This blog post is one installment in a series related to board oversight of corporate culture. The National Association of Corporate Directors 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 be released at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit , Oct. 1–4.
A panel discussed how the iconic company became embroiled in scandal.
Wells Fargo & Co., Volkswagen AG (VW), Mylan NV, and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International are just a few of the companies that have recently experienced high-profile corporate crises stemming from ethics and compliance breakdowns. As corporate directors look to learn from these scandals, the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, Association of Corporate Council, and Bloomberg Law® this April co-hosted the event Volkswagen Emissions Scandal—Lessons for Investors, Boards, Chief Legal Officers and Compliance & Governance Professionals.* The panel discussed the VW emissions scandal and lessons for boards of directors and general counsel (GCs) on instituting a corporate culture that promotes ethics and compliance.
Corporate Governance Causes of the VW Scandal
Charles M. Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, notes in an article that three main governance practices at VW created a perfect environment for noncompliant behavior stemming from a lack of independent shareholder representation on the board:
A complicated web of interests with dual-class stock, pyramidal ownership, and family control. The Porsche and Piëch families own just over 50 percent of VW’s voting rights through their preferred class stock in Porsche Automobil Holding SE, which in turn owns shares of VW (known as pyramidal ownership). Ferdinand Piëch, the grandson of Porsche company founder Ferdinand Porsche, was chair of VW’s supervisory board at the time of the scandal and served as CEO from 1993 to 2002. Piëch’s primary goal is said to have been to create the largest automaker in the world, with less regard for creating profit and shareholder value. This directive from the company leader, in an environment where shareholders outside of the family had little influence over the board, created a corporate culture where employees chose noncompliant behavior over failure when designing the “defeat devices” used to cheat U.S. emissions tests.
The government as a major shareholder. VW was a state-owned enterprise until 1960 when it became privatized and left Germany’s Lower Saxony region with a 20 percent stake in the company. Elson opines that the interest of government officials is to be re-elected, often achieved through high employment rates. Therefore, government representatives on the board of VW were driven to create jobs at VW, the largest employer in Lower Saxony, even if adding those jobs was detrimental to profits.
Labor representation on the board (codetermination). German law requires all companies with more than 2,000 employees to fill half of the board with employee representatives. Elson argues that the board’s ability to provide effective compliance oversight was diluted by labor representatives on the board who were essentially monitoring themselves, and hence more focused on obtaining higher compensation and decent working hours for employees.
In light of these conditions at VW, panelists shared a number of leading practices for GCs and directors in creating a compliant corporate culture:
Lessons for GCs
“You can’t legislate ethics, but you can promote them,” said one panelist. Be the devil’s advocate and stress the importance of risk management and cultural tones at different levels of the organization, i.e., the so-called tone at the top, mood at the middle, and buzz at the bottom.
Ensure your board spends adequate time on compliance issues. Directors are often bogged down by compliance and want to spend more time on strategy, but prioritizing compliance at the board level will create a culture that allows strategy to be carried out successfully.
Get the right information to the board at the right time. According to one panelist, “The GC—as well as risk managers and in-house lawyers—need to be tough enough to speak up and report to the board. At Lehman Brothers, the CEO was known as the ‘gorilla on Wall Street.’ He doubled down on real estate, which the risk officer beneath him knew was risky, but their concerns were never known to the board.”
Remember that your duty is to the company—not the CEO—even if you’re reporting to him or her. “If [you as] the GC [are] aware of a violation, you need to do the right thing and not be swayed,” said one speaker.
Lessons for Directors
Increase your exposure to more employees, including mid-level employees, to get a better sense of the corporation’s culture in practice below the C-suite.
Create straight reporting lines from the compliance officer, chief risk officer, and internal auditor to committee chairs. This empowers these officers to speak openly with board members about their concerns without management present. (See NACD’s brief on Audit Committee Oversight of Compliance, which is open to the public for download.)
* The distinguished panel of speakers included: Robert E. Bostrom, senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Abercrombie & Fitch Co.; Charles M. Elson, Edgar J. Woolard, Jr. chair in corporate governance, director of the John. L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, and professor of finance at the University of Delaware; Meredith Miller, chief corporate governance officer at UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust; Gloria Santona, retired executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary at McDonald’s Corp.; Professor Christian Strenger, academic director, Center for Corporate Governance at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management; Anton R. Valukas, chairman at Jenner & Block LLP; and The Honorable James T. Vaughn, Jr., justice of the Delaware Supreme Court. Italicized comments above are from panelists that participated in this event. However, this discussion was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, so quotes are not attributed to individuals or organizations.
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.
The bar for director performance has been raised. A volatile economic environment, increased regulatory scrutiny, impending cybersecurity threats, and shareholder activism have all shifted the expectations for what should happen in the boardroom.
Responding to those growing expectations for directors, The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) has developed a new program—called Advanced Director Professionalism®—that focuses on understanding the market forces and “next practices” that will shape the boardroom in coming years.
At the inaugural Advanced Director Professionalism program in Philadelphia June 1-2, nearly 60 directors joined corporate leaders and subject-matter experts to discuss these market forces and next practices. Five key insights from the event follow:
Avoid the “tyranny of unanimity.” In a structured, interactive, scenario-based workshop, participants were confronted with a board of seasoned directors who were reluctant to dissent from the majority at critical decision-making moments. Such groupthink dynamics preempt consideration of viable alternative strategies and responses—a failure that can lead to disastrous business outcomes.
A healthy board culture is needed. Even effective boards are not immune to dysfunctional dynamics, such as hasty decision-making, disengaged directors, and too much deference to authority; yet the warning signs of dysfunction often go unrecognized. Continuous and rigorous evaluations can identify unhealthy dynamics early on, while periodic rotation of board leadership roles helps infuse fresh perspectives and approaches.
Focus on dynamic agenda-setting. Participants learned how to maximize the limited time that directors spend with each other and with management. While some full board and key committee agenda items are mandatory, these need not dominate meetings. Instead, board leaders should ensure that agenda development is clearly linked to major strategic opportunities and risks, and should plan reviews throughout the year in response to changing marketplace realities.
Cybersecurity is no longer an IT issue but an enterprise-wide strategic risk. The ramifications of cybersecurity breaches now include undermining customer trust, damaging operational effectiveness, and jeopardizing corporate strategy, to name just a few. Ownership of cybersecurity risk is distributed across the entire firm, from the CEO to frontline employees, who must all engage in secure behaviors with respect to system and data access. Boards should examine how effectively cyber risk is governed internally.
Become the keeper of corporate strategy. Board members often have a longer tenure than the CEO, which enables them to see long-term strategies through to completion. They can help ensure an effective strategy development process and engage management throughout strategy execution. Boards should challenge the fundamental assumptions on which the strategy rests—during periods of stability and steady profits, as well as times of disruption and emerging threats—and provide guidance to management as it considers alternative options.