said. Trade publications and conferences are other key sources of data.
Schorr described an approach he himself uses: “At Trian, we focus on the income statement. We look at indicators such as EPS growth and EBITDA margins—do we see underperformance relative to what we believe is the company’s potential? Balance-sheet activists look for signs of excess cash, lower leverage ratios, or dividend payout ratios that are out of balance. We ask why. There may be a perfectly good reason; it’s just not well-articulated by management.”
Conduct regular individual-director evaluations.
McCracken highlighted the report’s recommendation on the need for long-term succession planning. When considering your company’s board composition, ask whether you have the capabilities and talent that will be needed to guide the company toward future goals, he said.
“We do strenuous 360-degree evaluations with management,” McCracken noted. “Why can’t we hold ourselves, as board members, to the same standard?” And since board members are peers, it is helpful to have a third party conduct the assessments. Young shared an example from her own experience in which individual director evaluations were truly 360-degree, incorporating input from senior management: “It was tremendously enlightening, really eye-opening.”
Be prepared to engage with shareholders.
The importance of regularly scheduled meetings with shareholders cannot be overestimated. “Don’t just wait for a problem to arise,” Shorr advised, noting that information exchange is a two-way street. The board should also have ways to gather unfiltered information about shareholders’ priorities and concerns.
McCracken emphasized this point: “In today’s world, board members need to talk to shareholders. Regulation FD is a non-issue, a red herring, and directors can’t use it as an excuse.” The BRC report provides detailed guidance that directors can use to prepare for shareholder meetings.
The BRC Report on the Board and Long-Term Value Creation is a natural extension of last year’s BRC report, which recommended that directors get involved in strategy decisions early on and remain involved with them, Schorr said. Doing so can help push management toward goals that promote long-term value creation with links to interim performance milestones that are clear to shareholders. “It’s more than understanding and doing defensive analysis. It’s getting into the boardroom and doing a lot of the things activists are doing,” Schorr said.
Moderator Young summarized the report’s significance this way: “This report helps directors to take a systems approach to engaging with management on strategy and driving value creation.”
This timely publication is the NACD’s twenty-second BRC report and represents the thought leadership of more than 20 eminent directors and trailblazers in business and government. Distributed to attendees of the GBLS and available to NACD members at www.nacdonline.org/value, the report contains the following practical guidance for the directors and boards of public, private, and nonprofit organizations:
Ten recommendations on the board’s role in driving long-term value creation
Eleven red flags that indicate a lack of alignment between short-term goals and long-term strategy
Specific steps directors can take regarding CEO selection and evaluation, capital allocation, and other elements related to long-term value creation
Eight appendices that offer detailed insights and practical boardroom tools