In his classic treatise on the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted a discrepancy between the interests of owners and the managers who are handling those “other people’s money.” In the twentieth century, Michael C. Jensen and William H. Meckling—citing Smith as well as Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property—gave new urgency to this issue by introducing the concept of agency costs—the costs of aligning the incentives of these different corporate actors. This led to more than four decades of searching for the best way to align the interests of shareholders and managers.
At first it seemed that the solution would be stock price, since shareholders and managers alike want to optimize that. The advent of the efficient market hypothesis reinforced the focus on market pricing as the arbiter of corporate performance, and of short term shareholder value as the purpose of the corporation. We have learned, painfully, that neither of these ways of thinking about governance issues is adequate.
Meanwhile, corporate law has been overwhelmed by the advent of a litany of corporate governance norms. This has spawned an active governance industry and a variety of new analytical models for framing corporate law, including:
shareholder primacy, in which boards are accountable above all to shareholders;
the stakeholder model, in which the interests of all stakeholders are to be considered and mediated by the board of directors;
the team production model, in which the inputs of various stakeholders are acknowledged; and
the nexus of contracts theory, director primacy, and others.
What has become clear is that there is no “right” corporate governance model. Governance is highly contextual, and is dependent on what a particular company does, its ownership structure, and the markets and political frameworks in which it operates. The focus on corporate governance reflects a move from a simple legal view of the corporation to one that has become increasingly complex and dynamic, constantly responding to societal expectations. Governance is messy because that is life.
One of the consequences is that there seem to be new controversies and consequential regulatory proposals every year. We have spawned a corporate governance reform industry (private sector and regulatory) that has become adept at generating activity to feed itself. A related oddity is the fact that many of the regulatory proposals are symbolic—they certainly cannot be explained by their relevance to improving corporate governance or performance.
To take a current example, think of say on pay. We now have several years of data resulting from the legal ability of shareholders in the US to cast an advisory vote on executive compensation. Rhetoric aside, shareholders have typically approved compensation with votes in favor, typically exceeding 90 percent. There is a double irony here. First, executive compensation is paid mostly in equity with a value based mostly on short-term stock prices. Second, shareholder support for executive pay also appears to be highly correlated with a company’s short-term stock performance. To the extent that the say on pay vote has heightened executives’ incentives to focus on short-term stock price at the potential expense of creating sustainable value, this regulatory initiative would appear to be counterproductive.
Another recent example is last year’s shareholder resolutions asking companies to report on their exposure to climate risk (and related regulatory, technological, legal, and meteorological forces). In spite of proclaimed commitments to engagement on environmental, social, and governance issues, both executive management teams and investors seem indifferent to such proposals. Management typically recommends a vote against the measure, claiming that the company’s reporting is already thorough, and shareholders vote thumbs down accordingly. Preventable Surprises, a self-described “think-do” tank in the United Kingdom, reports that only one of nine such resolutions at the major U.S. utilities received majority support. Three of the largest institutional investors (owning, on average, close to 20 percent of the shares of the nine companies) voted against each of the resolutions. Equally surprising is the lack of disclosure by these investors regarding the impacts of climate risk on their portfolios and investment strategies.
It is unlikely that the explanation for this lies in false perceptions. The actors we are talking about are among the most sophisticated and influential in our society. A more likely explanation is that governance is often viewed as a moral crusade that is tapping into broader public sentiment without regard for materiality or the difficulty of effecting fundamental change. The exercise of governance then becomes largely symbolic and political and, as a result, it is often conservative and self-serving. One systemic danger is that such reforms dull the desire for deeper introspection and more fundamental change.
That systems are integrated (i.e., more than the sum of their parts), and
That systems are fractal (i.e., they are comprised of subsystems which in turn are comprised of other subsystems on so on).
A third principle flows from the first two: that the overall health of the system depends on the continued health of each of its essential subsystems, as well as of the larger systems in which it is embedded. They then reflect on how each of these principles applies to corporations.
Well-managed corporations achieve resilience through positive mechanisms such as economy (i.e devoting the appropriate level of resources based on current conditions), homeostasis (i.e., information and feedback loops that allow a system to adjust to disturbances in its environment and stay within the parameters necessary for its continued functioning), and self-organization (i.e., the ability of a system to learn, diversify and evolve in response to shifts in its environment that might otherwise threaten its survival).
By contrast, poorly managed corporations remain vulnerable due to negative mechanisms such as redundancy (i.e., devoting more resources than needed for a given purpose); imbalance (e.g., information asymmetry between management and directors); and rigidity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results).
In systems, multiple purposes are the rule, not the exception. What we observe about a system’s purpose or purposes, actual or apparent, will depend on our level of analysis. The relevant lesson that systems thinking offers on corporate purpose is that the overall goal of a corporate system should not be subordinated to the goals of any one of its subsystems (such as the share ownership subsystem). A critical, ongoing role of effective boards should be to mediate these competing interests.
Systems theory suggests that corporate purpose can be viewed from different perspectives, including the expectations of the state whose laws made incorporation possible. This doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the difficult question of corporate purpose. Indeed, one of the primary insights of systems theory is that the purpose and functions of a system is often the least obvious part of the system, especially to outside observers who pay attention to only a few events or to rhetoric or stated goals.
Where does this thinking lead? First, systems theory counsels against focusing on any single metric. To take the obvious example, short-term profitability is not so much an objective as a constraint a firm may have to meet in order to remain in business. Metrics such as profits, employee turnover, customer satisfaction, and so forth are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are a source of information about whether the corporation is relevant, resilient, and sustainable. Sustainable value creation is the singular goal boards should be focusing on and to which managers should be held accountable.
A related lesson is the need to develop new tools and techniques to measure system-level effects. Increasingly the focus will be on the ability of corporations to generate and account for positive externalities. The work of one organization, The Investment Integration Project, may provide guidance for corporations as well as institutional investors. The organization’s work looks beyond financial metrics to consider system-level events and the integration of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, for instance.
A third lesson from systems theory is that, given multiple purposes and the complexity inherent in systems analysis, the three branches of government—courts, lawmakers, and regulators—will rarely be well positioned to judge corporate performance. (It is fortunate that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has not yet finalized the proposed Dodd-Frank rule on pay versus performance, which defines performance as no more or less than three years of annualized Total Shareholder Returns (TSR) .)It will also be difficult for academics or the corporate governance profession to identify “one size fits all” reforms that can reliably improve the performance of all companies. Attempts to impose such silver-bullet solutions are more likely to result in what Roberta Romano has described as “quack corporate governance” that often does more harm than good.
This suggests the exercise of restraint by regulators—assuming positive intent and encouraging adaptive responses rather than imposing rigid and formal compliance requirements. In this manner, we can ensure that our corporations can continue to function as dynamic systems that foster the wealth of nations and the globe.
Edward Waitzer is a partner and head of the corporate governance group at Stikeman Elliott LLP. All thoughts are his own.
It seems recently that one can’t escape reading stories about poor leadership gone wrong. It’s time for action from the boardroom, and it’s no longer good enough to ask unstructured questions about a company’s helpline. Nor is good enough to rely on one’s own experience, instinct, and blind spots in the boardroom to hold management accountable for a healthy culture.
Trust-but-verify culture might be a good way for boards to move forward. While it is critically important to have trust in the CEO, blind trust can only lead to blind alleys where bad cultures can fester and become toxic. The board needs to be equipped with a way to periodically and in a customized and simultaneously adaptable manner understand the company’s culture.
The need for directors of companies to get under the skin of the culture of their organization has never been greater—or more necessary and daunting. Witness the many culture disasters we have recently seen from Uber, Wells Fargo & Co., The Weinstein Co., and Wynn Resorts. Over the past 25 years as a corporate executive, advisor, and board member, I have witnessed and advised on responses to similar instances of culture gone wrong—the good, the bad, the ugly, and, in one or two cases, the uglier. And I have also seen what a good culture can do to propel a company to greater reputational and financial heights (and returns).
It is important to share some of the tools, lessons learned, and insights on how the board can peel back the layers of the culture onion to begin to understand what is going on inside their companies, above and beyond the surface that boards are usually privy to. We start with a look at what happened in 2017 to understand the workplace culture maelstrom that the #MeToo moment has ushered in and crystallized.
A Year in Culture Dysfunction
2017 was a year filled with tales of organizational culture gone wrong. We learned about negative and destructive behaviors in the workplace, mostly perpetrated by powerful leaders, causing serious human, economic, and reputational costs for people and organizations. The toxic workplace cultures extended from the pinnacles of political power to the front lines of manufacturing facilities.
Powered by the ubiquity and raw reach of social media, the #MeToo story quickly became universal—told first by the more glamorous denizens of Hollywood and then extending to the most vulnerable hotel, restaurant, and factory floor workers. All of them were victims of a toxic workplace culture of abuse of power, shame, and lies. Worse still, many victims are submitting to terrible work conditions, are sidelined from needed jobs, or are permanently derailed from pursuing desirable careers and professional passions.
Time magazine’s choice for the 2017 Person of the Year, the “Silence Breakers,” said it all. Though sparked by the Weinstein exposé, the #MeToo story represents the culmination of decades of pent-up workplace silence, lies, cover-ups, manipulation and anger. The overwhelming impact of the #MeToo phenomenon can only be explained by the explosion and maturation of social media, which has led to the amplification and acceleration of reputation risks tied to workplace culture.
Why 2017 Stands Out
Two other relatively recent periods of corporate cultural moments, if we can call them that, come to mind: 2002 and 2008. The downfall of Enron, WorldCom, and others resulted in an uproar about financial accountability and the adoption of Sarbanes–Oxley in 2002. Nearly six years later, we witnessed the downfall of financial giants Lehman Brothers Holdings and Bear Stearns Cos., leading to the humiliation of the U.S. financial sector in general for the massive mortgage and derivative-related scandals, leading to social awakenings such as Occupy Wall Street and the adoption of the Dodd-Frank Act.
While these two watershed moments were important, 2017 was arguably the most momentous year yet for matters of corporate culture. In both the 2002 and 2008 cases, the cultural issue revolved around financial malfeasance. The cultural issue of 2017 is qualitatively different. Challenges are being made against toxic personal behaviors in the workplace perpetrated mainly by leaders against their subordinates, and those actions demand a qualitatively different approach to oversight that is more proactive and requires the ability to look behind the numbers and the dashboards.
By 2017 we had also arrived at the convergence of two other significant developments not fully present or developed before:
the rise of the importance to business of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues (especially in the US, as Europe has long focused on ESG); and
the acceleration and amplified impact of reputation risk associated with ESG risk (which includes workplace cultural issues) because of the age of social media and hyper-transparency.
Companies can no longer reactively manage their reputation in this hyper-transparent environment. Companies have to earn it proactively and watchfully, and getting to the bottom of the culture of their organization is of paramount importance for the C-suite and board.
In this era, the excuse that only shareholders matter no longer holds. Boards and management are responsible to all of their stakeholders for ESG results as well (shareholders, employees, customers, and beyond), which include proactively maintaining and nurturing a healthy workplace culture. In the age of hyper-transparency, it does not pay to turn a blind eye or to wait for a crisis to hit. The rapid-fire downfall of not only Harvey Weinstein but of his entire company, including its damaged board and board members, is the cautionary tale of the day.
On the positive side, there is plenty of evidence that while a toxic culture destroys value, a strong and resilient culture fully championed and embodied by the very top of the organization (read: CEOs and directors) can and will add long-term sustainable value to the company’s reputation and financial bottom line. Such values protect the organization from the crises that will inevitably come and add bottom line financial value, as the famous Johnson & Johnson Tylenol case first demonstrated.
Is our Current Culture Moment Fleeting or Momentous?
We are certainly witnessing a cultural moment. The real question is this: will this moment pass with no more than a whimper, or will it become momentous?
The 2017 stories have definitely awakened awareness at the very top of corporate leadership—at least for now. In one day in December at two major governance gatherings sponsored by NACD in New York City—at Leading Minds of Governance and the NACD Director 100 Gala—this author witnessed how the #MeToo movement was top of mind for directors in general and dominated discussions both public and private throughout that day. Energized directors and experts who were present underscored the importance of action in this moment for the boardroom, and how this topic must be addressed in the long term as part of the board’s responsibility.
Thus, I would argue that this moment is not a fleeting one. The importance of this moment cannot be over-emphasized. It’s one that will be captured by responsible leaders and boards. Indeed, this is a unique time for leaders to step up to their responsibility for creating and owning a healthy workplace culture and for boards to acknowledge and embrace their responsibility: exercising proactive oversight of—and holding management accountable for—creating and maintaining a healthy workplace culture.
The Culturally Attuned Board
The culturally attuned board is one that is organized to understand the company in depth and to leverage that understanding for the success of all its stakeholders. What does that mean in real terms? It means, first, that the board has the tools necessary to understand what the culture really is—to peel that onion to get to the heart of what the tone is not only at the top (in the C-Suite), but also at the grass roots—including among entry-level employees. Second, it means that the board is aware of the red flags that might tip them off to a culture issue or problem. And third, it means that the board does not rest on its laurels but makes the culture conversation a permanent fixture of its work with the CEO, C-suite, and employees generally.
The next blog in this series will describe three specific tools that boards should implement, as well as the ten questions the board should ask to dig deeper and what should be on the board’s culture dashboard.
Dr. Andrea Bonime-Blanc is founder and CEO of GEC Risk Advisory, a strategic governance, risk and ethics advisor, board member, and former senior executive at Bertelsmann, Verint, and PSEG. She is author of numerous books including The Reputation Risk Handbook (2014) and The Artificial Intelligence Imperative (April 2018). She serves as Independent Ethics Advisor to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, start-up mentor at Plug & Play Tech Center, life member at the Council on Foreign Relations and is faculty at the NACD, NYU, IEB and Glasgow Caledonian University. She tweets as @GlobalEthicist. All thoughts shared here are her own.
Innovation and disruption are now commonplace in strategy discussions between the board and C-suite. Even innovations outside of a company’s own mission are changing everything from customer expectations to business operations. While the board’s agenda has evolved to include discussion of issues such as emerging technologies and workforce disruption, corporate directors must still contend with evergreen oversight tasks. Directors are feeling stretched, and reasonably so.
NACD’s Master Class board leadership forum convened more than 50 directors recently in Miami, Florida, to sharpen their focus on several pressing board oversight matters. The event highlighted lessons in effective board leadership and explored emerging disruptions that affect strategy and long-term value creation in today’s dynamic business environment. The discussions at Master Class revealed the following takeaways:
Review the outlook on the economy. The U.S. is on track to have its second-longest economic recovery, and it may even become the longest on record, according to Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG LLP. Unemployment is at an all-time low, and wages are slowly beginning to rise. Barring any global economic shocks, this could signal that the American economy is likely nearing peak growth. Hunter also reminded directors that though all signs point to stable economic growth this year, an economic downturn in the coming years is still possible.
Pay attention to increased complexity. From social and demographic changes to technological disruption, companies are facing increasingly complex challenges. Addressing these issues will require the board to keep up with today’s dynamic business environment. Being on a board is no longer simply about compliance or risk oversight. Fundamental conversations about company strategy and business models need to become regular topics of discussion. The board needs to ask hard questions of its executive team around the company’s data strategy, whether this team has the requisite set of skills to execute on strategy broadly, and how well the management team understands the competitive landscape and challenges specific to their industry.
Approach technology as an enabler of strategy. Board discussions about technology should focus on the current—or potential—application for the company. Directors should, therefore, approach such dialogues within the context of company strategy. The board should ensure that management understands and meaningfully engages with the company’s technology systems and the staff who use those systems, and assesses how the company invests in technology as an enabler of the broader strategy.
Wake up to disruption. Large companies are beginning to wake up to the disruptive players in their industries. Many so-called startup “unicorns” are now backed by corporate venture capital arms, enabling established, large-scale companies to gain a competitive edge with smaller companies leading transformative ventures and creating disruptive technologies. There are more avenues than ever before for businesses of all sizes to engage with emerging technologies, from pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, or attendance at events such as the annual NACD Consumer Electronics Show Experience, to setting up corporate venture arms.
Think outside—or about—the box. The concept of Innovation dos not have to be limited to a firm’s research and development department. A company can innovate in every facet of its business, from financing to product packaging. One director attending Master Class shared how one of her companies modified its package design for products that customers opened to peer inside. By redesigning the packaging to include transparent plastic, customers were able to see these products through the packaging and, thereby, didn’t feel compelled to open it. This helped the company dramatically reduce the number of products that were spoiled from being opened.
Demand better risk reports. Directors need to push management to enhance the effectiveness of risk reports provided to the board. If risk reports received from management look like audit reports, the board may not be receiving the information it needs to effectively oversee risk. Management teams often present so much information that directors may find it difficult to discern which risks demand the most urgent attention. In fact, the 2017─2018 NACD Public Company Governance Survey reports that in the past 12 months, 79 percent of respondents say they communicated with management about the types of risk information that the board requires.
Communicate what investors want to know. Institutional investors want to know whether the board is capable of being not only the board of today, but that of tomorrow. In this regard, the proxy statement is often underutilized as a way of communicating the board’s strengths and skills that will help strengthen their oversight of the company in the years to come. If effectively used, this document can enrich board-shareholder dialogue. More information is available in the publication Investor Perspectives: Critical Issues for Board Focus in 2018.