How Are Public Company Boards Transforming Themselves?
The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) released the 2016–2017 NACD Public Company Governance Survey late in 2016. The survey, which NACD has administered for two decades, helps directors affirm that their governance practices are effective, fit for purpose, and clearly communicated to shareholders. Our members find value in benchmarking their companies’ approach in areas such as board structure, composition, education, recruitment, and evaluation year over year, and they use the results to identify opportunities for improvement and validate board priorities for the coming year.
What did we learn about changes to public company governance in the previous year?
Although we did not see any seismic shifts in how public companies govern themselves, the data indicate that corporate boards are slowly adapting to heightened expectations about their contributions and performance.
Let me share 10 key takeaways from this report and illustrate some of the changes we have observed in our analysis.
1. Overseeing Uncertainty Economic uncertainty and business-model disruption are among the top concerns for corporate boards in 2017. Respondents also report that major industry changes, growing regulatory demands, and cyberattacks will significantly affect their companies over the next 12 months. Global economic uncertainty was selected by 60 percent of respondents as one of the five trends that will have the greatest impact on their companies over the next 12 months, most likely in light of ongoing economic turbulence that includes the fallout from Brexit, emerging markets volatility, and the protectionist trade stance of the new US administration.
2. Deeper Board Engagement with Strategy Setting Growing external uncertainty seems to accelerate the momentum for increased board leadership in strategy. For more than half of boards, active involvement in the development of strategy is a goal for major improvement over the next 12 months. Recognizing that successful strategy setting and execution in this volatile environment are challenges, boards are eager to move from the traditional review-and-approve process to more active strategy engagement earlier and on an ongoing basis, allowing directors to examine underlying assumptions, competitive dynamics, and alternatives.
3. The Tyranny of Short-Termism Maybe the most important structural barrier to board engagement in strategy setting is the intense short-term performance pressure placed on both boards and management. Seventy-five percent of respondents report that management’s focus on long-term value creation has been compromised by pressure to deliver short-term results, while 29 percent report that pressure on boards to focus on short-term performance inhibits their ability to effectively oversee long-term strategy development.
4. Risk Oversight Moves to a Higher Standard Board risk oversight is becoming a robust practice, with a large number of boards looking beyond a review of the top risks to consider the linkage between risk and strategy, the impact of incentives, and the strength of their company’s risk culture. Many boards now receive frequent reports on key components of risk management, including summaries of top risks, emerging risks, and their mitigation. According to our survey, 63 percent of them perform in-depth reviews of specific top risks. Perhaps in response to the recent corporate debacles in the auto industry and banking sector, more than 57 percent of boards now assess whether incentives used in the company’s compensation structure could inadvertently create or exacerbate risks.
5. Struggling to Meet the Cybersecurity Challenge Directors continue to wrestle with effective oversight of cyber risk. Many of them lack confidence that their companies are properly secured and acknowledge that their boards do not possess sufficient knowledge of this growing risk. Fifty-nine percent report that they find it challenging to oversee cyber risk, and only 19 percent of respondents report that their boards possess a high level of knowledge about cybersecurity. While 37 percent of respondents feel confident and 5percent feel very confident that their company is properly secured against a cyberattack, many of their boards may lack sufficient expertise or adequate information to confidently assure that cybersecurity defenses are indeed effective.
6. Managing a Growing Board Agenda The average director time commitment has stayed relatively flat at 245 hours per year, with more time spent on preparations and less time on travel compared to last year. The average number of meetings has also remained flat. Facing ever-expanding agendas, boards struggle to effectively prioritize their scarce meeting time. When asked about time allocation over the last 12 months, more than a third of respondents indicate that their boards spent too little time on director education, executive leadership development, cyber-risk oversight, board succession planning, sustainability, CEO succession, and information technology oversight.
7. Information Rich, Insight Poor Boards receive much information from management but express concerns about the quality of that information. While directors noted an average increase of 12 hours for document review in preparation for meetings, roughly 50 percent of respondents noted a glaring need for improvement in the quality of information provided by management.
8. Increased Shareholder Engagement Boards are increasing their shareholder engagement, but their level of preparedness to address activist challenges is uneven. This year, 48 percent of respondents indicate that a representative of their board held a meeting with institutional investors over the past 12 months, compared to 41 percent in 2015. Only 25 percent of respondents have developed a written activist response plan, which may be a critical tool to effectively address a forceful challenge from an activist.
9. The Increasing Reliance On Search Firms for Director Recruitment Boards no longer primarily rely on personal networks to recruit new directors, signaling increased professionalism and a desire to tap into a wider network of candidates. For the first time since NACD began to survey its members on this issue, search firms were the leading source boards used to identify their most recently recruited director.
10. Only a Minority of Boards Conduct Individual Director Evaluations Only 31 percent of respondents report that improving the board evaluation process is an important or very important priority for their boards in the next 12 months. In fact, just 41 percent of boards now use individual board evaluations, and an even smaller number use the results of these evaluations to make decisions about replacing directors.
To learn more, visit a previous blog with an infographic of the survey’s findings.