Tag Archive: Blue Ribbon Commission

As Bells Toll for Earnings Guidance, We Ponder Progress

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Peter Gleason

There was a lot of buzz around NACD’s offices earlier this month as our people learned that momentum is building to end quarterly earnings forecasts. You can’t work at NACD for very long without learning that our members champion long-term value creation and oppose short-termism, or without coming to understand how earnings guidance destroys the former and promotes the latter. (Short-Termism 101: when companies estimate the next quarter’s earnings per share, they drive a 90-day focus on meeting that projection and discourage focus on the organization’s long-term vision.)

Our communal excitement stemmed from reports of an interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box featuring Berkshire Hathaway CEO and chair Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase CEO and Business Roundtable member Jamie Dimon. During the June 7 interview, the two iconic businessmen agreed that companies should stop providing quarterly earnings guidance. NACD’s researchers noticed the interview and hailed it as “great news.” They praised the Business Roundtable for its “leadership” and shared links to relevant research with me, like this study asking Does the Cessation of Quarterly Earnings Guidance Reduce Investors’ Short-Termism?, and this one on Moving Beyond Quarterly Guidance: A Relic of the Past from FCLTGlobal, the think tank for focusing capital on the long term.

Later that day, NACD put out a press release noting that while NACD had called for a move away from quarterly earnings guidance in the past, the problem was still lingering in 2017. The 2017–2018 NACD Public Company Survey found that nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents said that focus on long-term strategic goals has been compromised by pressure to deliver short-term results. Frankly, the finding was discouraging, considering how many years we have all been working to reverse short-termism.

Perhaps a flashback is in order. Dimon and Buffett were not the first to advise ridding corporate America of short-term guidance, and the Squawk Box interview wasn’t even the first time they themselves had done so.

  • In June 2010, exactly eight years ago this month, NACD joined the Business Roundtable as some of the first subscribers to an Aspen Institute manifesto entitled Long-Term Value Creation: Guiding Principles for Corporations and Investors. One of the principles in that document was the recommendation that companies and investors should “avoid both the provision of, and response to, estimates of quarterly earnings and other overly short-term financial targets.” I was happy to sign on. Even prior to 2010 NACD had been making recommendations against short-termism in our Blue Ribbon Commission reports, our Key Agreed Principles, and other publications, especially those addressing executive compensation.
  • In October 2015 NACD issued the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on the Board and Long-Term Value Creation, where we made a similar recommendation: “Boards should consider recommending a move away from quarterly earnings guidance in favor of broader guidance parameters tied to long-term performance and strategic objectives.”
  • In July 2016, both Dimon and Buffet themselves had signed onto a similar recommendation when developing Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles, which was published with backing from large institutions and companies across the investment chain. I spoke about the principles on C-Span the following month. The 2016 Principles stated that “companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance—and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders.” They further state that “making short-term decisions to beat guidance . . . is likely to be value destructive in the long run.”
  • In September 2016, I was a delegate at the General Counsel Summit on Short-Termism and Public Trust. The report from that event cited the 2016 Principles with respect to earnings guidance, as well as research from the Conference Board and others dating back more than a decade in questioning the wisdom of earnings guidance.

So looking back, the journey to end earnings guidance has been long. But that was then and this is now. Dimon today chairs the Business Roundtable (he was named chair in December 2016). And on the morning of June 7, the medium was an important part of the message: there were Dimon and Buffett, expressing their views in plain, spontaneous language, live, for all the world to see and hear in all their familiarity.

Progress

This entire history reminds me of a quote by Scottish author and government reformer Samuel Smiles, known for his treatise on self-improvement, Self-Help. He wrote: “Progress, however, of the best kind, is comparatively slow. Great results cannot be achieved at once; and we must be satisfied to advance in life as we walk, step by step.”

Thanks to many steps by many people over many years, the bell is tolling for earnings guidance at last. And that is indeed the best kind of progress.

Three Ways to Build a Strategic-Asset Board

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The business environment is rapidly and fundamentally changing—and directors are expected to keep pace. In response to this state of extreme volatility, the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Building the Strategic-Asset Board explores how boards can position themselves to capably usher their companies into the future by focusing on continuous improvement. At the 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Commission co-chairs Bonnie Hill, director of California Water Service Group and former Home Depot lead director, and Richard H. Koppes, director of NACD and the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute and former deputy executive officer of CalPERS, discussed the Commission’s key findings with NACD Director of Strategic Content Development Robyn Bew.

NACD Blue Ribbon Commission Report on Building the Strategic Asset Board

Members of this year’s Blue Ribbon Commission came to a consensus early in their discussions that “board refreshment”—an increasingly popular term in the corporate governance community as various stakeholders turn their attention to board composition and director turnover—is a limiting, and even simplistic, concept. Instead, directors need to figure out how they can make themselves strategic assets to the companies they serve by instilling a continuous-improvement ethos into the culture of the boardroom. Over the course of the conversation, Hill and Koppes suggested that directors consider the composition and functionality of the boards in the following ways:

How do directors’ skills need to align with company strategy? Businesses evolve rapidly, and boards need to respond in kind. Here, directors need to consider how they are keeping abreast of the issues facing their organizations and whether the skills that initially garnered them a seat at the boardroom table still align with the current and future direction of the company. Sometimes this means deciding to leave the board.

Internally, new-director onboarding practices provide an opportunity to communicate about the board’s culture and governance principles, including reinforcing the idea that board service is not a lifetime appointment. Externally, boards can communicate to stakeholders that a director’s departure was in keeping with the board’s governance practices and does not reflect poor service on the director’s part.

What are the board’s processes for continuous improvement? Maintain a pipeline of boardroom talent and have a multi-year succession plan in place so that open board seats can be filled with highly capable candidates. These plans should include designating successors for committee chairs and the independent chair or lead director. For sitting directors, continuing education programs can help to refine or amplify skill sets. Evaluations, including at the individual-director level, are essential tools for continuous improvement when they are conducted regularly and periodically involve an independent third party. They help ensure that the board’s processes are functioning well, enable directors to be more nimble in their own self-improvement, and ultimately fine-tune the board’s strategic contribution to the organization.

How do stakeholder perspectives affect the board? Shareholders—especially institutional investors—are paying closer attention to issues surrounding board composition. Considering that institutional investors read thousands of proxies each year, the onus is on individual boards to effectively communicate how each director makes valuable contributions. More and more leading boards are going beyond the basic biographical information required by the SEC and listing exchanges and providing additional context. In addition, if there is any concern that a director slate could be a point of concern for investors, boards should reach out to those constituencies well in advance of proxy season to explain their position. Should investor dissatisfaction with the board lead to an activist engagement, panelists agreed that, while sometimes both parties ultimately agree to disagree, the board needs to hear out that point of view and seriously consider if their position might add value.

For detailed recommendations on how to enhance your board’s continuous-improvement processes in seven key areas, download the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Building the Strategic-Asset Board. In addition, read this article from the current issue of NACD Directorship magazine for more insights from Bonnie Hill and Richard Koppes on the creation of the report.

Seven Principles for Understanding and Avoiding Short-Termism

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Fornelli_Cindy

Cindy Fornelli

Six years ago, Warren Buffett, John Bogle, Barbara Hackman Franklin, and two dozen other business luminaries sounded the alarm about short-termism by signing Overcoming Short-Termism: A Call for a More Responsible Approach to Investment and Business Management. This manifesto highlights an unhealthy focus on short-term results that overwhelms “the desirable long-term growth and sustainable profit objectives of the corporation.”

Despite this call to action, overcoming short-termism remains a stark challenge for many companies. In fact, as the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) 2015 Blue Ribbon Commission observed, “factors encouraging a short-term focus are stronger now than ever before.” Additionally, in a 2015 report, the Conference Board contemplated whether short-term biases might jeopardize future business prosperity altogether.

Yet if short-termism is a sizable challenge, so too is the commitment to understanding why short-termism is so entrenched as a business practice and the task of mitigating its harmful effects. In July, the Anti-Fraud Collaboration, a group of organizations focused on fighting financial reporting fraud, hosted a webcast on Coming to Terms with Short-Termism. The discussion, which I was privileged to moderate, featured top experts and generated a wealth of useful takeaways for participants across the financial reporting supply chain.

Let’s look at a few key takeaways from the discussion.

1. Acknowledge and Define the Complexities of the Issue

To address the challenge of short-termism, it helps to understand the complexities of what companies are up against. For one thing, “short-termism” doesn’t equate to short-term activity, which isn’t necessarily bad. NACD Chair Karen Horn, director of Simon Property Group, observed at the outset of the webcast that the “long term is made up of many, many short-term actions.”

Another tricky step to understanding the complexities of short-termism is how to define “short-term” at your company. Is it a month? A quarter? A year? “It depends on the company,” said panelist Bill McCracken, president of Executive Consulting Group LLC. McCracken, who previously served as CEO of CA Technologies, added that even within a company the meaning of “short-term” can change according to different contexts, such as strategy or compensation.

2. Think Strategically

However complex a challenge combatting short-termism may seem, there are several simple solutions for directors to consider. One of them is this: think strategically. A strategic mindset helps short-term actions align with long-term goals. “Boards really need to be conversant with the company strategy,” said Horn. McCracken agreed, noting that board members should become “activist directors” who immerse themselves in the details of the company, its strategy, and its industry. This engaged approach, he added, can help directors be prepared to handle situations such as share buybacks or changes to dividend policy where questions of short-termism may arise.

Similarly, strategic thinking can also help directors gauge the validity of the use of non-GAAP measures. “Shouldn’t the use of non-GAAP measures also tie in to the strategy of the entity?” asked Douglas Chia, executive director of the Conference Board’s Governance Center. “Absolutely,” responded fellow panelist and KPMG Partner Jose Rodriguez.

3. Strengthen Tone at the Top…

One danger of short-termism is that it can heighten fraud risk across the enterprise. Companies need to ensure that management is setting the right tone at the top. “I can’t underemphasize tone at the top,” said Rodriquez. “How do [senior executives] talk to employees? Is everything geared around meeting that analyst’s [earnings] expectations?” From his auditor’s viewpoint, he added, “that would be concerning.

4. …But Don’t Forget the “Mood in the Middle” and “Buzz at the Bottom”

While emphasizing tone at the top, panelists also stressed that short-termism shouldn’t be a point of concern for only senior management. Many instances of fraud, noted Rodriguez, occur outside the C-suite. “It’s middle management and lower management that had to get that sales number to a certain amount of dollars,” he said, and this pressure can lead to channel stuffing or other undesirable activity. Such activity is what audit committees, auditors, and the board ought to be looking for, added Bill McCracken.

5. Dial Down the Emphasis on Quarterly Results

“Our entire [financial reporting] structure is built around quarterly reporting,” said McCracken. While eliminating this quarterly focus might not be possible—or even desirable—panelists agreed that reducing the quarter-to-quarter mindset was an important part of addressing short-termism. “Obviously you can’t get entirely away from that,” said Chia, “but there are ways you can reduce the emphasis and build on the timeline that you think is appropriate—not what you’re being told by the analyst community.”

6. Communicate!

Fostering robust communication internal and external communication is a core priority for the Anti-Fraud Collaboration, and communication at all levels was a recurring theme throughout this webcast. When discussing the use of non-GAAP measures, Horn noted that “the chairman of the compensation committee should be talking to the chairman of the audit committee as these measures work their way in to [compensation] programs.”

Likewise, communicating effectively with external investors and other stakeholder parties is critical. “Boards need to really understand investor communications,” said Horn. “The way that we can pursue long-term value creation is in partnership with our investors.”

7. Commit to Continuous Learning

As auditors, boards, managers, and investors grapple with short-termism, they can draw on a growing body of resources on the subject. The Anti-Fraud Collaboration’s website, for example, contains the webinar discussed here, along with articles on corporate culture, publications on building fraud-resistant organizations, videos on ethics, and other resources. All of these resources can help align short-term and long-term goals for the benefit of companies and investors.


A securities lawyer, Cindy Fornelli has served as the Executive Director of the Center for Audit Quality since its establishment in 2007.