Category: Board Composition

Building a Strong Board Culture: Perspectives From Fortune 500 Committee Chairs

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This blog post is one installment in a series related to board oversight of corporate culture. The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) announced in March that its 2017 Blue Ribbon Commission—a roster of distinguished corporate leaders and governance experts—would explore the role of the board in overseeing corporate culture. The commission will produce a report that will be released at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Oct. 1–4.

In a recent study by Stanford University’s Rock Center, less than half of directors surveyed strongly believe their boards tolerate dissent, and 46 percent expressed concern that a subgroup of directors has disproportionate influence on boardroom decisions. A 2015 survey cited by Heidrick & Struggles reflects similar concerns about culture in companies as a whole: 87 percent of organizations listed culture and engagement as a top challenge, with half of business leaders ranking the issue as “urgent”—a 20 percent increase from the prior year.

Sound, ethical culture in the boardroom sets the tone for the rest of the organization.

In light of the importance of the culture issue for boards, NACD, Heidrick & Struggles, and Sidley Austin LLP cohosted a meeting of the Nominating and Governance Committee Chair Advisory Council on March 28, 2017. The session and a related conference call brought together nominating and governance committee chairs from Fortune 500 corporations to discuss how boards can improve their own cultures and, by doing so, reinforce the elements of good culture in their corporations. The discussion was held using a modified version of the Chatham House Rule, under which participants’ quotes (italicized below) are not attributed to those individuals or their organizations, with the exception of cohosts. A list of attendees’ names are available here.

The council meeting resulted in the following takeaways:

1. Recognize and implement characteristics of a strong board.

Council delegates at the meeting listed a number of indicators of productive boardroom culture:

  • Extensive and thorough preparation on the part of every director, without exception. “Every board member needs to have an in-depth understanding not just of the company, but its peers, competitors, and the broader industry. Passive reliance on management presentations for information is no longer sufficient.” Another director added, “Intellectual curiosity and learning agility are essential ingredients of good board culture.”
  • Directors are able to strike the right balance between collegiality and directness, challenging one another―and management―constructively. “Attack the issue, not the individual,” said one director.
  • The board has well-functioning continuous improvement processes, including regular evaluations, director and committee succession planning, and review of needed skill sets in light of current and future strategy. This includes the notion that board service is not a guarantee, but subject to the needs of the board and the strategic direction of the company.
  • The board should model the culture that the corporation as a whole desires: “Walk and talk the culture you’re expecting.
  • The board has a healthy relationship with management and can speak with candor.

Holly Gregory, partner at Sidley Austin, added that the notion of teamwork as an element of productive board culture goes beyond semantics. “Boards are teams in the legal sense,” she said. “The board’s authority is as a body, and board decision making is by collective action.”

2. Use inflection points as opportunities to address board culture.

Directors agreed that changes in board leadership—such as a committee chair, lead director, or nonexecutive chair—can be good opportunities to reevaluate board culture and performance. According to one delegate, “How are you challenging yourselves? Your board may be working fine today, but maybe you’re missing a chance to take the board’s performance and culture to an entirely different level.

Council members also suggested a number of other inflection points to use as opportunities to examine board culture:

  • Patterns of breakdowns or concerns regarding compliance and ethics—“If we see two or three ethical violations and we don’t do anything about it, what does that say about our strategy and the performance of the board?
  • Major transactions“After a large acquisition, [a culture-consulting firm] came in to work with management. Then [the firm] came back and did a session for the full board. We got a much better understanding about how our culture was aligned with where the company was going.” Another director observed, “Creating the culture for a spin-off board was easy compared to [changing culture on] an established board. [In either case], team-building on the board is actually a good idea.
  • CEO successionThe previous CEO had a very strong demeanor in the boardroom and [held strong control] over strategy. After he stepped down, the lead director was in a position to take a much more active leadership role that coincided with a significant regulatory change. The board was much more challenged and became much more engaged in strategy and more productive and useful to the company.”

3. Proactively examine board culture at scheduled periods.

Although the inflection points described above can be useful opportunities to review board culture, council meeting participants agreed that boards should be proactive about assessing and molding their cultures. “You don’t know the culture you have before you hit a bump in the road,” one director said. “Be that person that says, ‘maybe we can improve by doing XYZ.’ If our major shareholders had been listening to the process we just went through, how would we feel about that?” Theodore Dysart, a vice chairman at Heidrick & Struggles, observed, “It’s important for boards to be able to rally after a crisis, but how can that cohesiveness of purpose be made more routine? We are seeing a growing number of boards making use of tools and processes to embed cultural assessments more deeply, but it is not yet a widespread practice.”

Directors provided a number of examples where their boards took a proactive approach to evaluating culture:

  • Board succession planning“On one board, we initiated a self-examination of our culture in anticipation of some turnover coming up due to director retirements. We realized it was an opportunity to clarify what we stand for as a board, how we want to operate, and the elements of board performance we want to evaluate.”
  • Reviewing key management reports—“We use the review of the company’s sustainability report as an annually scheduled inflection point [to review culture]. It has extensive statistics on environmental, safety, and other issues, as well as key stakeholders and the firm’s interactions with them. It helps us see the cultural underpinnings of the company and also drives deep discussion about our own culture as a board.”
  • Risk appetite discussions—“Our board’s discussions about risk appetite led us to a conversation about culture. It emerged that we were not all on the same page with respect to the level of risk we felt was appropriate for the strategy. Some directors were gung ho; others were more reserved. The work we went through to gain alignment highlighted some important aspects of our board culture and dynamics.

Board evaluations provide another opportunity to assess the current state of boardroom culture and identify opportunities for improvement. See the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission Report on the Strategic-Asset Board for specific guidance and tools to help conduct evaluations and elevate board performance.

Council delegates emphasized that both measuring and changing culture can be extremely challenging, but the benefits are significant. As one director observed: “The board can have a culture and interact with senior management to form what you believe is the tone at the top. It takes a different curiosity to see if that trickles down into the institution. There’s no magic here; this is really hard work, but directors can have enormous positive impact when they model and reinforce the company’s desired cultural attributes.

Additional Resources

At a Glance: The Cycle of Continuous Improvement

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As the bar for director performance continues its steady rise, public company boards are expected to ensure that composition, skill sets, and core processes remain fit-for-purpose. The following infographic derived from the 2016–2017 NACD Public Company Governance Survey illustrates the different mechanisms boards are using to keep board composition and director turnover attuned to the organization’s evolving needs.

For more insights, download a complimentary copy of the executive summary of the survey.

NACD Public Survey Infograph

Competing Stakeholder Expectations Raise Personal Risks for Directors

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Corporate directors are confronted with a variety of recently proposed governance standards, while activist investor campaigns are challenging both board composition and board effectiveness by targeting individual directors. Given the high level of personal reputational risk and the associated long-term financial consequences now faced by directors, a hard look at the adequacy of company-sponsored director and officer (D&O) risk mitigation and board compensation strategies is timely.

The Bedrock of Certainty Shifts

nirkossovsky

Nir Kossovsky

paulliebman

Paul Liebman

Shifting stakeholder expectations are codified in the frequently conflicting governance standards published in recent years. Following the National Association of Corporate Director’s own 2011 Key Agreed Principles, there are now draft voting guidelines from Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis & Co.; standards from groups such as the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (regulator), CalSTRS (investor), the G20, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (influencer); and, most recently, the Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles from a group of CEOs led by JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon.

This proliferation of standards reflects differing stakeholder expectations and gives direct rise to new risks for directors. With these new risks and expectations emerge associated questions about the adequacy of current governance strategies, company-sponsored reputation-risk-mitigation packages, and director compensation.

Governance Implications

Because the board is the legal structure administering governance, the standards that boards choose to guide their oversight have legal force. Furthermore, detailed, prescriptive standards have instrumental force.

For instance, ISS and CalSTRS are promoting highly prescriptive standards. ISS is exploring specific “warning signs” of impaired governance, including monitoring boards that have not appointed a new director in five years, where the average tenure of directors exceeds 10 or 15 years, or where more than 75 percent of directors have served 10 years or longer. CalSTRS expects two-thirds of a board to be comprised of independent directors, and defines director independence specifically as having held no managerial role in the company during the past five years, equity ownership of less than 20 percent equity, and having a commercial relationship with the company valued at no more than $120,000 per year.

The Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles released this summer was an effort to share the thoughts of the 5,000 or so public companies “responsible for one-third of all private sector employment and one-half of all business capital spending.” Certain background facts may lead some stakeholders to discount the Principles. For example, in addition to Dimon, the list of signatories was comprised mostly of executives who hold the dual company roles of chair and CEO. Also, according to the Financial Times, eyebrows have been raised by CEO performance-linked bonuses of about 24 to 27 times base pay at BlackRock and T. Rowe Price, two asset manager companies with executives who were signatories. Coincidentally, these asset manager companies were ranked among the most lenient investors with respect to the executive pay of their investee companies, according to the research firm Proxy Insight.

These standards can be deployed by checklist, and boards can be audited for compliance to the specifics of the adopted standards. But, more importantly, the very existence of these standards lends them authority through expressive force. What they express—or signal, in behavioral economic parlance—is intent, goodwill, and values. Signaling is valuable in the court of public opinion.

Personal Protection Strategies

As reported in NACD Directorship magazine earlier this year, activists often wage battle in the court of public opinion to garner public support when mounting an attack against a company. Emphasizing the personal risks, the Financial Times reported in August that “Corporate names are resilient: when their images get damaged, a change of management or strategy will often revive their fortunes. But personal reputations are fragile: mess with them and it can be fatal.”

Make no mistake: this risk is personal. A director’s damaged personal reputation comes with material costs. Risk Management reported in September that the opportunity costs to the average corporate director arising from public humiliation were estimated at more than $2 million.

Among the many governance standards, pay issues are the third rail of personal reputation risks. “If companies don’t use common sense to control pay outcomes, [shareholders have to question] what else is going on at the organization and the dynamic between the chief executive and the board,” an asset manager with Railpen Investments told the Financial Times recently. Clawbacks may be the most disconcerting pay issue because the tactic places directors personally between both the investment community and regulators.

Governance standards just over the horizon may give boards succor, and reputation-risk-transfer solutions may have immediate benefits. Since 2014, the American Law Institute (ALI) has been developing a framework titled, “Compliance, Enforcement, and Risk Management for Corporations, Nonprofits, and Other Organizations.” Members of the project’s advisory committee include representatives from Goldman Sachs & Co., HSBC, Google, Clorox, and Avon Products; diverse law firms offering governance advisory services; law schools; regulators including the Department of Justice; and representatives from a number of prominent courts. According to the ALI, the project is likely to hold an authority close to that accorded to judicial decisions.

The ALI work product remains a well-protected secret, but the project is expected to recommend standards and best practices on compliance, enforcement, risk management, and governance. It can be expected that the ALI standards will reflect the legal community’s newly acquired recognition of the interactions between the traditional issues of compliance, director and officer liabilities, and economics; and the newer issues of cognitive and behavioral sciences. Such governance standards will likely speak to the fact that while director and officer liability will be adjudicated in the courts of law, director and officer culpability will be adjudicated in the courts of public opinion.

Insurance Solutions Available Now

Boards that qualify for reputational insurances and their expressive force can mitigate risks in the court of public opinion. An NACD Directorship article noted earlier this year, “ . . . these reputation-based indemnification instruments, structured like a performance bond or warranty with indexed triggers, communicate the quality of governance, essentially absolving board members of damaging insinuations by activists.”

Given the increased personal reputational risks facing directors and the long-term financial consequences arising, it may be time for an omnibus revisit of the adequacy of both director compensation and company-sponsored D&O risk mitigation strategies in the context of an enhanced, board-driven approach to governance, compliance, and risk management.

Following the guidelines of the ALI’s project once they are published is a rational strategy. After all, the work product will be one that will have already been “tested” informally in the community comprising the courts of law, and will be designed to account for the reality of the courts of public opinion. And no firm today has natural immunity to reputation damage—even Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway appears to be in the ISS crosshairs. Reputational insurances which, like vaccines, boost immunity, are available to qualified boards to counter all that is certain to come at them in this upcoming proxy season. And for those who insist on both belts and suspenders, hazardous duty pay may seal the deal.


Nir Kossovsky is CEO of Steel City Re and an authority on business process risk and reputational value. He can be contacted at nkossovsky@steelcityre.com. Paul Liebman is chief compliance officer and director of University Compliance Services at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be contacted at paul.liebman@austin.utexas.edu.