Best Practices for Overseeing Talent and Tone

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A company’s human capital can be a complicated area of oversight for any board, especially when attentions must be turned to the top spot in the C-suite. Here, directors must ensure that the company is attracting and retaining the next generation of leading talent that will realize the company’s future success while setting a tone that promotes integrity throughout the organization.

A daunting task, yes, but one that’s not insurmountable.

The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) invited Blair Jones, a managing director at Semler Brossy Consulting Group, and Craig Woodfield, a partner at Grant Thornton and leader of the firm’s audit services practice, to offer their insights on these issues as part of a larger panel discussion at the Leading Minds of Governance–Southwest event.

Highlights from their conversation with NACD Directorship Publisher Christopher Y. Clark follow.


What is the compensation committee’s role in succession planning and talent development?

Blair-Jones

Blair Jones

Blair Jones: While responsibility for succession planning ultimately rests with the full board, there are a number of things the compensation committee can do from a process perspective to support this objective.

First, the committee can look at leadership competencies and the overall leadership development process. The succession plan needs to be supported by a pipeline of talent throughout the organization. And the committee needs to know how that pipeline is developed—be it on-the-job mentoring, developmental role assignments, action learning programs, individual coaching, or relationships with business schools. Consider bringing in a leader who has been involved in these leadership development programs to speak about their experiences.

Second, the compensation committee can spend time with high potential candidates at board dinners and through individual meetings. When the committee is determining end-of-year pay decisions, the CEO typically reviews people. Having met some of these individuals, it’s easier to participate in a discussion of what’s being done to take them to the next level. The committee can also make sure that the pay decisions actually fit the directions coming out of the succession planning process.

Compensation committees should also consider following results from employee engagement surveys. Ask: What do these results say about our ability to motivate talent and to retain them in the organization? This will help you get a better feel for the tone and culture of the company.

Look at diversity and inclusion initiatives. Understand the statistics and how those are changing over time throughout the organization. Also, spend time with talent management and succession planning the next level down. The board primarily works with the senior level, but the company’s future leaders are going to come from another level in the organization and the compensation committee can help with succession planning by taking an initial look at the next generation.

What are the best practices for the board to make sure the company has the right tone at the top?

Craig-Woodfield

Craig Woodfield

Craig Woodfield: I look at this from an auditor’s perspective, which defaults to the financial reporting side. The appropriate tone at the top deals with every risk of significance that could face a company.

Directors who are in a public company environment are probably familiar with the Committee of Sponsoring Organization of the Treadway Commission’s framework for internal controls and I would encourage private and nonprofit company directors to familiarize themselves with it. The revised framework from 2013 really is the gold standard and it applies to every company and every board. There are seventeen principles listed in that framework and the first five all deal with tone at the top issues. If you look at them, none of them are focused specifically on financial reporting.

As directors, we need to take these criteria seriously to ensure that there are structures in place that create a tone that promotes ethical values. The chief executive is the key here. As an auditor, I have a lot of exposure to public companies, and while most of them have a good tone, there are exceptions. The commonality among those exceptions is a chief executive who doesn’t have the right approach combined with a board that doesn’t have the right level of oversight.

Here are a couple warning signs: a chief executive who has a very domineering personality, that doesn’t take feedback well, or doesn’t respect the board’s responsibility to protect him or her. On the other side, if you have a weak leader and there’s a power vacuum at the top where there is no system of checks and balances, that’s an even greater warning sign because the board becomes dependent on each individual leader of each group within the organization. That situation is much more difficult to control.

We all want strong leadership in the companies we serve. One of the things that boards can do is help educate the chief executive about the nature of that relationship. And the role of the board is to help control that. A warning sign that that balance isn’t there is if we as board members don’t have access to the direct reports. And you want to empower the CEO—you don’t want to undermine or go around them. From an audit standpoint, it’s a real warning sign when the CEO or CFO tries to get in the way of the auditor or audit partner’s direct relationship with the board.


Want more? A panel of Fortune 500 company directors and subject matter experts will offer their insights on issues ranging from cyber resilience to the latest regulatory trends at Leading Minds of Governance–Southeast. Join us on March 16 in New Orleans, LA. Space is limited—register today.

Next week, coverage of the Leading Minds of Governance–Southwest event continues with highlights from a discussion on cyber risk and the legal liabilities of international companies.

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