Economics, Uncertainty, and the 2016 Election

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At a mainstage panel during NACD’s 2016 Global Board Leaders’ Summit on September 19, directors, economists, and former regulators discussed the potential regulatory, economic, and geopolitical implications of the coming election and reflected on how corporate directors and executive teams should adjust to greater levels of ambiguity. One of the panelists, Nicholas M. (Nick) Donofrio, director of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., BNY Mellon Corp., Delphi Automotive PLC, Liberty Mutual Co., the MITRE Corp., and NACD, and the former head of innovation at IBM, characterized today’s external environment as “lumpier and more abrupt than even a few years ago,” forcing companies and their boards to be always on alert and to act quickly in response to change.

NACD Summit Election Panel

The panelists offered a range of projections to help corporate directors assess the business impact of the upcoming elections. They emphasized that aside from a new occupant of the White House, the elections also have the potential to drive significant changes in Congress, major regulatory agencies, and the judicial system. The discussion centered on four major questions of importance for companies and the boards that oversee them.

  1. How likely is a major reform of the tax code?

Reform of the corporate tax code is long overdue, said former U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe, director of Aetna, Inc. and the Bipartisan Policy Center. For years, companies have learned to accept the “permanent temporary tax code,” and the resulting policy uncertainty has made investment and capital allocation decisions more challenging. Snowe suggested that even if House and/or Senate control switches from one party to another, it is unlikely that Democratic and Republican congressional leaders will be able to transcend their fundamental differences about taxation and break the current gridlock. Most likely, she believes, the incoming president will use the power of the pen to tweak the current tax code through executive orders.

  1. Should we expect continued regulatory activism?

Troy A. Paredes, director of Electronifie and former Commissioner of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), shared his concern that “the tidal wave of regulations” seen in the past few years won’t slow down, and it will force companies to commit more time and resources to compliance. “Elections are always major inflection points,” he said, that either sustain or reset the policy priorities of the SEC and other key regulatory bodies such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, Paredes urged directors to be alert as to whether Mary Jo White, the current chair of the SEC, will have enough time in her remaining tenure to finish rule-making on key corporate governance matters covered in Dodd-Frank.

  1. Will our political system address skill shortages in the labor market?

Nick Donofrio offered a mixed view of how the country is addressing the looming crisis in the labor market where current skill sets do not align with the future industry needs. “Our political institutions are too polarized to take meaningful action,” he said. However, it’s crucial that the United States build a digitally competent and productive labor force that can be employed to deliver high-tech manufacturing. “We cannot afford to only create [financial] value in this country, but we must also [manufacture] value here. That means returning much more research and development and production to American soil.” In the absence of government investment, he’s optimistic that the private sector will step up to address this critical challenge and find innovative ways to reskill displaced workers.

  1. How will the United States make itself more competitive globally?

Harry Broadman, a seasoned economist and the CEO and managing partner of Proa Global Partners LLC, reminded the audience that the United States faced a similar set of challenges to its global competitiveness in the 1980s when Japan was projected to become the world’s economic leader. A major difference today may be the backlash against free trade, which could jeopardize the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threaten the underpinnings of the European Union. Broadman underlined that it will be critical for U.S. policymakers to remove barriers to foreign investments from high-growth emerging market companies that will contribute to quality job growth. This new generation of enterprises is important to the future of global business, which will no longer be dominated by firms headquartered in the West.

He and other panelists also spoke extensively about the importance of major investments in public infrastructure. America’s crumbling highways, bridges, ports, and technology infrastructure significantly impede further productivity growth, which Broadman believes is the country’s major Achilles’ heel.

The “Orbital” Governance Perspective: An Astronaut’s Lessons From Space

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Few institutions represent American ingenuity and innovation more clearly than its space program. With rapt attention, the world watched July 20, 1969, as Mission Commander Neil Armstrong of NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft became the first person to walk on the moon.

Ron Garan at NACD Summit

Ron Garan—retired astronaut and chief pilot for commercial space launch provider World View Enterprises Inc.—was one of those who watched. “My most vivid childhood memory was July 20, 1969,” Garan said. “On some level, I realized that we had just become a different species. A species no longer limited to our planet.”

Garan delivered the opening keynote address to an audience of more than 1,300 on Sunday evening in Washington, D.C., at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit, the world’s largest gathering for corporate directors.

Beyond Limitations

Four decades later, Garan’s childhood dream became reality. He had trained with NASA to become an astronaut himself. “That first day in space when I got to take a look at our planet, [I] was absolutely breathless.…What I felt was an incredible sense of gratitude. Being physically detached from the world made me feel closer to the people on it—more interconnected.”

Reflecting on his second space mission, Garan remembers similar feelings of gratitude, but that gratitude was coupled this time with internal struggle. The technological advances that make space flight not just possible but routine offer the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Yet, Garan pointed out, some people on this planet still do not have access to basic resources like clean water.

“These days we’re more connected than ever, and the Internet is the backbone,” said Garan.  “The Internet can be our nerve center, enabling us to solve problems in an entirely different way.”

Collaboration

Garan further explored that challenge in his third mission, when the seeds to a solution began to root. The answer? Collaboration. On this space mission, Garan was weightlessly floating about 100 feet over the International Space Station, attached to the craft’s large robotic arm. That station represents the collaborative innovation of 15 nations—including the United States, Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation, and 11 European nations—that have, at times, been at odds with each other politically and ideologically.

“What would it look like for us to have that kind of collaboration here on the [Earth’s] surface?” Garan asked. “Collaboration doesn’t mean we agree on everything. What it does mean is that we find the things we do agree on so we have a platform to work [from in order] to address the things we don’t agree on.”

Risk: Necessary for Innovation

But innovation and collaboration don’t come without risk. As a highly decorated fighter pilot, Garan had run several missions and trainings in which he’d successfully flown and had no mechanical problems in flight. Then one day, while piloting a jet during a routine takeoff, he heard a loud pop that jolted him. He very quickly realized his engines no longer had any usable thrust. Garan tried to land in a wooded area and quickly realized that he had no need to be in the jet at that point. Seconds before impact, he ejected and his life was spared.

That incident, though life-threatening, did not change Garan’s outlook on life or risk. But the very next day, he was in flight and, because of a mechanical malfunction, had to conduct an emergency landing. After having completed thousands of flights, he’d had emergencies two days in a row. The second day is when the idea of what it means to take risks sunk in.

Before ever entering a plane or spacecraft, one must decide if doing so is worth the risk. The same is true for business leaders who want to innovate and collaborate. When NASA is planning a mission, they consider every possible issue that could go wrong and develop a response plan that’s ready and waiting to be activated. Boards should do the same. Similarly, a great idea on the shelf can only provide value if it’s activated. “Ideas are overrated. There’s got to be a streamlined path to action,” Garan shared.

“Any change involves some level of risk,” Garan said. “Any innovative business strategy must involve risk. Collaboration can help mitigate risk and also provide an engine for growth.”

Implications for Businesses

It’s important for businesses to understand that we don’t live on a globe; globes are just abstract lines on a map, Garan shared. We too often think of the world in terms of it being about business and economy supporting a society that sustains a planet, he said. “Instead, we live on a planet that sustains a society that has built an economy.” Understanding that concept is adopting what Garan calls an “orbital” view.

It’s time that enterprises realized that it’s good business to care about issues like sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR)—beyond just doing it to boost a brand or reputation, Garan shared. Issues like CSR should be part of a company’s DNA now, not just for future generations, he added.

The retired astronaut described how, on his last space mission, his spacecraft entered back into the Earth’s atmosphere and landed on its side. “Now out of my window, I saw a rock, a flower, and a blade of grass. I was home. In Kazakhstan, nonetheless,” he said. “I wasn’t in Houston, where my family was. But I was home and had a different idea of home.”

Thinking of the planet as “home” may be what’s required to actually make one small step for directors and one giant leap for corporate governance.

Three Ways to Build a Strategic-Asset Board

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The business environment is rapidly and fundamentally changing—and directors are expected to keep pace. In response to this state of extreme volatility, the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Building the Strategic-Asset Board explores how boards can position themselves to capably usher their companies into the future by focusing on continuous improvement. At the 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Commission co-chairs Bonnie Hill, director of California Water Service Group and former Home Depot lead director, and Richard H. Koppes, director of NACD and the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute and former deputy executive officer of CalPERS, discussed the Commission’s key findings with NACD Director of Strategic Content Development Robyn Bew.

NACD Blue Ribbon Commission Report on Building the Strategic Asset Board

Members of this year’s Blue Ribbon Commission came to a consensus early in their discussions that “board refreshment”—an increasingly popular term in the corporate governance community as various stakeholders turn their attention to board composition and director turnover—is a limiting, and even simplistic, concept. Instead, directors need to figure out how they can make themselves strategic assets to the companies they serve by instilling a continuous-improvement ethos into the culture of the boardroom. Over the course of the conversation, Hill and Koppes suggested that directors consider the composition and functionality of the boards in the following ways:

How do directors’ skills need to align with company strategy? Businesses evolve rapidly, and boards need to respond in kind. Here, directors need to consider how they are keeping abreast of the issues facing their organizations and whether the skills that initially garnered them a seat at the boardroom table still align with the current and future direction of the company. Sometimes this means deciding to leave the board.

Internally, new-director onboarding practices provide an opportunity to communicate about the board’s culture and governance principles, including reinforcing the idea that board service is not a lifetime appointment. Externally, boards can communicate to stakeholders that a director’s departure was in keeping with the board’s governance practices and does not reflect poor service on the director’s part.

What are the board’s processes for continuous improvement? Maintain a pipeline of boardroom talent and have a multi-year succession plan in place so that open board seats can be filled with highly capable candidates. These plans should include designating successors for committee chairs and the independent chair or lead director. For sitting directors, continuing education programs can help to refine or amplify skill sets. Evaluations, including at the individual-director level, are essential tools for continuous improvement when they are conducted regularly and periodically involve an independent third party. They help ensure that the board’s processes are functioning well, enable directors to be more nimble in their own self-improvement, and ultimately fine-tune the board’s strategic contribution to the organization.

How do stakeholder perspectives affect the board? Shareholders—especially institutional investors—are paying closer attention to issues surrounding board composition. Considering that institutional investors read thousands of proxies each year, the onus is on individual boards to effectively communicate how each director makes valuable contributions. More and more leading boards are going beyond the basic biographical information required by the SEC and listing exchanges and providing additional context. In addition, if there is any concern that a director slate could be a point of concern for investors, boards should reach out to those constituencies well in advance of proxy season to explain their position. Should investor dissatisfaction with the board lead to an activist engagement, panelists agreed that, while sometimes both parties ultimately agree to disagree, the board needs to hear out that point of view and seriously consider if their position might add value.

For detailed recommendations on how to enhance your board’s continuous-improvement processes in seven key areas, download the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Building the Strategic-Asset Board. In addition, read this article from the current issue of NACD Directorship magazine for more insights from Bonnie Hill and Richard Koppes on the creation of the report.