“The last several decades have proven that, more than ever, we are all interconnected and interdependent,” said NACD Chair Karen Horn. “We will rise—or fall—together, based on that trust.”
NACD Board Chair Karen Horn
Horn’s opening speech at the recent 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit revealed a compelling case for strong, conscientious corporate governance in light of recent political, economic, and social turbulence.
Horn’s governance experience is extensive and includes serving as a director at Simon Property Group, vice chair of the U.S. Russia Foundation, and vice chair of the National Bureau of Economic Research. She also previously served as chair of the audit committee at Norfolk Southern Corp., lead director and chair of the compensation committee at Eli Lilly & Co., and a director of T. Rowe Price Mutual Funds.
Horn began by thanking outgoing NACD chair Reatha Clark King for “her leadership and her positive influence on our organization’s growth,” and praised the audience for their own strength of leadership in the boardroom. She then turned to the guiding concept behind this Summit’s programming—convergence.
“Convergence is an important theme at a time when our world appears to be tearing itself apart,” Horn said. She pointed out that hostility seems to be the prevailing sentiment of our time and that frustrations with the current domestic and geopolitical environments are the impetuses for growing division. “I feel we must focus on a wider, longer view—a more broadly encompassing perspective that leads us back toward convergence,” she said.
Horn—who previously served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and as an economist for the board of governors of the Federal Reserve—made several recommendations meant to address the evolving relationship between society and capitalism, using conscientious governance. (For more information on the roles of capitalism and corporations, view the NACD blog post “Re-Thinking Capitalism: Best-Selling Author Espouses Higher Calling for Boards.”)
Addressing Income Inequality
Directors can take a role in addressing social issues like income inequality, Karen said, adding that income inequality is an example of a challenge that “affects not only our immediate stakeholders, but everyone downstream who will be affected in the long term as well as the short term.”
Horn agrees that free trade is an excellent driver of economic value across the board, but that the path to growth can unintentionally leave some individuals behind. She suggested public, private, and government entities alike should develop programs that lift up those who are taken advantage of or otherwise harmed on the path to greater economic progress. “Looking at an issue like this from the perspective of those who will not benefit, or may even be hurt by it, is the first step toward finding compromises and solutions that will minimize negative fallout,” Horn said about the corporation’s role in growth as a greater good.
One such program that directors could collaborate with policy makers, social leaders, and other stakeholders on is how to address the controversial debate over minimum wage increases. “Everyone has an opinion, and it is clearly a divisive issue,” Horn conceded to the audience. “If we are to find a solution that works, again, we must become familiar with the divergent perspectives.”
The Imperative to Lead
Capitalism is being impacted by “globalism, social and demographic shifts, new technology, increased transparency and resource scarcity,” According to Horn. In the face of these paradigm shifts, directors have the opportunity to converge with stakeholders to build a better path forward for all, and have a unique opportunity to rebuild the public’s trust in the role of corporations.
“People are searching for leaders they can trust, leaders who are smart, confident and strong—who are understanding and compassionate,” Horn said. “This is a role sometimes filled by government, but trust in government is at an all-time low, so the leadership gap needs to be filled. I believe we are some of the leaders who can and should fill that gap.”
Horn’s address closed with a charge to directors that will resound through her term as chair of NACD and beyond.
“Corporate America has an immense amount of talent, and we need to step up before we are stepped over,” she entreated. “There is no question that we have the ability to take this leadership challenge, but only if we act responsibly, transparently, honestly and with careful regard for different perspectives. If we can do that, we can move our culture back toward civil discourse—toward convergence.”
The 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit officially opened Sunday evening with the bang of drums and the bagpipes of the St. Andrew’s Society of Washington, D.C., a local Scottish heritage association. Their performance was followed by an interactive video experience that challenged the audience to question the borders of the screen. Each of these sensory experiences underlined the theme of the year, Beyond Borders: Leadership Evolved. The opening night keynote speakers–NACD Chair Dr. Reatha Clark King, and philosopher and author, Kwame Anthony Appiah–explored how directors should weather the evolution of the boardroom.
King is a fan of challenges. A seasoned director herself who values the good businesses can do in the world, King centered her message on all the work that boards have done to better the world around us—and the work left to do. “We have been successfully adjusting the trajectory of governance systems and have made improvements, but we still have much to do,” said King. “The board’s agenda gets longer. We offer no encouragement that the agenda will get shorter. Instead we prepare ourselves for the greater demand.”
One of the demands King identified was the need for directors to hold fervently to core beliefs. One among the many she cited was accountability: “I am a student of the word ‘accountability,’ and it looms large in my mind for directors to understand and embrace it.” King asked the audience to also embrace leadership in challenging times in spite of the many chances to falter. Among the recommended ways to lead with strength through governance challenges were the concepts of embracing broader perspectives, finding the courage to do what’s right, and to be brave enough to change if needed.
King’s suggestions for leadership to the audience of more than 1,200 were strengthened by Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion on honor. Appiah is author of The Honor Code, a best-selling book that examines four points in history where honor outweighed other forces to catalyze social change for the greater good. Appiah distilled his observations on honor into applications for the boardroom and professional practice as a whole.
At the core of his message was that honor will trump money, regulation, and even the coercion of law to guide a person’s moral compass and that only honor holds up in the face of the greatest ethical challenges that inevitably arise.
What happens when a company places service before leadership? Wawa Inc. did just that, and its chain of convenience stores has soared as a result. Jeffrey M. Cunningham, founder of NACD Directorship magazine and professor of leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, spoke with Wawa Chair Richard D. (“Dick”) Wood Jr. on the main stage at NACD’s 2015 Global Board Leaders’ Summit about the inner workings of the regional convenience-store chain that has grown into a $9 billion empire.
Originally an iron foundry established in New Jersey in 1803, the Wawa company has weathered many rounds of disruption to become one of three genuine cult businesses in the country, the other two being In-N-Out Burgers and Chic-fil-A. Wood ascribed his success at the privately-owned company that he has served since 1970 to the concepts of servant leadership and being a steward of investment in advanced technologies and innovations. A member of Wawa’s legal counsel at the beginning of his career, this descendant of the founder now serves as non-executive chair of the company’s nine-person board.
For the first half of the event, Cunningham interviewed Wood about the history of the company and Wood’s commitment to the philosophy of servant leadership. In a business context, this philosophy puts service to every stakeholder before any other facet of the enterprise. Wood takes justifiable pride in Wawa’s commitment to its 26,000 employees, including their ownership in the company. Wawa’s Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) has created such value for employees at every level that the organization last year received 300,000 applications for its available 3,000 open positions. The Wawa model has proven to be profitable not in spite of but because of its commitment to family and service.
Once the conversation opened up to questions from the floor, Wood described some of the business challenges he’s faced over the years and how he has surmounted them. When asked about his reputation as “Chief Paranoia Officer” and how even good CEOs often misread the signs, Wood said, “Every time it comes back to hubris. It always comes back to hubris. CEOs didn’t have enough paranoia.”
Wood’s observations on a form of CEO self-awareness that some dub paranoia was fascinating in relation to the earlier keynote presentation by Kwame Anthony Appiah on honor’s place in business. One way that Wood practices honor in his business is to ensure that Wawa’s six core values—Value People, Delight Customers, Embrace Change, Do the Right Thing, Do Things Right, and Passion for Winning—are so thoroughly woven into the company culture that every employee can recite them; and dozens of times each month, Wawa employees recognize their peers in writing for exemplifying those values day to day. Wood’s leadership of Wawa illustrates the type of professional ethics that Appiah touched on in his keynote speech.
Before closing, Wood addressed Wawa’s next step in its innovation cycle: a move toward diesel fuel. “Two big products are going to disappear,” Wood declared. “One is cigarettes, and the other is gasoline. We’re looking into alternatives to replace a commodity we think will disappear.” To support diesel as the anticipated new market source in fuel, Wawa plans to retrofit its filling stations.
Katie Grills is assistant editor at NACD Directorship magazine.