The following blog post is one installment in a series related to board oversight of corporate culture. The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) announced in March that its 2017 Blue Ribbon Commission—a roster of distinguished corporate leaders and governance experts—would explore the role of the board in overseeing corporate culture. The commission will produce a report that will launch during NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit Oct. 1–4.
Incentives can reward performance—and create tension and unintentional risks.
One element that helps define an organization’s culture is the set of incentives motivating employees to act. While incentives can effectively reward performance that benefits the enterprise, the compensation committee—and the board more generally—must factor in the tension and unintentional risks that incentives can create.
NACD, along with Farient Advisors, Katten Muchin Rosenman, PwC, and Sidley Austin, last fall cohosted the first-ever joint meeting between the NACD Compensation Committee Chair Advisory Council and the NACD Advisory Council on Risk Oversight. Committee chairs from Fortune 500 corporations joined governance stakeholders for an open dialogue on incentives and risk taking.
The discussion was held under a modified version of the Chatham House Rule, under which participants’ quotes are not attributed to those individuals or their organizations, excepting cohosts.
Six questions emerged that boards and compensation committees should consider:
Do we have an appropriate balance of metrics?
Are we calibrating goals and upside opportunity appropriately?
Are we considering the quality of performance?
How robust are the controls on data that is used as inputs to the compensation plan?
How are our board’s committees collaborating on developing and monitoring incentive plans?
Are we actively exercising discretion?
Below are details for three of those questions. More information is available for download in NACD’s complimentary brief, Incentives and Risk Taking.
Do we have an appropriate balance of metrics?
The Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Performance Metrics states, “Corporate leaders must select metrics that encapsulate the company’s strategy, the balance of risk and reward, and the milestones along the way.” Management chooses appropriate metrics for the company. The board’s role is to decide if those metrics help create long-term value for shareholders—and also to ask management the right questions to ensure that risks associated with compensation plan incentives are being mitigated.
“Our responsibility is to understand the business and the industry,” said one director at the meeting. “The more we understand the business, the more [any] red flags will become apparent.” Meeting participants added that just as there is no silver bullet or single perfect metric to use when developing incentive plans, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding a satisfactory balance of metrics.
“There’s no perfect performance measure because every one of them can be gamed either deliberately or not deliberately,” said Dayna Harris, vice president at Farient Advisors. “In addition, it’s important to factor in trade-offs—for example, between metrics related to earnings and those related to revenue or returns—in order to get a combination that works.”
Thomas J. Kim, partner at Sidley Austin, said, “Performance metrics for compensation should be consistent with how management and the board think and talk about the business, both internally and externally. Qualitative metrics are generally more appropriate for, and tailored to, specific individuals, rather than for management as a whole.”
Are we calibrating goals and upside opportunity appropriately?
In addition to selecting performance measures, compensation committees must ensure the pay plan keeps the firm’s risk appetite in mind. The goal is to avoid unintended consequences that might compromise the enterprise’s reputation or its long-term viability. At one council delegate’s company, “the chief risk officer does a risk analysis of the executive compensation plans and shares it with the board. We can assess where it nets out on the risk spectrum. The analysis is repeated at the end of the year to look at incentive payouts and whether any business area took undue risks.”
Participants highlighted two areas for compensation committees and boards to consider:
Incentive thresholds. “Stretch goals are great and often important to strategy execution. But the board needs to ask whether high incentive thresholds may encourage bad behavior,” one participant said.
Slope-of-the-payout curve. Harris advised, “Make sure the upside [payout] opportunity is not excessive, especially for annual incentives. Three hundred to four hundred percent payout ranges can be dangerous.”
Are we considering the quality of performance?
Council delegates also emphasized that it is essential for compensation committees—and, indeed, for all board members—to ask probing questions about the way in which management achieves results, not just whether or not a particular performance target has been met: “How you get there makes all the difference: we have to look at the quality of earnings,” one delegate said. “If our incentive plan is heavily weighted toward rewarding revenue, did we end up with a bunch of low-margin or bad deals?”
One compensation committee chair reported, “To make sure that our results are sustainable, we’ve introduced strong metrics around employee satisfaction and engagement, along with customer satisfaction. These can count for as much as 25 percent of the CEO’s annual bonus.”
Questions about the quality of performance have risen to the top of many boards’ agendas in the wake of criticism over the consequences of aggressive incentive plans at companies such as Wells Fargo and Mylan. Reflecting on what has been publicly reported about these two situations, participants identified the following takeaways for directors:
Exercising skepticism is essential in times of good performance—when it is often most difficult to do. “It can be hard for directors to push back when they’re in the boardroom of a high-functioning organization and hearing lots of great stories from management,” observed one participant. Several delegates pointed out that executive sessions can be particularly useful in this regard.
Question over-performance as closely as underperformance. “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” a director said. “Wells Fargo’s cross-selling numbers were significantly above industry standard. As directors, we need to look very closely at outlier-level performance—it might be a red flag.”
Reputation risk can be material, even when financial losses are relatively small.
By incorporating into board discussions the above-listed questions, directors can strengthen responsible oversight of incentives. “It’s our responsibility as directors to understand the business and the industry in depth—trends, competitors, pricing models,” one director said. “That gives us a much deeper understanding about what is possible and what we’re asking management to do when we set goals and targets. It will also help us see potential risks and red flags much earlier.”
Overseeing a company’s corporate governance process and structure, the nominating and governance (nom/gov) committee is essential to a company’s long-term success. In this BoardVision interview—moderated by NACD Director of Partner Relations and Publisher Christopher Y. Clark—Bonnie Gwin, vice chair and co-managing partner of the global CEO and Board Practice at Heidrick & Struggles, and Thomas Bakewell, CEO and board counsel at Thomas Bakewell Consulting, discuss the qualities of an effective nom/gov committee chair:
Sets the right mix between board culture and composition
Facilitates cross-committee communications
Performs effective board evaluations
Spots diverse talents in director candidates
Bonnie Gwin, vice chair and co-managing partner of the global CEO and Board Practice at Heidrick & Struggles (left) and Thomas Bakewell, CEO and board counsel at Thomas Bakewell Consulting.
Here are some highlights from the discussion.
Christopher Y. Clark: Depending on what your definition of best is, why should the best director on the full board be the chair of the nom/gov committee?
Bonnie Gwin: In my opinion, it is an incredibly critical role. You’re talking about a director who is helping guide the board in not just developing a great composition for the board that is strategic and focused…, but also a director who understands the culture of the company and the board that they’re trying to build. You really need an outstanding director who understands that mix between composition and culture and can work closely with the board to get it right.
Thomas Bakewell: Bonnie is spot on in terms of composition and having the right team around the table. The other magic that you need in a terrific nom/gov chair is somebody who can draw people out, spot talent, make sure everybody gets heard, [and] really…build the team. Coming from a baseball town where we have a pretty good manager [who] wins a lot of World Series, we know the value of having a great person who can draw everybody out and get the team to work together. It’s really [about teamwork] … and using a lot of the tools that are available today. One of the trends in tools is…much more thorough and in-depth evaluations. [These are] … not just check-the-box or check-the-list [exercises] but in-depth individual board evaluations to know what’s really going on in the boardroom and among directors.
Clark: NACD [held] a combined meeting of the NACD Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council and NACD Risk Oversight Advisory Council. … It was invaluable for both sets of committee members. How do you feel about [meetings between committees] … whether it’s audit and risk [or] compensation and nom/gov? Do you think those interrelationships of committees should be enhanced or promoted?
Gwin: Generally speaking, transparent communication across all the committees of the board is essential. It’s essential for a high-functioning board. And in particular where you have, for example, [the] nominating [and] compensation [committees], there’s a lot of interplay between them and the issues they’re addressing. I think it’s important to ensure that there [are not only] good transparent lines of communication between those two committees, but frankly across the whole board.
Bakewell: The magic ingredient is how people work together, and part of that key element is how they communicate. The old approach to boards was everybody showed up the day before the board meeting [and] went to the committees. A lot of times people went to every committee [meeting]. What’s the point [now]? You don’t have the time. You don’t have the energy. You don’t have the resources today. So how do you have a board where everybody trusts each other and they communicate? If you’re not on the audit committee and important issues come up…, can you simply pick up the phone and reach out to the audit committee chair, or is there another process that’s very helpful for you to get the information you need?
Clark: Please give us one last piece of wisdom.
Gwin: The piece of wisdom I would share is the importance of long-term succession planning. We’ve talked about that several times, but I really think, looking at board composition [and] board dynamics… over the next four or five years…is very important.
Bakewell: I would say my secret sauce is [that when looking at director candidates] it’s not so much [looking at] … particular talents, [because] everybody can look at a resume and see what somebody has. They’re going to see if they’re a CEO, [or] they’re skilled in marketing. The real magic is [asking], “What is their true personality? Are they a ‘driver’ personality? Are they a curmudgeon?” Sometimes boards need curmudgeons. … Is somebody a strategic thinker, or is their skill set not [being] a strategic thinker but taking strategy and converting it into action? What have they done in their past experience that really makes them qualified for this role?
Clark: Well I think we’ve got all the synapses popping. I wanted to thank the both of you for joining me today.
It is no secret that the Securities and Exchange Commission has been slow to fulfill the rules mandated by Dodd-Frank. As of July 1, the agency had missed over half of the deadlines—56 out of 95 required rulemakings—according to the Davis Polk Dodd-Frank Progress Report. Despite this general lack of news, in late June the SEC released final rules on matters related to the compensation committee to little fanfare.
The rules focus on independence for both compensation committees and their advisors. Companies will now be required to disclose the existence of compensation consultant conflicts of interest and how these conflicts are addressed. Additionally, each national listing exchange is now required to propose heightened standards for independence of compensation committee members and the evaluation of compensation advisor independence. While the style of these new listing standards will be similar to those already existing for the audit committee, the SEC has established that the standards must consider the following two factors:
The source of compensation of the director, including any consulting, advisory or other compensatory factors paid by the listed company to the director; and
Whether the director is affiliated with the listed company or any of its subsidiaries or their affiliates.
While these rules affect proxy statement disclosures, compensation committee composition and boardroom procedure, they have received little attention. There are many possible explanations for this, including the fact that both the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ already address compensation committee director independence to an extent. However, timing is also a factor. The required disclosures of compensation consultant conflicts of interest will be effective for the 2013 proxy season. With respect to the new standards on independence, NYSE and NASDAQ have until Sept. 25, 2012, to propose new guidelines, which the SEC does not have to approve until June 27, 2013.
At NACD’s Compensation Committee Chair Advisory Council meeting in June, SEC Chief Counsel and Associate Director of the Division of Corporate Finance Thomas Kim spoke to the delegation on the SEC’s current activity. In addition to the rules on compensation committee independence, the agency is currently in the process of drafting proposed rules on the required pay ratio disclosure, as well as the “clawback” of executive compensation provision. Similar to the recently released rules, the clawback rules must be proposed and finalized by the SEC, then adopted by the listing exchanges—therefore placing the rules on the horizon, but not in the near future.
At the Advisory Council meeting, a key theme of the discussion was the necessity for boards to create transparent and comprehensive compensation packages. To this end, it was announced that NACD will produce a guide that will help boards develop pay plans to effectively compensate executives and communication strategies that articulate how these plans create long-term shareholder value.
For more information about the guide and the Advisory Council meeting, click here.