Category: Corporate Social Responsibility

Shareholder Letters: An Overlooked Communications Asset

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For all the hyper-connectivity in today’s world, CEOs and boards have precious few opportunities to reach out to shareholders in a way that is personal, memorable and compelling. Most communication between the C-suite and investors is filtered through multiple handlers and channels. The requisite legal and regulatory compliance language is often such a distraction that the real meaning, and the real intent, of the message can be lost.

The annual letter on the “state of the company” included with a company’s annual report is an ideal tool for CEOs and board chairs to more closely communicate with all shareholders, from global institutions to the smallest investors. Yet too few companies fully seize on this ready-made opportunity. Many CEOs are content to just keep it short and focus on the financial story, offering little context on the events that defined the past year and no articulated vision of what investors can expect in the future.

It’s a missed opportunity, as CEOs could and should be using the annual letter to provide all shareholders a glimpse into who they are and how they’re running the company. They could and should be sharing their best thoughts in their own voice, spotlighting issues and topics in a way that will build confidence among investors that the right management team is at the helm.

The undisputed master of this forum is (no surprise) Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett. Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders topped the recent NACD Directorship magazine’s list of Best Annual Shareholder Letters, which evaluated the entire Fortune 200 list.

Buffett’s letter is understated yet highly informative, giving credit where credit is due, reinforcing the corporate business strategy, and setting the table for how he wants investors (and others, including analysts and media) to perceive the company and its leadership.

On each of the five criteria that NACD Directorship uses to analyze CEO letters, Buffett was in a class of his own. His letter provides a dynamic assessment of the corporate performance, full transparency, a clear outline of the steps Berkshire Hathaway is taking to tackle its challenges, a strategic process that accounts for environmental changes, and insights into the corporate management style. Buffett transforms the shareholder letter from a simple formality into a major influencer on how his company is perceived.

As a tool that actually builds shareholder value, Berkshire Hathaway’s letter is in a class by itself but certainly not the only notable example. Coca-Cola, FedEx, General Electric, General Motors, Google, and Wal-Mart all stood out as companies that go beyond formalities by utilizing the annual report letter as a critical communication tool.

NACD Directorship also singled out others—including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Abbott Laboratories, Amazon, Avon, Exelon, Hewlett-Packard, News Corp., and Zipcar—for how their letters coherently explained and evaluated special circumstances that had arisen.

All of the letters on this year’s list of the best offer a real insider’s view—and it is, after all, the essence of effective IR to help investors feel they’re personally part of the team. Executives act like leaders when they show their stakeholders how they lead.

For more examples of great shareholder letters, visit www.NACDonline.org/Power-of-the-Pen. We hope they inspire you to utilize some powerful communications strategies of your own.

NACD Full Board Membership: What It Means for Companies and Investors

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NACD recently announced that more than 40 companies, including several Fortune-ranked corporations, had become NACD Full Board Members, joining 1,000 current NACD Full Board Members. This was yet another example of the commitment corporate directors are making to achieve exemplary board leadership and the highest standards of corporate governance.

“NACD Full Board Members” are exactly what the name suggests: An entire corporation’s board of directors and optional C-suite executives joins NACD, embracing our mission to disseminate and encourage the best professional and ethical boardroom practices. As NACD Full Board Members, these directors and executives can take advantage of myriad resources to better understand and respond to current emerging issues and opportunities.

In today’s world, having the skills to address these issues is more crucial than ever. To that end, some of the great names in business are finding solutions with NACD. Full Board Member companies are a diverse group, including small- and mid-cap public companies and diverse private companies as well as nonprofit organizations. NACD Full Board Members range from Microsoft to PEPSICO, from McDonald’s to Lockheed Martin, and Corning, Panera Bread, The Hershey Co., Foot Locker, ConocoPhillips, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., Warnaco and IDEX Corp. are among the Fortune-ranked companies that recently joined.

What Full Board Membership means for companies:

As an NACD Full Board Member, a company demonstrates—to employees, consumers and investors—its resolute commitment to the highest governance and board leadership standards. NACD provides a wealth of resources to support this quest, as Full Board Members are entitled to exclusive programs, special events, advisory services and board evaluations. NACD custom-designs a number of benefits for board chairmen, lead directors and key committee chairs, and we provide a variety of educational and research resources tailored for individual companies.

What Full Board Membership means for investors:

NACD Full Board Membership is a corporate asset. It designates a public company as one that has taken practical action to maintain the highest standards of professionalism, and to both understand and respond to today’s emerging issues and opportunities. For both current shareholders and potential investors, the message is encouragingly clear. 

NACD Full Board Membership inspires confidence among all stakeholders. Click here to learn more about Full Board Membership, including information on how to join.

Saving Capitalism—One Conference at a Time

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Ever since the rise of capitalism in post-feudal Europe, people have predicted its self-destruction. Private creation and ownership of wealth carries risks, and these risks have been spotted by advocates and enemies alike. Free-market proponent Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations warned against the dangers of separating ownership and liability in joint-stock companies.  A century later, in Das Kapital, Karl Marx, a foe of capitalism, said capitalism would fail due in part to the inevitable decline of profits over time. And at the turn of this past century, capitalist icon and financier George Soros wrote of the “capitalist threat” in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, predicting that uninhibited pursuit of self-interest without concern for the common good would lead to a breakdown of the free-market economy.

In more recent times, however, we have not needed books or articles to sound the alarm. The current realities of persistent recession and excessive regulation say it all. Clearly, capitalism is under siege and we, its practitioners, are its only hope.

Fortunately, there are several existing communities devoted to this noble cause.  One is NACD itself. At our national headquarters and in our chapters, we at NACD believe the organization is helping directors do their jobs well, which, in turn, strengthens companies and the economy.

But NACD is not alone in its dedication. A number of movements have emerged with the express purpose of saving capitalism from both itself and overregulation. One of the newest and fastest-growing is “conscious capitalism”—a movement that challenges business leaders and indeed all stakeholders to rediscover and live their companies’ true purpose—even while creating long-term wealth for owners.

The phrase was coined by Muhammad Yunus, who received a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank, a provider of micro-loans.  The term caught on quickly. Kip Tindell, CEO of the Container Store, and John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, co-founded Conscious Capitalism Alliance in 2007, which would join with an institute to become Conscious Capitalism Inc.(CCI).

The Conscious Capitalism movement, via CCI, has grown in less than half a decade to become a convening force—one strong enough to tear me away from my office! Last month I served on a panel at the Fourth Annual Conscious Capitalism Conference at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. The event focused on the importance of “love and care” in the workplace, along with similar topics, including the board’s role in corporate culture, the theme of my panel.

The conference brochure advised me that “conscious businesses have distinctive cultures that help to sustain their adherence to their higher purpose and their orientation towards maintaining a harmony of interests across stakeholders. Conscious cultures are self-sustaining, self-healing and evolutionary.” So far so good!

I assumed my purpose was to suit up, show up, and “carry the flag” for corporate directors.  I could just picture myself as being the only “suit” among a sea of social activists and rising-star millennials, being a lone voice explaining that directors do care.  In preparation for the panel, I had come up with what I call the 5 Cs:

  • code (help develop the code of conduct)
  • CEO (pick the company leader and successors with an eye to culture)
  • compensation (compensation committee sets incentives for nonfinancial and well as financial results)
  • controls (audit committee ensures compliance with laws,  the code of conduct, and any other norms)
  • composition (nominating and governance committee selects the board, which then sets the tone at the top through all of the above)

But as it turns out, although I did intone my 5 Cs, I didn’t have to do much explaining about how the boardroom works. Directors and business VIPs were everywhere in the crowd of over three hundred—including some with strong NACD credentials.

Day 1 featured former Medtronics CEO Bill George, who co-chaired the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Executive Compensation, as a keynote panelist on the theme of love and trust in business.

On Day 2, the director community was also in evidence. The moderator of the corporate culture panel, Deborah Wallace, is an NACD Fellow, and her panel included NACD’s most recent Director of the Year, Jenne Britell, chair of United Rentals. Another director on the panel, Ralph “Bud” Sorenson, is the chair of the nominating and governance committee of Whole Foods. The conference also featured several notable CEOs, past and present (not only Tindell and Mackey, mentioned earlier, but also Ron Shaich, founder and co-CEO of Panera Bread; and Doug Rauch, former CEO of Trader Joe’s and current CEO of  CCI).

Coming all the way from Australia was Ian Pollard, a prominent member of the Australian director community, active with the Australian Institute of Corporate Directors. And I couldn’t resist giving a shout-out to Steve Jordan, director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center. (BCLC advances businesses’ social and philanthropic interests through a variety of programs, including corporate citizenship awards and a disaster help desk that empowers businesses to help communities when natural disasters strike.) Like yours truly, Steve is a member of the advisory board of the Caux Round Table, which deserves its own full-length blog post—coming soon.

This star lineup told me that corporate America is already engaged in social responsibility, already devoted to making capitalism sustainable for the long term. Why else would such respected directors be there? And I noticed some knowing nods of agreement from the audience when I discussed the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the standard for reporting on company accomplishments in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) realm—or “sustainability” for short. At NACD, we’ve been keeping our members in the know about such issues—which we will cover at our Board Leadership Conference in October 2012. As usual, our speakers and panels on sustainability-type issues will draw an appreciative crowd.

But Conscious Capitalism runs deeper than simply preaching to the choir about the importance of social issues. According to CCI co-founder Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism has four defining characteristics: “First is a higher purpose. There needs to be some other reason why you exist, not just to make money. Second is aligning all the stakeholders around that sense of higher purpose and recognizing that their interests are all connected to each other, and therefore there’s no exploitation of one for the benefit of another. The third element is conscious leadership, which is driven by purpose and by service to people, and not by power or by personal enrichment. And the fourth is a conscious culture, which embodies trust, caring, compassion, and authenticity.”

Ideally, these values permeate the conscious corporation at every level, including all its employees. Keynote speaker Singh Kang, general manager of the Taj hotel in Boston, gave a good example. Taj is owned by the Tata Group, an $80 billion Indian conglomerate known for its benevolence to employees. Kang was general manager of Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai during a terrorist attack on November 26, 2008, referred to as India’s 26/11. During the crisis, he stayed on duty, focusing on safety for all as his employees tried to protect guests, even taking bullets for them. Eleven employees died in the attacks.  Their families received generous, lifelong survival benefits from their company, returning loyalty for loyalty.

This was Conscious Capitalism in action. These loyal employees and their equally loyal employer will remain forever etched in my mind, inspiring me to continue defending and protecting our economic system—along with the positive values it can foster.