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.
Fay Feeney is CEO of Risk for Good, an advisory firm providing board chairs and corporate counsel guidance to monitor, govern and leverage the fast-moving landscape of social media, technology and the Internet.
One of my table mates at the NACD Director Professionalism course I recently attended in Deer Valley, UT was Allan C. Golston, president, United States Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s amazing who you sit next to at NACD events. Allan swore his learning wasn’t disrupted by my tweeting during class, and shared with me his takeaways from two days with NACD.
“The course was more than ‘rules of the road’; it was also a dialogue around how to think about the fundamentals of being an effective director in the 21st century in a strategic way. Whether it was rethinking what it really means to have an independent mindset, or rethinking what it means to have courage in the boardroom, or rethinking what it means to represent shareholders—I found these types of fundamentals the most useful.”
Allan Golston with Rob Galford, Compensation Chair, Forrester Research and NACD facilitator
I agree. I invested my time and money to have a refresher on fiduciary responsibilities and to pick up some useful tips on how to contribute most effectively in the boardroom and on key committees, but I came away with so much more: insights that have reshaped my thinking about how to lead in governance and examples of great board behaviors that will galvanize my own priorities and performance.
Mike Lorelli, CEO of Water-Jel Technologies, and another high-flying classmate, agreed. “As much learning in two days, as in two years of an MBA program,” he said.
Mike Lorelli at the NACD resource center
The sessions at Director Professionalism are led by active public company directors. I loved hearing Michele Hooper, who sits on the boards of Astra Zeneca, UnitedHealth Group, PPG Industries and Warner Music Group, encourage newbies by saying: “Everyone has a “first” board seat. Today’s most experienced directors had a first board seat.”
She encourages boards to consider qualified candidates without prior director experience, maintaining that, if your board is looking to expand their recruiting to engage more diverse thinking, they will need to refresh their thinking about board composition.
Although the NACD facilitators were great, the really valuable learning often came from other members of the class. “There really weren’t 10 instructors—more like 70 when you count the learning from the 60 peer-level CEO’s and directors,” said Mike Lorelli. Allan Golston agreed.
“The ‘official’ instructors were really strong, but the interplay and dialogue among the group enriched the content and learning well beyond what the official instructors provided.”
Pamela Packard is a private company director who is active in NACD’s New York chapter. She felt that the snowy setting of the Montage Deer Valley Resort provided lots of opportunities for “off the record” candid conversations among directors from diverse backgrounds and experiences. “These discussions complemented the formal sessions.” She also told me “newcomers to corporate governance had the chance to glean the subtleties of different board cultures and communication styles, learning from those of us with more experience.”
Pam really valued the plethora of publications and extra learning resources provided by NACD. “Great reference materials for future use!” she said.
Director Professionalism has a comprehensive list of learning objectives but really these were just the starting point for our class. In the fast moving world of governance, it’s not only what you know, but who in your network can help you keep your knowledge current. Thanks for a great class. I’ll keep on learning with NACD and look forward to becoming a 2011 NACD Governance Fellow.
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