Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

Proxy Season Paradoxes

June 19th, 2014 | By

As corporate fiduciaries, directors represent shareholders. But what should boards do when their sense of corporate good conflicts with resolutions advanced by specific owners? It is easy to say that boards need to do more to oversee risk, or to improve strategy, but without real-world testing, these statements become platitudes. Let’s take a look behind the headlines surrounding six recent proxy season conflicts—starting with five Fortune 500 companies (Bank of America, Darden, Staples, Target, and Walmart) and closing with a mid-market real estate investment trust (REIT) family (Ashford). In each case, boards have had to draw the line when confronted by special interests—while still respecting the rights and interests of all shareholders, including activists.

Please click on a company name above to go directly to the case study.

Bank of America: Of Accounts and Accountability

The issue. Is the board responsible for preventing honest administrative errors? On April 28, the Federal Reserve Board announced that it would require Bank of America Corp. to suspend planned increases in capital distributions and resubmit its capital plan. This requirement followed disclosure by Bank of America that the bank made an error in the data used to calculate regulatory capital ratios used in the most recent stress tests conducted by the Federal Reserve. The error was unintentional and, in comparison to the $2 trillion on the balance sheet, small. Nonetheless, the consequences became clear at the annual meeting on May 7, when the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) pension fund voted against four of five members of Bank of America’s audit committee. “The shortcomings in processes and risk controls underscore the need to make the necessary changes to ensure this sort of issue does not arise again,” opined CalSTRS spokesman Ricardo Duran in an e-mailed statement to the Wall Street Journal. Yet only a minority of investors joined the California giant. Apparently, most investors shared the views of William Smead, chief investment officer of  Smead Capital Management in Seattle, who told the Wall Street Journal that the bank’s CEO Brian Moynihan “is a straight shooter” so his fund would “stay the course.” At the meeting, shareholders elected the full board for another term, approved all the management proposals, and rejected all four shareholder proposals; still, the CalSTRS campaign and commentary fired warning shots heard around the governance world.

The lesson. Boards cannot prevent error, but they can ensure quality of both processes and people. Clearly, this bank (like every institution) can continue to improve its controls. On the other hand, when management is willing to admit mistakes and act quickly, and the board has supported this progressive direction, it’s hardly time to change leadership.

Darden Restaurants (and Pfizer): The Right to Sell (or Buy)

The issue. Should cut-or-keep strategy be decided by boards and management or by shareholders? On May 16, Darden Restaurants Inc. announced a definitive agreement to sell its Red Lobster chain restaurant business and related assets, and assumed liabilities to Golden Gate Capital for $2.1 billion in cash. Red Lobster was failing and the board opted to sell it rather than turn it around. The deal will net Darden about $1.6 billion, of which approximately $1 billion will be used to retire outstanding debt. The deal is expected to close in early 2015 after necessary regulatory approvals. A week later, on May 22, Starboard Value, protesting the sale, put forward a full slate of candidates for Darden’s board of directors to be voted on at the company’s June 22 annual meeting. (Similar questions arose on the buy side at the Pfizer annual meeting on April 24 during the recently ended Pfizer bid for Astra-Zeneca.)

The lesson. Boards have a right to exercise judgment on whether a struggling company should turn around or sell off part of the business—or, conversely, whether a market leader should grow via merger. Analyst John Maxfield, writing about Red Lobster for the popular investment site Motley Fool, observed that turnarounds rarely succeed. He cited wise words from Warren Buffet, who wrote the following back in 1980: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.” The Darden board apparently believed that the fundamental economics of Red Lobster were unfavorable so they sold it. (On the buy side, the Pfizer board made a similarly justified strategic decision—not to let go of a division, but instead to chase, and subsequently let go of, a dream.)

Staples: A Matter of Discretion

The issue: Can the board justly exercise discretion in pay in order to retain executives during a turnaround? The Staples board believed so, and proceeded in good faith to pay accordingly, but shareholders disagreed. On March 3, the Staples board rewarded executives for their added workload in turning the retailer around by approving a “2013 Reinvention Cash Award.” The board also approved an extra reward cycle to retain executives and staff who had not received a bonus in two years due to dragging financials caused by the poor economy for consumer discretionaries. Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), a proxy advisory firm, urged investors to reject the plan in their advisory “say-on-pay” vote at the annual meeting on June 2. ISS carries considerable influence in the proxy policy-setting and voting processes, and in this case apparently they did, as a majority of shareholders (53.64%) voted against the Staples plan. At that same meeting, 50.66 percent of shareholders cast advisory votes to split the chair and CEO roles at the retailer.

The lessonWhile directors should make every effort to comply with their policies when awarding pay, they should reserve and defend the right to exercise discretion; similarly, directors are the ones who should determine the independent leadership structure for their boards. When boards exercise compensation discretion, for example by making an award that did not appear in a plan, they need to clearly communicate early on their reasons for doing so. This is a key finding of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on Executive Compensation, convened in 2014, as well as previous BRCs on the topic. Communication, not compensation, may be the core issue here. (Then again, communication of any point requires two parties—the speaker and the listener. In some cases, however, it simply may be that shareholders are unwilling to hear management’s reasons for a nonroutine pay decision.)

Target: Expecting the Impossible?

The issue. If a board knows that a particular risk exists and takes action to defend against it, are directors to blame if the defense does not function well enough to prevent harm? In mid-2013, anticipating hacker problems, Target began installing a $1.6 million malware detection tool made by the computer security firm FireEye; yet due to a break in the chain of alerts during the most recent holiday season, the defense did not work and Target suffered an attack at the height of the holiday shopping season. Subsequently—despite swift response to the problem (replacing the chief information officer and strengthening security)—ISS recommended that shareholders vote against 7 of the company’s 10 directors at the company’s June 11 annual meeting, urging rejection of the members of the audit and corporate responsibility committees. The day before the meeting, Luis Aguilar, a commissioner at the Securities and Exchange Commission, mentioned the Target incident in a speech at the NYSE, and observed that “effective board oversight of management’s efforts to address these issues is critical to preventing and effectively responding to successful cyber-attacks.” Shareholders did vote by a majority on June 11 to keep the full board, but concerns linger. More than 90 lawsuits have been filed against Target by customers and banks for alleged “negligence,” and they are seeking compensatory damages as well.

The lessonThe line between the board and management is still distinct, but it is no longer bright; it will vary by company, so it is up to each board to find it. IT risk oversight is not easy. NACD’s Director’s Handbook Series on Cyber-Risk Oversight recommends that boards approach cybersecurity as an enterprise-wide risk management issue, and encourages directors to understand the legal implications of cyber risk as they apply to their company’s specific circumstances. Boards can encourage them to build that arsenal. Meanwhile, boards can and should vigorously defend themselves against voting campaigns that would disrupt board continuity at the expense of various stakeholders, including not only shareholders but also employees and their communities.

Walmart: What Price Integrity?

The issue. Does the board have a right to invest heavily in building an ethical culture or should shareholders get more of that money? Sometimes it seems that boards are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. On June 6, Walmart shareholders voted to reelect the entire Walmart board, and to reject a proposal that would mandate a separate chair and CEO, among other votes. This vote occurred despite campaigns against the directors in March; both the CtW Investment Group (on March 19) and ISS (on March 25) issued reports critical of Walmart, recommending that shareholders vote against two existing directors, as well as the company’s executive compensation proposals. They claimed that the company failed to disclose information to shareholders regarding sums spent on investigations into alleged company violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In fact, Walmart did publish a global compliance report with details on its programs, so the main reason for the critique seems to be the amount of money spent on compliance. Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesperson, has assured the public that “[t]he board has authorized whatever resources are necessary to get to the bottom of the matter.”

The lesson. Boards have the right and, one might argue, the obligation to invest resources to ensure ongoing efforts to improve compliance and integrity. Global companies have many employees and agents to oversee. Policies can go only so far. Perhaps the best guidance here comes directly from the classic Delaware Chancery Court decision in the Caremark case (1996) in which Chancellor William Allen, finding in favor of a defendant board in an insurance kickback case, held that a board as part of its duty of care has an obligation to “exercise a good faith judgment that the corporation’s information and reporting system is in concept and design adequate to assure that appropriate information will come to its attention in a timely manner as a matter of ordinary operations.” If a board fulfills that requirement, its oversight should be praised rather than condemned.

Ashford: A Tale of Two REITs

The issue. Who gets to determine governance—the board or shareholders? The recent history of the Ashford REIT complex provides a real-world laboratory for the issue. It all started in February when the Ashford Hospitality Trust (AHT) board amended AHT bylaws to require board approval of any future bylaw amendments. (Previously, AHT bylaws could be amended by shareholders without board approval.) One reason for this amendment is that the AHT board wants the company to remain under the protection of the Maryland Unsolicited Takeover Act (MUTA). The AHT board also voted to increase the number of shares required to call a special meeting of shareholders. In response, ISS called on shareholders to withhold votes for all but one director at the annual meeting on May 13. At that meeting, all directors were voted in by a majority of votes cast, despite a high amount of negative votes for the targeted directors. Earlier, shareholders of an AHT spin-off, called Ashford Hospitality Prime (AHP), which is advised by AHT, approved two proxy proposals submitted by Unite Here, a union representing workers in the garment and hospitality industries. AHP shareholders voted by a majority of 68 percent to have the company opt out of MUTA—a result that the AHT board hopes to avoid. So far the board of AHT is holding firm in favor of takeover protections and remaining under MUTA protection, unlike its AHP spin-off.

The lesson. Within the bounds of legal compliance, governance is a responsibility of the board, not the shareholders. So when it comes to preserving corporate independence, boards need not give up their corporate shields just because activists accuse them of being too defensive. This may well be a case of rhetoric versus reality. When the MUTA was passed 15 years ago (in 1999), the Baltimore Business Journal hailed it as good for investors: “Corporate takeover bill protects stockholders,” read the news item. In an editorial detailing the law’s provisions to a painstaking degree, the Baltimore Business Journal concluded: Some public commentary on the takeover bill has mistakenly suggested that it takes away all obligations directors have to stockholders. To the contrary, unlike Pennsylvania’s corporate law, which is highly pro-management and provides no relief to investors or stockholders in Pennsylvania corporations, Maryland law now provides some increased procedural advantage to and greater flexibility for directors, while preserving the primacy of stockholder value and providing an escape valve from the most troubling provisions for future investors in Maryland corporations. It seems that with the passage of time, and inattention to statutory language, the anti-MUTA myth has risen again. We will watch this case for further developments.

Conclusion

These developments have involved different issues—financial planning, mergers and acquisitions, compensation, cybersecurity, internal controls, and takeover protection. Nevertheless, these developments point to the need for ongoing director education on risk oversight in all of these areas, not just in a classroom, but also on the job, and with more active monitoring. These stories also show the value of understanding the evolving expectations of governance itself. As directors face increasing pressures to continually know more and do more, they can strive to improve, yet at the same time recognize the intrinsic limitations of the board’s role. Directors should also seek to provide investors with information on the context and rationale behind the board’s decisions, as part of the company’s overall shareholder engagement and communication program. This close look at current struggles has yielded important lessons—and guidance for an ever-challenging future.

Culture and Leadership Critical for Future Boards

July 18th, 2013 | By

The rate and complexity of change in the marketplace is greater than ever before—and not showing any signs of slowing. From innovation and disruptive technologies to regulatory activity and stakeholder scrutiny, companies are constantly presented with new risks and challenges. As NACD’s new Chair Reatha Clark King observed, writer William Gibson captured the inflection point most corporate boards find themselves approaching: the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. As these changes force global economic shifts, it is necessary for those in the boardroom to understand and prepare for the future structure of directorship now.

This week, NACD held the second in a series of exploratory meetings in Chicago to discuss how the boardroom can define and prepare for the challenges and opportunities expected in the next five to seven years. This meeting series—held in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles—will culminate in the kickoff of NACD Directorship 2020 at the 2013 NACD Board Leadership Conference. An effort to provide directors with a clear vision of what their roles will resemble in the future, NACD Directorship 2020 will extend from educational programs and roundtable exchanges to publications, all shaped by feedback from these events.

At the Langham Hotel in Chicago, more than 100 directors attended the afternoon session to discuss two topics: the future state of communications between the board and C-suite and how to select performance metrics that will generate sustainable organizational profit. Sessions were led by NACD President and CEO Ken Daly; Akamai Technologies Lead Director and Audit Committee Chairman Martin Coyne; NACD Chair King; and former Bell and Howell CEO, current NACD Director, 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:

  • Directorship is a part-time job with full time accountability. Inherent in the board/C-suite relationship is an information imbalance. However, with the right culture and board leadership, the board and senior management can easily communicate expectations and necessary information.
  • A CEO’s leadership style can serve as an indicator that the risk of information asymmetry has become too high. Directors establish a level of trust with the CEO and management to allow for board access to other members of the senior team, as well as site visits to see the company’s operations.
  • With an expanding board agenda, process and expectation setting are critical. The board should clearly communicate to management the types and format of information that need to be presented.
  • An empowered lead director or non-executive chair can help mitigate the risk of information imbalance. By facilitating communication channels and work between the independent directors and the CEO, this leadership position can break down some of the road blocks that may develop between the C-suite and directors. The relationship between the CEO and lead director or chair should be transparent.
  • Culture is critical in effective dialogue between the board and senior management. With the right culture, directors can be sure they are aware of the risks that are keeping the CEO up at night.
  • Sharing information via performance metrics, which are focused on what directors need to know, can bridge gaps in information flow. Ultimately, the board has to make winning decisions which are informed by data.
  • Today, directors balance short-term shareholder expectations with generating long-term sustainable profit. The role of the stakeholder, though, is more significant than ever before and expected to grow. In the future, directors will have to be increasingly focused on balancing shareholder return with stakeholder concerns.
  • It may be difficult for the board to address and to communicate with every stakeholder. The board should identify which stakeholders are critical to the strategic plans, and target communications to those groups.
  • Balance also extends to leading versus lagging indicators. The board should first approve the right strategy and set goals accordingly. Leading indicators will drive ensuing performance—but lagging indicators are also necessary to provide the right feedback loop.
  • Innovation is important to the success of any company. How innovation is defined, though, is largely dependent on the company, and should be rooted in the corporate strategy. For some, innovation will manifest in processes, products, or both.

The next NACD Directorship 2020 event will be held Sept. 10 in Los Angeles. Between events, 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.

How C-Suite Perspectives Can Strengthen Board Performance

November 27th, 2012 | By

Over the past two decades, I’ve worked with an array of boards in multiple capacities—serving as general counsel, secretary, board advisor and board member.

In my current role as general counsel and head of NACD’s Board Advisory Services, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel and facilitate board evaluations for companies ranging from large family-run businesses to the top of the Fortune 500. Over the years, I’ve concluded: no board evaluation is truly holistic without some form of feedback from senior management.

The management team’s participation in the evaluation process creates a critical 360° view that often brings to light factors that are limiting the board’s ability to operate at peak performance. This approach can naturally raise some very sensitive issues between executives and directors. Yet my belief that anonymous, candid input from the management team is essential to a complete and credible evaluation remains constant.

The insights and information that the c-suite and beyond provide are invaluable. Not only does the input enhance the quality and validity of the evaluation, it typically uncovers information that will directly lead to concrete action steps to improve alignment between the board and senior management.

There are a couple of important dynamics that the evaluation process commonly uncovers:

Talent vs. Engagement

  • In more cases than not, management teams believe they have strong assets on the board. Yet they often find that some very qualified directors are not as engaged as they could be. The company is not fully benefiting from the wisdom and unique experience these talented advisors bring to the table.
  • Often, management sees—and reports to my team—that one or two strong personalities on the board dominate meetings, limiting the opportunity for others to contribute.

Tactics vs. Strategy 

  • Many directors tend to drill down into tactical issues, moving away from the real responsibility of the board to provide strategic direction. The board may not realize how serious the issue is until the management team reveals the extent to which that misplaced focus hinders their ability to get things done.
  • Conversely, boards often find that it’s the management team that spends too much of the meeting focused on operational minutiae, trapping them in “PowerPoint hell.” With limited time for the full board to meet, the agenda should be devoted to the most critical strategic opportunities and risks facing the company. Operational and tactical issues should be reserved for the committees.
  • Interestingly, we’ve often found that the reason for this is that management tends to drive meeting agendas, which naturally results in a focus on operational issues. In most cases, management would welcome collaboration with the board on defining the agenda to ensure the board’s time is devoted to strategic discussion and risk oversight.

We recognize that giving management a voice in a board evaluation process can be extremely sensitive for both the board and management.  To facilitate the most valuable and practicable outcomes from board evaluations, NACD’s approach ensures that feedback is completely anonymous with no risk of attribution. Our approach of weaving the results into strategic education lowers defensive barriers, enabling the “ah-ha moments” that focus the entire process on solutions rather than criticism.

Unless c-suite-boardroom disconnects are brought to light, they can fester and potentially jeopardize the organizational mission. Done right, the management team’s involvement in board evaluation clarifies expectations and fosters a healthier collaborative environment.

My experience has led me to conclude that senior management has a sincere desire to capitalize on the wisdom, leadership and unique business experience of each and every board member. By involving the management team in the evaluation process, boards capitalize on management’s expertise in the same way. Result: the organization’s full intellectual capital is leveraged for the collective benefit.