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.
At the final plenary session of the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, NACD President and CEO Ken Daly spoke with Steven Reinemund, director of Walmart, Exxon Mobil, Marriott, and American Express, and Gen. H. Hugh Shelton (Ret.), chairman of Red Hat and director of L-3 Communications on the issue of business complexity. The current environment is dynamic, fast-paced, and tumultuous, Daly observed. Not only must boards stay vigilant of disruptive forces—including those identified by NACD’s Directorship 2020®: economics, geopolitics, competition, technology, demographics, innovation, and environment—these forces rarely appear solo. Indeed, multiple forces can strike a company at once, creating a formidable force: complexity.
Drawing from his military background, Gen. Shelton suggested applying a process of “branches and sequels” in boardroom discussions to reduce unknown factors. This process requires that strategy development takes into account all possible actions of your adversaries or competitors—forcing directors to consider the “knowns and the unknowns.”
Reinemund used different terminology to address unknown and unanticipated factors. He said that boards may wish to view disruptors and risks through both offensive and defensive lenses. Most importantly, boards must also combine the two. Although defensive moves can be easier for boards to understand and address, by considering offensive actions the board can help move the business forward.
Turning to the topic of innovation, Daly noted that an unusually high number (95%) of the Standard and Poor’s 500 company earnings have been used to buy back stock or pay dividends. He posed the question: does returning earnings to shareholders reduce or limit the funds available for innovation or acquisitions?
Both panelists agreed that many companies have a large amount of cash available, but often the board can’t find a potential acquisition that fits the company strategy, or the target has such a high multiple that it is not a good purchase. Despite these potential issues, though, the panelists agreed that most large companies need to invest in innovation, through acquisitions or otherwise. Above all, the board has to think in terms of the amount of risk they are willing to take and—if necessary—encourage management to make innovation a priority.
The session ended with a discussion on board accountability. The panelists noted that directors must hold each other accountable for recruiting the right leaders, keeping their skills current, and maintaining the right mix of directors on the board.
During today’s keynote address at the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, Chuck Underwood—founder and principal of The Generational Imperative, a consulting firm that provides training and research on generational demographics to businesses and governmental officials—shared some key takeaways on how generational demographics affect corporate governance. He began by sharing three key points about generational dynamics.
“Between birth and the late teens or early 20s, individuals form core values molded by teachings and personal experiences, and those core values are by and large kept for life. People who are approximately the same age group and who have been shaped by similar teachings and experiences are considered to be a generation.
American life in the last 100 years has changed frequently and sharply, and life expectancy has increased because of advances in medicine and improved overall wellness. Individuals now live an average of 30 years longer in 2014 than in 1914. The increased life expectancy, coupled with frequent cultural changes, means there are now five living generations in the United States.
The core values held by each generation exert powerful influence over that generation’s core choices, career decisions, lifestyle preferences, and behaviors—including leadership behavior in companies and in the boardroom,” said Underwood, who hosts the PBS national television series “America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood.”
Boards and company management can benefit from learning the core values of the five living American generations and by understanding how to relate to each generation in the marketplace and in the boardroom. The five generations are:
The G.I. Generation, born from 1901 to 1926, is shaped by the experiences of economic prosperity during the roaring 1920s followed by the setbacks of the Great Depression;
The Silent Generation, born from 1927 to 1945, is more financially secure than any other generation that has reached their age;
Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, currently account for 25 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of its wealth;
Generation X, born from 1965 to 1981, is shaped by a materially comfortable childhood that was also emotionally difficult because of divorced and career-driven parents; and
Millennials, born from 1982 to 1996—possibly longer, depending on whether individuals born after 1996 hold to the same core values of Millennials—and living an extended adolescence while also wanting to change the world for the better.
Underwood said that each generation has its own leadership style that is shaped by its unique experiences. He has found there are four general points about generational leadership:
Each generation leads for about two decades.
Each generation’s unique core values determine America’s direction.
Some generations deliver good leadership, some deliver bad.
A generation’s leadership era begins when the oldest are about 65 years old.
The United States is currently undergoing a transition, Underwood said, from one leadership era–that of the Silent Generation—to another: the Baby Boomers.
“Silent Generation white males (minorities and women were allowed the same opportunities) came into an environment in which the corporation was the highest priority, rather than employees. Team players were valued more highly than mavericks,” Underwood said. The value of conformity was stressed to this generation.
They enjoyed lifestyles their G.I. Generation parents never were able to receive because of the Great Depression, and they measured their value based on their material wealth.
The Silent Generation had the expectation that if they conformed and put the company’s needs above their own personal needs, they would be rewarded. Their strong desire for reward, however, led in some cases to corporate corruption.
“This,” Underwood said, “is why eyes are focused on the incoming generation of corporate directors and managers—Baby Boomers, who in their youth helped bring social change through the civil rights’ and women’s rights movements, for example—to help set corporate America back on a solid track.”