As NACD works with corporate directors of public, private, and nonprofit boards to oversee and ensure the long-term sustainability of the enterprise and bolster investor confidence, I am frequently asked: “What companies have the most significant challenges?” While unique challenges certainly exist across boards of all company types, many view the roles of small-cap public company boards to be quite challenging.
These unique challenges span time and effort (workload) requirements, compensation, talent, financing, regulation, risk, strategy, competition, and internal resources, just to name a few. Small-cap directors and governance professionals may identify and prioritize the unique challenges of these companies differently, however, but one thing remains constant and that is that small-cap companies represent the majority of companies listed on U.S. exchanges, and the long-term prosperity of these small-cap companies is essential to a growing, thriving economy.
So where can small-cap company directors turn to reinforce their strategic agility?
Second, I highly recommend that all directors read NACD’s Board Building white paper, another high-impact, quick read. Most important in this resource is the skill set matrix enclosed in the appendix. Many companies are now using the skill set matrix to both determine and articulate the experiences and talents required for their future strategies.
Lastly, I suggest that current and aspiring small-cap directors attend NACD’s Small-Cap Forum on April 10 in San Antonio or on July 17 in San Francisco. Both sessions will focus on current and emerging issues facing small-cap boards, and these interactive events will include a range of interactive, peer-to-peer networking opportunities for robust dialogue.
Contact me at hstoever@NACDonline.org if you have specific questions or suggestions on how NACD can assist you, your board, and other small-cap directors advance exemplary board leadership.
This year, NACD began a series of programs designed to address the changing nature of directorship. Intended to identify the board composition, processes, and resources necessary for the future board, the time frame lends a twist to this launch—no defined outcome has been chosen at this initial stage. Instead, with the awareness that the economy, and the boardroom, is in a state of unprecedented change, NACD Directorship 2020™is a multi-year initiative designed to help provide clarity to an uncertain picture regarding the future of directorship.
This initiative started with three exploratory meetings in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the last of which concluded this week on the West Coast. In each city, feedback has allowed NACD to continually refine the program design, as well as re-think the questions posed to attendees. Perhaps mirroring the movement of the meeting’s locations from east to west, the conversations have become more focused on the processes directors can implement to meet the coming challenges.
At the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, more than 100 directors attended the afternoon session to discuss two topics: the future state of information flow between the board and C-suite, and how to select performance metrics that will generate sustainable organizational profit. Sessions were led by NACD Managing Director and CFO Peter Gleason; Akamai Technologies Lead Director and Audit Committee Chairman Martin Coyne; Investor Responsibility Research Center Director and current NACD Director Richard Koppes; and former Bell and Howell CEO, current NACD Director, ContextMedia Non-Executive Chairman, and Northwestern University Professor Bill White. During the highly interactive sessions, each table was given a specific set of questions to discuss and provide thoughts among their peers. Takeaways from the event include:
Asymmetric information risk is inherent in directorship. If the board had the same level of operational knowledge as management, directors would be running the company.
An imbalance in information can occur within the boardroom as well. Boards are at a higher risk if one director is viewed as an expert in a technical area. In these situations, the rest of the directors may defer to his or her proficiency and not exercise the necessary skepticism. Further, board structure, with committees that delve deeper into technical areas, adds to the potential for information imbalance.
The risk of information asymmetry is not an issue, but a catalyst. Discussing the balance of information flow between the board and C-suite can expand into many interconnected topics, including board composition, culture, metrics, and leadership.
Board portals may be “greener,” but they encourage information dump. Attendees agreed that their board books have largely grown in length, due to the ease of transferring files rather than creating physical board books. Today, it is more important than ever for the board to communicate what information it needs from management.
By bringing more viewpoints to the boardroom, directors that are diverse in skill set and experience are more likely to explore all sides of an issue. Diversity of directors will change the dialogue in the boardroom going forward.
Boardroom culture should welcome constructive challenges from directors.It is necessary for directors to ask probing questions on issues without fearing negative repercussions. A culture that welcomes constructive criticism will enable more effective individual director evaluations that address problems head on.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing the current and future challenges posed by legislators, regulators, and stakeholders. While the underlying principles are consistent, application of new processes will be tailored to each company.
As a result of the rapid pace of marketplace change, directors need to adopt a mindset that their business is going to be disrupted. This adjusted mindset will allow for continuity planning to be built into the strategy to help offset future disruptions. As Bill White observed: ”If you have the mindset, the metrics will follow.”
In the year 2020, metrics will increasingly focus on speed and agility. Attendees largely agreed that there is no such thing as a competitive sustainable advantage, as a result of disruptive technologies. Speed and agility not only apply to the operations (speed of execution, acceptance of new products), but also to talent (willingness to change, ability to adapt).
In the era of big data, you can “metric yourself to death.” Directors should not look at metrics and dashboards blindly, but instead they should view them in a broader context, including what implications they may hold. It is also important to counter internal metrics with data that shows how the company is viewed externally.
NACD Directorship 2020 will officially kick off next month at the 2013 NACD Board Leadership Conference. Until then, NACD’s blog will feature viewpoints and research from our NACD Directorship 2020 partners—Broadridge, KPMG, Marsh & McLennan Cos., and PwC—that will take a deeper look into the emerging issues and trends that will redefine directorship in the years to come.
Last year, NACD launched its fourth Advisory Council on Risk Oversight—the first of our councils not dedicated to a specific key board committee. In fact, less than 10 percent of public companies even have a committee dedicated to risk oversight. This advisory council was formed as the result of a simple observation: the responsibility of risk oversight has expanded significantly in the last several years. This council is not lacking for discussion topics—the nature of potential risks to an organization is evolving seemingly by the day. Directors need to know the strategies in place to not only mitigate but capitalize on the risks currently facing the company, and those predicted to present challenges in the future.
But that just accounts for what is on the board’s radar. At the second meeting of NACD’s Advisory Council on Risk Oversight held in collaboration with PwC and Gibson Dunn, the discussion went beyond current and predicted risks to the challenges of disruptive technologies and innovation. Increasingly, the most severe shocks have been largely unpredictable: extreme weather, the confluence of multiple events, or innovation that upturns the industry. As one delegate observed: “We haven’t spent much time on the [risk of] ‘I will eat your lunch with a completely different approach.’ Companies don’t sit down and think about who is going to attack from a completely different angle.”
In their oversight capacity, directors cannot constantly monitor the more detailed aspects of the business. Nor can “you anticipate what you don’t know.” Nevertheless, several delegates suggested that the appropriate risk oversight processes in place, coupled with a resilient culture that efficiently reports risks up to the board, can support directors in mitigating known and unknown risks. The meeting, captured in the 2013 Advisory Council on Risk Oversight Summary of Proceedings, focused on areas critical to effective risk oversight processes. These include:
Board processes and people. It is critical that the board not only has the right talent, but engages it fully. Directors should have a “real and thorough” understanding of the business to be able to effectively discuss both strategy and risk with management.
Recognizing asymmetric information risk. While the board has to be comfortable with the reality of information asymmetry, directors should establish tolerance levels for the level of asymmetric risk they are willing to bear, and look for signs of when this risk has become too high.
Engaging with management involved in risk reporting. For companies with a chief risk officer (CRO), that person can keep an “inventory” of risks throughout the organization. Additionally, directors can ask internal audit to identify what it believes will be “hot-button” risk areas.
Linking strategy to risk. The board’s oversight of risk should begin with an assessment of the company’s strategy and its inherent risks, which necessitates understanding and agreeing on the risk appetite, or the amount of risk the company is willing to accept.
Allocating the work of risk oversight. The significant increase in risks facing the board necessitates defining who will act as an “air traffic controller”—allocating risk oversight responsibilities.
Leading practices for risk oversight—including allocation of work and the development of a risk strategy document—will continue to be the focus points not only for this advisory council but also NACD’s Directorship 2020 initiative. To download the full summary of proceedings, click here.