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.
At some point, your organization is likely to encounter a crisis situation. As CEO of a cybersecurity company, I work with many organizations responding to security crises, such as breaches or disclosure of security issues in their products. How companies respond to these situations can make or break their reputation and customers’ trust in the organization, and impact the cost of the incident. This is also true for non-security-related incidents.
As board members, you can support—or even mandate—a response that will see your business weather the storm as well as could be hoped. Nobody likes to think about worst-case scenarios, but as board members you must hold the organization accountable for doing just that to ensure it is prepared in case disaster strikes.
My seven steps to minimizing fallout through crisis response are as follows:
1. Determine your guiding principle. Before you begin planning for, or responding to, a crisis, determine the overarching goal or guiding principle that drives decision-making throughout the organization’s response. This should be a principle that has been articulated in advance and is well understood by all stakeholders.
Guiding principles can vary greatly, and could include: protecting users, investors, or employees; minimizing disruption or cost to the business; or demonstrating leadership in your community. Spend time with the executive team and other key leaders in your organization to determine what makes the most sense for your business. Be sure to discuss the risks, benefits, requirements, and payoffs of various approaches.
2. Preparation is key. Next, identify a handful of crisis scenarios that could affect your business, and to determine which key players will drive the response. This will likely change from scenario to scenario. Once you know your scenarios and stakeholders, assign an owner to build response plans. These plans should include basic workflows for every scenario and a detailed matrix of roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders. The owner should work through the processes and expectations to ensure that everyone understands their role, and what their teammates will need throughout the process.
As a board member, you can support this by asking:
Do we have an up-to-date incident or crisis response plan for the organization? What scenarios are covered? Are there applicable scenarios that have not been included?
Who was involved in creating, reviewing, and approving the plan? Do all stakeholders understand what is expected of them?
What assets most need protecting to ensure effective business continuity?
3. Practice makes perfect. There is no such thing as perfect when it comes to crisis management, but ensuring that your organization’s response plan has been practiced will help you identify potential kinks in the process before they become significant issues. It will also help your cross-functional team build trust and better understand each other’s processes and needs.
As a board member, you can support this by asking:
When was the last time we ran a drill for our crisis response process?
What points were identified as improvement areas in our last crisis drill?
How frequently does our response team run drills or tabletop exercises?
How many different scenarios have been walked through?
4. Build trust among core stakeholders now. If you have followed steps 1 through 3, then you know who your core team is for a variety of scenarios. Depending on the size and complexity of your organization, the key stakeholders may not know each other well and may have minimal experience working together. A crisis is an incredibly challenging time to begin building relationships and trust.
Encourage your crisis response leaders to get to know each other sooner than later, possibly through presenting the crisis response plan to the board. When presenting, ask them to demonstrate familiarity with each other and their alignment. For example:
Ask them to explain each other’s role and goals through a given crisis response scenario.
Ask how they collectively judge the success of a crisis response.
Ask them to explain what they need from each other and the board or leadership team, and what they will provide themselves.
5. Set clear expectations. As much as the crisis response leaders need to build a plan and determine workflows for crisis scenarios, the board should also establish clear expectations and share them in advance. Bear in mind that your role is to help, not hinder, the organization’s ability to respond to a crisis, so whatever expectations you set with the crisis leaders or executive team should be as minimal or efficient as possible.
Consider the following:
When do you want to be informed of a potential crisis situation? For example, when it’s first discovered? Once it’s been verified? Once it’s resolved? Are there any industry-specific regulatory requirements for the timing of reporting on a crisis?
How do you want to be informed? Do you want communication to be over email, or should everyone get together for a call?
Are there categories of incident severity that trigger different responses? For example, will there be situations that you don’t need to know about, some that can just be included in the regular board reporting, and others that warrant dedicated communication?
6. Glide like a swan. As board members, you are no doubt adept at maintaining a professional demeanor in the face of stressful situations. Never is this more vital than during a crisis response. You need to set a tone for the executive team and crisis response team. If you get heated or upset, that will likely perpetuate the same behavior, and a lack of calm generally encourages mistakes to be made and people to become less effective.
Similarly, a lack of calm among responders and executives will likely reveal itself to others, whether inside or outside the organization. This may result in speculation that does more harm to employee or customer morale, or to stock price, than the incident itself. Avoid being the cause of additional stress for those managing the response, and keep in mind point 5 above. It’s fine to want to be kept informed, but take care not to distract or further stress out the core team.
7. Capture learnings and avoid blame. When responding to a crisis, it’s important to enable people to be honest about what happened, what could have or should have been done differently, and what lessons and next steps can be taken away. If everyone is worried they will be fired or publicly blamed, they will be less likely to be honest about what happened. As such, it’s essential during the crisis response that you avoid recriminations and blame.
After the incident has been resolved, ask the crisis response leaders to present key learnings to the board, including what action will be taken to ensure the scenario is unlikely to occur again. At this time, it may be appropriate to discuss accountability; this should be handled privately and with sensitivity.
As board members, you typically will not be on the front line of a crisis response. However, you can still influence its outcomes by encouraging preparation, ensuring alignment, and supporting an open, calm, and blame-free approach. This will enable your organization to put their best foot forward, and hopefully weather crises in the best possible way.
Corey E. Thomas is CEO of Rapid7. Read more of his insights here.
I first attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) more than 30 years ago and have visited periodically over the intervening years. Rest assured that the creativity and sheer volume of innovation exhibited there never ceases to amaze and impress me. While some of it is developed and showcased by global companies such as Samsung and Kohler, the showroom floor is also filled with talent previously working behind the scenes at various brands, or by truly start-up entrepreneurs.
This was the first time that I have viewed the show through the eyes of a corporate director. As I walked more than 10 miles through the aisles over the course of CES 2018, I considered the governance implications of what I saw.
To me, one of the benefits of being at CES is being away from daily routines and taking the opportunity to observe and just let your mind cogitate the possibilities. And cogitate I did. In some cases, I wanted to know not only what the product did, but how it was made. In other instances, I wondered how a product could be marketed or sold, what companies would create its competitor products, and what adoption rate was required to make the product financially successful.
So, what did I find exciting? What made the governance wheels in my head turn? Below are a few themes that stood out.
Quantum Computers. From a pure technology standpoint, the quantum computer stands out due to its astounding small size yet incredible processing power. Intel, which is one of the leaders of the quantum computing race, kicked the week off by exhibiting its own advancements in engineering one of the most powerful quantum chips yet. The IBM Research group, on the other hand, displayed its quantum computer as a stunning piece of art.
Sensors and the Internet of Things. Sensors—which were imbedded in everything from fabrics to headsets, from vehicles to medical products, and in everything else you might imagine would benefit from being connected—continued to impress due to the breadth of their utility. One clever use of sensors was the ShadeCraft patio umbrella whose electronics and robotics allowed it to automatically raise and lower itself based upon current light and weather conditions. This product not only understood sunrise and sunset, but followed the sun throughout the day to properly tilt the umbrella and gauged wind speed or rain to automatically close the umbrella without human intervention. No more worrying about your expensive patio umbrella being turned inside out, upending your table, or taking off as a projectile when you weren’t available to tend it.
Autonomous Vehicles. There was an incredible number of offerings around autonomous vehicles. I use the term vehicles instead of cars because the auto-drive implications are also clear for vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, campers, and other vehicles. Here again the use of sensors was key, and there is no doubt that many of these machines will perform better than the drivers that we currently encounter on the road, human foibles and all.
Medical Aids. Regarding other products, I found so many to be interesting. There was an audio system that not only provided a hearing test but progressed to actually construct an ear bud that utilized the results of the hearing test to produce a customized hearing aid. Phenomenal! Anyone who has gone through the rigor of selecting a hearing aid device can appreciate this speedy, streamlined approach, especially when it is at half the price point of today’s offerings. Next, I liked the Gyenno Co., which developed a special spoon that automatically levels its contents to eliminate spilling. This will provide such a caring and practical solution for those with Parkinson’s or other medical issues that have a problem feeding themselves due to tremors.
3D Printing. Another greatly improved invention is 3D printing. Although the method has been around for a while, it is now not limited to plastics or small items. Printers can fabricate in a variety of mediums and to great scale. For example, there was a camper-type van displayed on the showroom floor that was created by 3D printing. It was produced quickly and at much less expense than a traditional van. It is easy to extrapolate the utility of 3D printing to assist various businesses since it permits specialty solutions that previously did not have the volume to be economically feasible from the producer’s perspective, and were not affordable from the buyer’s standpoint.
Odds and Ends. Three fun offerings were related to beer, fingernails, and laundry. Although I am not a beer drinker, the PicoBrew easily allows making craft beers at home and would be a hit with many of my friends. And I know those who would like the fingernail machine that can use any photos to create vinyl nails for application at home. Finally I’ll introduce the FoldiMate, a device that folds your laundry when you feed it into the machine. It could be the next best thing since sliced bread for the lazy among us.
It is worth noting that one of the great joys of CES is that everyone is welcome, and that the exhibitors and subject-matter experts arrive from many countries. CES makes clear that the desire to innovate transcends borders and creeds, and that the glue holding this incredible meeting together is not so-called “geekiness,” but a superior level of creativity, intellectual curiosity, and desire for business success—and, perhaps above all, the desire by many to improve living conditions around the world.
I’ll close by saying everyone should attend this show once their life time. As a director, I suggest setting the goal of attending every three to five years. CES presents a soup-to-nuts view of developments in products and technology that consumers will anticipate. Even if you are not affiliated with what is considered a consumer business, you do serve customers that will continue to expect innovation. As I absorbed the week’s events and considered the possibilities around every corner, CES opened my mind about what could or should be considered in the boardroom related to strategy and risk. It was well worth my time, and would be for you, too.
Kathleen Misunas is a director of Boingo Wireless and Tech Data Corp., two publicly traded technology companies.