Identify the Enemies of Effectiveness and Think Like an Activist: 5 Insights From a Philadelphia Master Class

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At the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD’s) Master Class program in Philadelphia June 3-4, nearly 50 experienced directors engaged with corporate leaders on the key elements that will shape the boardroom in the coming decade.

NACD’s Master Class takes place over two days and comprises eight modules presented as panels, keynote speeches, and intensive breakout sessions. Modules are highly interactive and are led by veteran directors, leading business executives, and corporate governance experts. Each Master Class is organized around a specific theme.

In Philadelphia, discussions centered on ensuring effective boardroom dynamics and strengthening the board’s role in strategic planning, cybersecurity, and mitigating global risks. Below are five takeaways that emerged in Philadelphia.

  1. Search out the enemies of effectiveness. Vague expectations, absence of process, inadequate delegation of authority, and individual sabotage can individually or collectively compromise board effectiveness. Independent chairs and lead directors should be attentive to poor board dynamics, which often have root causes that can easily be addressed. Boards can also help counter dysfunction by establishing a foundation of shared principles that will guide the board’s decision-making, agenda-setting, discussion management, and self-assessment.
  1. Analyze the causes of gradual deterioration in performance. Management often rationalizes small performance drops by pointing to macro-economic trends or solvable business execution problems. Boards should consider adopting a forward-looking posture in order to understand the long-term impact of disruptors on business performance. They can do this by engaging with management in frequent discussions about the assumptions that undergird the company’s strategy and the “what-if” events that could invalidate those assumptions.
  1. Think like an activist shareholder. Activists usually know the industry and sometimes even the company better than the board does. To avoid being ambushed by well-informed activists, boards should learn from the consultants and investment banks that serve their company, industry, customers, and competitors. They must also challenge management’s conventional wisdom about the firm’s current performance and future direction.
  1. Clearly delineate the roles of the board and management in developing and executing strategy. Boards can offer more value by engaging “early and often” in the strategy development process, by pressure-testing management assumptions, and by selecting the appropriate metrics to assess strategy success or failure. When seeking a more active role, boards must collaborate with management on defining the boundary between directing strategy and managing it. Addressing this tension over where the lines should be drawn is a critical challenge that will demand ongoing attention from the CEO and the lead director.
  1. Anticipate the consequences of global disruptors. In a hyper-connected global marketplace, economic and political shifts in distant corners of the world can instantaneously impact company performance through supply-chain disruptions, foreign-exchange volatility, and regulatory activism. Boards can increase their understanding of emerging cross-border interdependencies and evaluate whether management is sufficiently agile to respond when conditions change.

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