The 2013-2014 NACD Public Company Governance Survey found that strategic planning and oversight ranked as the number one issue for directors. While risk oversight came in at number 3, Paula Cholmondeley—who serves on the boards of Terex and Dentsply International Inc.—finds it curious that risk doesn’t follow strategy as the number 2 priority because these issues are part and parcel of each other.
During a May 6 panel discussion at the C-Suite to Board Seat program at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., Cholmondeley and fellow panelist Greg Pratt offered their perspectives on the board’s role in overseeing strategy and risk. Cholmondeley emphasized that strategic thinking is where directors add the most value to a company. Furthermore, boardroom discussions surrounding strategy should be viewed on an ongoing basis—not as a single event. Chairman of Carpenter Technology Group and director of Tredegar Corp., Pratt went on to compare strategy to a GPS system: A tool that tells you where you are, where you want to go, and the possible ways to reach that destination. According to Pratt, directors have a responsibility to use strategic discussions and planning to decide which route is best for the business.
THREE KEY TAKEAWAYS FOR OVERSEEING STRATEGY
1. Educate yourself—and others. This is especially important for directors serving on boards in industries in which they do not have prior experience. Reading industry publications, attending relevant conferences, and getting exposure to as many sources of industry information possible can help directors enrich board discussions. Similarly, directors should ensure that the strategic goals are well-known throughout the company. This could include requesting that the CEO meet with staff so that goals are communicated to the lower levels of the company.
2. Set reasonable benchmarks. Directors should consider the critical assumptions underpinning the strategic plan. For example, how much progress is the company expected to make in the course of a month? Evaluate whether those benchmarks are reasonable for your company by consulting regional or national industry sources as well as third-party sources.
3. Monitor the course and evolve the strategy. The board should consistently review corporate performance with respect to the strategy, and alter course when necessary. Boardroom culture should support open discussions with the c-suite—and management should feel free to report to the board areas where the strategy may or may not be working. As a company reacts to different economic environments, the board needs to be able to evaluate which initiatives worked, which initiative work over a period of time because they are key to your business.
1. Get the committees involved. While ultimate responsibility for governing risk lies at the board level, the board can look to committees for support. In publically-traded companies, the audit committee has traditionally assumed the responsibility of risk oversight. A growing trend, however, is to delegate specific risks to various standing committees. The board can also create new committees that manage the emerging facets of risk, such as keeping the board abreast of new sources of competition.
2. Work with management to assess risk. Open communication between management and the board is critical, especially because the C-suite is likely to be the first to see that a strategy is not working. Directors should learn how risk discussions take place within the various departments and business lines, and establish multiple avenues through which directors can work with management.
3. Be aware of the risks around the corner. The board should constantly review potential non-traditional sources of competition, for example, Amazon’s move to enter the dental distribution market. Likewise, a company should work to make itself obsolete—best itself at its own game before the competition—and then create a strategy that will again put the company on the cutting edge of its industry.
NACD will continue to discuss these issues throughout 2014. Our Directorship 2020 events explore the disruptive forces that create new challenges in the boardroom and our forthcoming 2014 Blue Ribbon Commission Report will address the board’s role in recalibrating strategy. The topic will also be discussed at the next C-Suite to Board Seat in Beverly Hills, CA.
Cybersecurity is undoubtedly a critical aspect of board oversight, but an overwhelming majority of directors rate their and their board’s knowledge of IT risk as “in need of improvement.” More than three quarters of directors believe their personal IT knowledge could use a boost and nearly 90 percent believe the same of their board’s IT knowledge. A lack of cyber knowledge at the board level can lead to overreliance on C-suite experts and difficulty by directors in judging an appropriate level of involvement.
Recognizing the disconnect between the need for effective cybersecurity oversight and the boardroom’s lack of IT acumen, NACD, supported by Protiviti and Dentons, convened three roundtable discussions, bringing together directors, executives, and experts in the field of cybersecurity. These meetings provided insight into the numerous and significant risks presented by cybersecurity, while experts pinpointed deficiencies in board responses to threats and possible solutions. Key statements from participants prompted NACD, Protiviti, and Dentons to address issues demanding director attention and action:
Boardroom cyber literacy: “Cyber literacy can be considered similar to financial literacy. Not everyone on the board is an auditor, but everyone should be able to read a financial statement and understand the financial language of business.”
Identifying high-value information targets: “Do not just harden the perimeter, because hackers will get in. Accept that they can get in, and then design the strategy with the assumption they are already ‘inside.’”
Formulating detection and response plans: “When your company is hacked, do not start spending money like a drunken sailor.”
The human factor: “People are the constant weakness. Cybersecurity is a human issue. Often the biggest problems are caused by an inadvertent actor.”
As summer nears, directors may have a brief respite from the frenzied proxy season following new financial regulations. However, the rest of the governance community kicks into gear, pushing to digest and summarize the past months. For example, this week on Fortune.com, a contributing post titled “Why corporate directors should thank Dodd and Frank,” examines proxy advisory firm recommendations and director reelections from this season. According to the article:
“The results so far just go to show that the consequences of reform legislation like the Dodd Frank bill can actually go in favor of corporate leaders rather than against them.”
The article praises the Dodd-Frank governance reforms, pinpointing the legislation as the impetus for a decrease in “no” recommendations from Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS). In 2011, ISS voted against 7% of Russell 3000 directors, down from 13% in 2010. Additionally, just seven directors failed to win majority support for reelection, a significant decrease from 107 in 2010.
While this decline is significant, the Dodd-Frank Act brought several additional provisions that the article did not address. As is often the case with legislative governance reforms, these provisions may bring unintended consequences that the boardroom is forced to accept. Although proxy access is still under judicial review, it has the potential to disrupt boardroom composition.
Establishing a boardroom with the “right” directors—those who bring the specific skill sets the board needs strategically and who also function effectively with constructive skepticism—requires a significant effort. This effort is a key responsibility of the board’s independent nominating/governance committee, which seeks to align board composition with the company’s long-term strategy. Directors nominated by shareholder groups, and not the nominating/governance committee may or may not have the experience needed.
The proposed Dodd-Frank whistleblower bounty program has also been subject to boardroom criticism. As NACD president and CEO Ken Daly testified to a House Financial Services Subcommittee last week, implementation of this program should be delayed for modifications. By providing financial incentives to whistleblowers for reporting directly to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the new bounty program could potentially harm the internal compliance channels required under Sarbanes-Oxley.
Despite boardroom apprehension leading into this year’s proxy season, the season has been relatively uneventful. In addition to the increased support for director reelection, Towers Watson reports that 90% of votes cast have supported companies’ say-on-pay proposals. However, these issues are just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s far too early to determine whether directors should be thankful for the Dodd-Frank legislation.