When Walter S. Isaacson winds down his 14-year tenure as the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute at the end of this year, his beloved hometown of New Orleans will be seeing more of him. Students in his classroom at Tulane University will be the lucky recipients of his rich knowledge and experience as he returns as a professor in those stately halls in the Garden District.
Walter S. Isaacson will speak at NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit.
Isaacson, who has penned biographies of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs will speak at NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit in October on innovation and disruption. (He will also release a new biography on Leonardo da Vinci in October.)
In addition to his work as a writer, Issacson keeps his governance plate quite full: he is a director of United Continental Holdings and an advisory board member of the National Institutes of Health. His nonprofit board service includes the Society of American Historians, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. He also has served as an advisory board member at Perella Weinberg Partners, a global financial services and advisory firm, since 2015.
I recently had the opportunity to correspond with him via e-mail and ask him any question my heart desired. While the edited version of our full interview will run in the forthcoming May/June 2017 issue of NACD Directorship, I saved choice pieces from our exchange that unfortunately landed on the cutting room floor due to the physical constraints of a magazine page.
Many of my questions were inspired by newspaper headlines. “Why I’m Moving Home,” a recent New York Times op-ed piece by lawyer cum venture capitalist J.D. Vance, particularly grabbed my attention because it explores a common question: Can you really go home? Can you re-integrate yourself into that community—let alone revitalize it?
Isaacson seems to think so—and he’s a living example that it’s possible. Both he and his wife have divided their time between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans for some time. “I am happiest in my hometown of New Orleans dealing with issues of urban planning, jobs programs, and education reform,” he writes. “I got re-involved after Hurricane Katrina when I was made vice chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. My wife and I have a place in the French Quarter. I think there is more impact to be made when we act locally, and I am lucky that I have a deep passion for the town where I was born and raised.”
And how have the horrors of Hurricane Katrina shaped his worldview? The storm not only physically decimated New Orleans, but in its aftermath, the city’s population dropped by half largely due to storm-related displacements. Isaacson is determined to help reverse this radical demographic shift by invigorating education and entrepreneurialism to attract top talent and great thinkers back to the city.
“Hurricane Katrina reminded me of the value of home,” he writes. “I think that when we are looking for the good we can do and the impact we can have, now is a good time to be looking locally. I am fortunate to have New Orleans as my hometown. We are trying new ways to reform education and make an innovative environment for creative people and entrepreneurs.”
Do you have a similar experience of returning to your hometown to change it for the better? Do you serve on a board that inspires a company to better serve the communities in which the business operates? We’d love to hear from you. Share your experiences in the comment section.
Judy Warner is editor in chief of NACD Directorship magazine.
NACD’s thought-leadership forum, Master Class, convened in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, late last year to discuss how corporate governance is adapting to the current operating environment. Dialogue among directors and session leaders at the event revealed 10 insightful takeaways:
Board engagement in strategy development is a sign of healthy board-management engagement. The board’s role is to question the CEO’s strategy assumptions, offer alternatives, and ensure a long-term value creation. Senior management’s job is to execute the strategy.
Given the complexity of today’s operating environment, it is even more important to stay attuned to disruptive competition in the company’s industry. Spend time outside of board meetings learning which changes—in technology, policy, or through stakeholder demands, for example—are emerging and how your company should address those disruptions.
Demonstrate directors’ commitment to continued education in communications with shareholders, employees, and other stakeholders. While your board may feel that current director evaluations and education requirements are sufficient, review your director education program to ensure that board members’ skills are being enhanced to keep pace with the changing operating environment.
Consider taking a few steps to enhance recruitment of and onboarding for new directors:
Consider not only the board’s recruitment needs in the next year, but also in the next several years as directors leave the board and as company strategy evolves.
Establish a requirement that the director pipeline includes candidates from diverse backgrounds.
Tailor new-director onboarding programs to individual directors.
Convey a sense of your board’s dynamics with each other and with management to both prospective and new directors.
Determine whether the skillset matrix tests for skills that are necessary for the company strategy. While directors currently serving on the board may have had the skills to help the company achieve its prior strategy, realize that the directors sitting on the board today should be measured against the new ruler of current and future strategy expectations.
Review your board’s bylaws and committee charters to determine whether the documents offer any detail about how directors oversee cultural risk. Probe management about culture. Given recent corporate scandals relating to unhealthy corporate culture, consider adding language to your bylaws and charters to demonstrate a commitment to healthy company culture. Take this commitment a step forward by probing management about how the company currently cultivates a healthy, ethical culture.
Look beyond the information management has presented you to determine the company’s cultural dynamics among not only senior management, but also lower- and mid-level managers. Review online employee satisfaction websites to gauge morale and determine whether behaviors incentivized are realistic and healthy.
Question the quality and volume of information being given to the board on enterprise risks. If the board is receiving 1,000 pages of information monthly about risks, ask whether the board can realistically absorb that information. Ask the chief risk officer to provide the board with a more brief and concentrated view of the risks that need to be addressed, and spend time drilling down on the most pertinent risks, including those that may be sleeping giants.
When stumped on strategy, go back to the beginning. Ask often why the company was founded and what problem the company should help clients or consumers solve. Having a renewed vision of the founder’s mission can help provide fodder as to how to revive that vision in light of today’s operating environment.
Dive deep into consumer trends and behaviors, when considering appropriate strategies. While it may be easy to become mired in the highly technical nature of directorship and oversight, realize that great insight can come from aligning company strategy so that it satisfies customers’ needs and wants.
Nominations to the 2017 NACD Directorship 100 are open until March 31. And while we tally this year’s annual list of the most influential people in boardrooms and corporate governance, we’re sharing responses to questions from 2016 honorees about their perspectives on directorship.
Honorees underscored the importance of creating a strategic-asset board, reflected on the joy of their life’s work, and shared why board leadership can be fun. Selected responses from the 2016 D100 class follow, complemented by photos from the D100 gala held at New York City’s Gotham Hall on Nov. 30, 2016.
What do directors need to keep top of mind in the next five years?
Deborah DeHaas Vice chair, chief inclusion officer, and national managing partner, Center for Corporate Governance, Deloitte LLP
“Often the most effective boards draw on a diverse set of individual strengths, skills, and experiences from their directors. When brought together with the right leadership, diverse talent in the boardroom can help the company address almost any governance challenge. Such capability doesn’t just happen. It takes rigorous commitment to the principles of board composition, refreshment, and accountability to reach the level of top-performing boards. It also requires a deep understanding of current issues and challenges, anticipating those in the future, and determining what critical skill gaps need to be addressed among directors.”
Stephen R. Howe, Jr. U.S. chair and managing partner, Americas Leading Partner, Ernst & Young LLP
“Complacency with a company’s current strategy may open companies to long-term vulnerabilities. Boards must constantly assess and anticipate competitive forces and threats and drive enterprise-wide cultures of innovation and agility. They must recognize that digitalization and sector convergence will continue to disrupt business models and markets. They must oversee organizations grappling with increasingly complex and global forces resulting from ever-shifting political and regulatory agendas such as those getting underway in the United States following this year’s elections.”
Daniel Laddin Founding partner, Compensation Advisory Partners
“Do not be afraid to stick out and use a less typical design if you believe it is in the best interests of shareholders. I believe we are going to see that many of the best performing companies have unique compensation designs linked to their strategies that do not necessarily fit neatly into the paradigm into we see today.”
Paula Loop Leader, PwC Governance Insights Center
“Boards will need to stay current, and that alone will be hard work. They will need to be up to date on consumer trends and technological changes, to geopolitical and other risks, to name a few. Even those directors who are immersed in all of this disruption and change are finding it hard to keep up. The board of the future will have to fully understand the landscape the company is operating in and recognize the potential disruptors that could affect the company and its strategy. To do that, directors will have to spend a lot more time educating themselves, and boards may have to consider reaching out and finding their own advisors from time to time.”
Michael McGuire CEO, Grant Thornton
“Directors need to keep the probability of rapid disruption top of mind, and then marshal the right resources and habits of mind to stay ahead of it. What are those resources? Imagination. Curiosity. Agility.”
Deborah D. Rieman Director, Corning and Neustar
“Boards are inherently risk averse and may devote too much of their attention to avoiding mistakes. In a slower world, that may have sufficed, but today, slow and steady can be fatal. Successful boards in the years ahead will be the ones that encourage the disruption of their own businesses, because if you don’t disrupt your own market, somebody else will.”
James K. Wolfe
James K. Wolf Managing partner, Meridian Compensation Partners
“Regulations and statutes should continue to protect a board’s business judgment, but boards should understand that the general public will have increasingly more information from which to reach their own evaluations and verdicts about a board’s governance.”
What’s the most fun you have had while serving as a director?
Mary Ann Deacon Director, Lakeland Bank
“It has been exciting to be a part of Lakeland’s success. Our accomplishments over the years have given me enormous admiration for our wonderful employees, who make it all possible. And by far, the most fun has been interacting with all the members of the Lakeland family. It’s important for directors to step out of the boardroom and connect with people. I think of this as leadership by walking around—letting employees, shareholders, and customers know that the board is interested in and fully engaged with their needs.”
Edward B. Rust, Jr. Director, Caterpillar, Helmerich & Payne, and S&P Global
“Growing up during the initial buildout of the interstate highway system, I became fascinated with big earth-moving equipment. Later in life, I started buying antique Caterpillar tractors to restore. Joining the Caterpillar board was a natural move. I had a connection to my past but also a fascination with the rapidly changing world of manufacturing. The real fun is when we tour the proving grounds and have the opportunity to operate some of the really big equipment. ‘Getting in the dirt’ is a joy for an old farm boy, and even a director.”
What was the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
James W. DeLoach
James W. DeLoach Managing partner, Protiviti
“I never worked harder in my life to build the Protiviti brand. But the most gratifying part of the experience for me personally was working side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with men and women who were as committed to our collective success as I was. Protiviti’s market presence today is one of the treasures of my working life.”