The rate and complexity of change in the marketplace is greater than ever before—and not showing any signs of slowing. From innovation and disruptive technologies to regulatory activity and stakeholder scrutiny, companies are constantly presented with new risks and challenges. As NACD’s new Chair Reatha Clark King observed, writer William Gibson captured the inflection point most corporate boards find themselves approaching: the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. As these changes force global economic shifts, it is necessary for those in the boardroom to understand and prepare for the future structure of directorship now.
This week, NACD held the second in a series of exploratory meetings in Chicago to discuss how the boardroom can define and prepare for the challenges and opportunities expected in the next five to seven years. This meeting series—held in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles—will culminate in the kickoff of NACD Directorship 2020 at the 2013 NACD Board Leadership Conference. An effort to provide directors with a clear vision of what their roles will resemble in the future, NACD Directorship 2020 will extend from educational programs and roundtable exchanges to publications, all shaped by feedback from these events.
At the Langham Hotel in Chicago, more than 100 directors attended the afternoon session to discuss two topics: the future state of communications between the board and C-suite and how to select performance metrics that will generate sustainable organizational profit. Sessions were led by NACD President and CEO Ken Daly; Akamai Technologies Lead Director and Audit Committee Chairman Martin Coyne; NACD Chair King; and former Bell and Howell CEO, current NACD Director, and Northwestern University Professor Bill White. During the highly interactive sessions, each table was given a specific set of questions to discuss and provide thoughts among their peers. Takeaways from the event include:
Directorship is a part-time job with full time accountability. Inherent in the board/C-suite relationship is an information imbalance. However, with the right culture and board leadership, the board and senior management can easily communicate expectations and necessary information.
A CEO’s leadership style can serve as an indicator that the risk of information asymmetry has become too high. Directors establish a level of trust with the CEO and management to allow for board access to other members of the senior team, as well as site visits to see the company’s operations.
With an expanding board agenda, process and expectation setting are critical. The board should clearly communicate to management the types and format of information that need to be presented.
An empowered lead director or non-executive chair can help mitigate the risk of information imbalance. By facilitating communication channels and work between the independent directors and the CEO, this leadership position can break down some of the road blocks that may develop between the C-suite and directors. The relationship between the CEO and lead director or chair should be transparent.
Culture is critical in effective dialogue between the board and senior management. With the right culture, directors can be sure they are aware of the risks that are keeping the CEO up at night.
Sharing information via performance metrics, which are focused on what directors need to know, can bridge gaps in information flow. Ultimately, the board has to make winning decisions which are informed by data.
Today, directors balance short-term shareholder expectations with generating long-term sustainable profit. The role of the stakeholder, though, is more significant than ever before and expected to grow. In the future, directors will have to be increasingly focused on balancing shareholder return with stakeholder concerns.
It may be difficult for the board to address and to communicate with every stakeholder. The board should identify which stakeholders are critical to the strategic plans, and target communications to those groups.
Balance also extends to leading versus lagging indicators. The board should first approve the right strategy and set goals accordingly. Leading indicators will drive ensuing performance—but lagging indicators are also necessary to provide the right feedback loop.
Innovation is important to the success of any company. How innovation is defined, though, is largely dependent on the company, and should be rooted in the corporate strategy. For some, innovation will manifest in processes, products, or both.
The next NACD Directorship 2020 event will be held Sept. 10 in Los Angeles. Between events, NACD’s blog will feature viewpoints and research from our NACD Directorship 2020 partners—Broadridge, KPMG, Marsh & McLennan Cos., and PwC—that will take a deeper look into the emerging issues and trends that will redefine directorship.
Underlying NACD’s Directorship 2020 initiative is a single observation: capitalism—and the role of the director—is changing. There are the more obvious forces behind this shift: vocal shareholder activists, a steady stream of regulation impacting the boardroom, emerging technologies, and the increasingly global marketplace; however, a quieter influence is also taking hold of capitalism: looking beyond the bottom line.
Since their formation, the ultimate goal of corporations has been to generate profit, and therefore shareholder return. As such, total shareholder return has served as a universal metric for investors when analyzing a company’s performance. Recently, several companies have been profiled for their use of “capitalism with conscience.” Panera Bread, for example, has established a number of locations which allow the customer to “pay what you can”; Intel not only links compensation to sustainability but ties employee bonuses to environmental metrics; and Office Depot announced this week the second round of its national “Green Business Challenge”— a public-private partnership launched in 2010 with ICLEI USA. These companies represent just a fraction of those embracing this “softer” side of capitalism. The list of companies upping the ante with respect to sustainability efforts is rapidly growing to include General Electric, Nordstrom, Microsoft, Starbucks, and more.
Observing this trend, Northwestern University Professor and former CEO and Chair of Bell & Howell Bill White posed this question at the recent NACD Directorship 2020 symposium in New York City: should we rename “total shareholder return” to “total stakeholder return”? Although attendees did not commit to a change in nomenclature, they generally agreed that stakeholder return was a necessary consideration in the boardroom. In fact, a key takeaway from the event was a recommendation that the board encourage metrics that foster stakeholder engagement as a strategy for risk mitigation.
Establishing a metric tied to sustainability is not entirely new. In 2010, NACD’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Performance Metrics recommended boards consider non-financial metrics in addition to the more traditional financial metrics, including categories such as community engagement, environment, health and safety, and corporate social responsibility. Additionally, earlier this year NACD Directorship magazine featured a comprehensive primer to sustainability in the boardroom.
Yet many still view sustainability and shareholder return as an “either/or” situation: attention to the former detracts from the latter. At the Bricks and Sticks Sustainability Symposium—an event produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center—panelists representing the various stakeholders involved in public-private partnerships observed that today it is instead a “both/and” scenario. Sustainable long-term economic growth is dependent upon continuing environmental and stakeholder health, and vice versa. Directors play a critical role, according to Yalmaz Siddiqui, senior director of environmental strategy for Office Depot. The organization’s successful Green Business Challenge was in part driven by a strong message from the boardroom encouraging increased focus on sustainability.
Innovative and sustainable solutions for economic growth often require far-reaching and long-term thinking, which can pose a challenge for boards hindered by a more immediate, short-term focus on the bottom line. At upcoming symposiums in Chicago and Los Angeles, NACD Directorship 2020 will continue to explore how—and with which metrics—the board can oversee this changing facet of capitalism.
After a visually stunning acrobatic performance by members of Cirque du Soleil, NACD Chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Barbara Hackman Franklin opened the 25th NACD Board Leadership Conference with a call to restore public trust in capitalism.
With conference attendees representing nearly all 50 states, all of NACD’s 22 chapters and 10 countries ranging from Kuwait to Jamaica, Franklin noted that “governance is indeed global.” However, her focus on capitalism was focused specifically on the American style of market capitalism. From a historical perspective, capitalism generally falls under attack following economic crises and scandals. The Enron and Worldcom scandals resulted in the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation one decade ago. Today, directors are in the process of incorporating the many provisions to come out of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.
In her speech, Franklin noted that public distrust of business executives is at an all-time high. As such, businesses are operating under the “new normal.” No longer are public companies expected to just make a profit for shareholders. According to the NACD chair, the smartest companies are paying attention to such areas as the environment, sustainability, and diversity.
Franklin listed five ways directors can support a restored faith in capitalism:
1. Be the best [directors] can be.
2. Stress the tone at the top: The critical ingredient for long-term ethical behavior is culture.
3. Build a strong board that values openness and candor.
4. Push for corporate social responsibility actions to be embedded in the company strategy.
5. Stay current: Continuing education for corporate directors is a necessity.
The time to act, according to Franklin, is now. If companies do not step up, the government will step in.