Sokol Exit Underscores Benefit of CEO Succession Planning

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David Sokol, presumed successor to Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, this week announced his departure, a surprise to most observers. An employee of Berkshire for 11 years, Sokol was chairman of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. and CEO of NetJets, both Berkshire subsidiaries. Sokol’s resignation followed the disclosure that he had purchased shares worth nearly $10 million in Lubrizol Corp., a chemicals company that Berkshire subsequently announced plans to invest in. Both Buffett and Sokol insist the purchases were legal and did not contribute to Sokol’s decision to resign.

Despite the current debate surrounding the Lubrizol transactions, Sokol’s departure highlights an issue that boards grapple with every year—CEO succession planning. Berkshire’s succession plan has been of critical interest for years, and will continue to be until Buffett’s successor is publicly identified. Filed in early March, the company’s Form 10-K listed four potential successors to Buffett, each simply described as “a current Berkshire subsidiary manager.”

CEO succession planning is a key board responsibility—and NACD’s annual governance surveys reveal that directors view it as such. Since 2009, CEO succession has ranked in the top five of board priorities. However, many directors feel they are not well prepared for replacing the CEO. PwC’s Annual Corporate Director Survey found that about 30% of directors are not satisfied with their company’s succession plan.

To develop and assess internal candidates, directors should begin discussions on long-term succession planning three to five years before a CEO transition is expected, Plans should also provide guidance for an emergency succession situation.

Succession planning is the topic of this week’s BoardVision with NACD’s Peter Gleason and PwC’s John Barry, which can be viewed here.

Board Minutes Must Be Clear, Artful

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Gerard F. Hurley, CAE, is president of Association Executive Resources Group, Gaithersburg, MD. AERG employs a spectrum of board governance guidelines and policy instruments in a “Foundation First Governance” publication series designed to assist nonprofit organizations.

Board minutes, by definition, can loom large after the fact, to which defendant organizations in discovery will attest. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for directors—fiduciaries all—to skip over the board minutes each received weeks or months earlier and, when asked at the next meeting if they “accept the minutes of the last meeting,” to suffer a brain cramp. “Okay, let’s move on,” the chair usually intones.

The precision of one’s board and committee minutes is critical to recording what actually took place, the decisions made, budgets authorized, and who has been charged to do what, when and where. That assumes there was action to report. Minutes are not to intimate otherwise, or gloss over issues considered delicate, leaving unaddressed matters which can haunt for years.

Board Minutes--rarely plain sailing

The “academy,” so to speak, is not exempt. In his book, Known and Unknown, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed that some (obviously secure) minutes of the National Security Council failed to state what had been decided, or even discussed, leaving participants with differing views on what had been decided and the next steps to take. Such imprecision, though possibly intended for other reasons, seems unconceivable at that assumed level of sophistication. It happens regularly in middle America.

Another NSC practice regarding minutes, according to former Secretary Rumsfeld, was to assume that a matter had been decided, simply because “no objections were voiced.” He insisted that nothing be deemed “decided” unless and until the meeting participants agreed to decide.  Was silence simply a matter of “after you, Alphonse,” or was the “minutes technique” an attempt to move an agenda? The “unless we hear from you” practice employed anywhere is wide open for abuse and misunderstanding.

 It can be risky to offer too little for the record, as well. I recall the comments of the Hon. William B. Chandler, III, chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery, to NACD’s 2004 Corporate Governance Conference, on the Disney Corporation/Michael Ovitz separation decision just rendered. It was his observation that Disney records did not support the level of due diligence it claimed when contemplating the Ovitz separation. Was it three hours, or one hour, or 15 minutes, he shrugged, rhetorically. In his September 10, 2004, decision, on page 21, he said “It is unclear from the record whether a majority of any group of [Disney] disinterested directors ever authorized the payment of Ovitz’s severance payments.”

 The quality of the minutes reflects the meeting. The document is to show only the topics discussed and the actions taken, if any. It is not a verbatim record. Was the consensus agenda properly constructed to point toward known objectives so as to focus directors on a needed a decision? Were the discussions crisp and pointed, the decisions clear and repeated for all to take note? Were the draft minutes then reviewed for accuracy by the chair and other principals before distribution?

Are we not to insist on the specificity in our minutes necessary to support the record and defend our decisions. . . and no more than that?

NACD Insight & Analysis: Boardroom Confidentiality Policies

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On Wednesday, it was revealed that one of the largest insider-trading cases seen in decades stemmed from a violation of boardroom policy. In the insider-trading trial of Raj Rajaratnam, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein testified that former director Rajat Gupta violated the firm’s code of conduct in disclosing confidential information from 2008 board meetings. According to Blankfein’s testimony, Gupta allegedly revealed to Rajaratnam via telephone strategic discussions regarding the possibility of Goldman Sachs acquiring a commercial bank or insurance company, as well as advance notice of Berkshire Hathaway’s vitalizing five billion dollar investment in Goldman.

This is not the first instance of leaked high-profile boardroom discussions. After a thorough investigation, it was discovered in 2006 that Hewlett-Packard Director George Keyworth divulged confidential strategy points to CNET. With more potential channels of communication than ever, directors may choose to revisit and clarify boardroom confidentiality policies.

Often companies do not articulate boardroom confidentiality agreements, as confidentiality is implied in a director’s duty of loyalty. According to this fiduciary duty, a director cannot use confidential information for his or her own benefit, or to the benefit of a person or entity outside the company. However, a lack of clear policy would prove a weak defense for Gupta, as Goldman Sachs clearly defines a boardroom confidentiality policy in its corporate governance principles:

Confidentiality. The proceedings and deliberations of the board and its committees shall be confidential. Each director shall maintain the confidentiality of information received in connection with his or her service as a director.*

While confidentiality policies are not explicitly required, in 2000 the SEC enacted a policy to enhance fairness and transparency: Regulation Fair Disclosure, commonly referred to as “Reg FD.”  With the intent to eliminate “selective disclosure,” Reg FD mandates that publicly traded companies must disclose material information to all investors at the same time. While this mandate does not necessarily extend to nonpublic boardroom discussions, the gray area created can be easily solved by including a code of conduct or other confidentiality agreement in the company’s corporate governance principles.

 

*Source: Goldman Sachs Corporate Governance Guidelines