“What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song, and I’ll try not to sing out of key. Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.”
When The Beatles first recorded that song in 1967, it’s a safe bet they weren’t thinking about corporate governance and the role of the board of directors. Yet, as I’ve pondered the array of corporate scandals over the past decade, I found these fifty-one-year-old lyrics floating to the forefront of my mind.
Whenever there is a highly publicized failure of corporate governance, the first question that’s typically posed is, “Where was the board?” However, in my experience—after 20-plus years of service in public and private companies, both in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors—that question rarely gets to the heart of the matter because process isn’t the primary culprit. A better question is, “What happened and why?”
Conventional wisdom examines whether the board had sufficient information, process, and the right reports. What often doesn’t get scrutinized is whether the board had the right people in the right places and if the chair or lead director is doing his or her job setting the tone at the top.
In this rapidly changing, complex world, it is incumbent upon the chair or lead director to continuously improve both the process and substance of governance, even in the strongest and healthiest of companies. This is where The Beatles’ lyrics come into play.
The Complexities of Conducting
The role of the chair or lead director is similar to that of an orchestra conductor. The conductor’s primary duties are to interpret the musical score of the composer via an ensemble of players. Using indications within the score, the conductor sets the tempo, shapes the phrasing, and guides the players to perform in concert. While it sounds simple enough, it’s a task of enormous complexity.
The sheet music that an orchestra is given can be likened to the committee charters and board responsibilities. The paper needs to contain the “right tune” and the right mix of notes, etc., but those same notes can be played beautifully or poorly, in harmony or in discordance. Even if individual performers are playing well, one bad violinist can wreck the whole orchestra if his or her part is not minimized or if the conductor doesn’t have the power or influence to get rid of the bad player. Taking the analogy further, the conductor also has to spot the talented players (i.e. board members), even if they are hidden away or young, and feature them.
Then there’s the pacing of the score—think board process. Whether it’s played loudly, softly, fast or slow, is a matter of feel. That’s what the conductor is expressing with his or her gestures and baton-waving. And, of course, the conductor has to be ahead of the music, so the sound carries to the audience, as well as anticipate what’s next.
So, you can have all the scores (or board processes) you want, but if the conductor can’t make the band of sterling musicians work together, the net result is less than stellar performance.
It’s doubly challenging in cases where the board doesn’t have an independent chair because the power of the lead director is usually quite limited, leaving him or her to conduct solely through influence versus explicit authority. In the corporate realm, these are some of the factors that must be considered when making governance better.
Soft Yet Hard
In its recent report, the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Culture as a Corporate Asset aptly stated, “While it is often perceived as a ‘soft issue,’ [culture] is actually a hard issue—both in the sense of having concrete impact, and in the sense of being difficult to assess.” The same is true of tone at the top. It can be incredibly hard to assess because it’s ethereal in nature, like the orchestra conductor filling the concert hall with melodious music.
But it does come down to the interactions among the board and its committees, and the transparency of information flow between management and the board at all levels. The responsibility for the “tone” of these interactions, i.e., getting the music to sound good, resides with the board chair or lead director.
In the collective interest of corporations and shareholders everywhere, there’s much to be gained by the ongoing tuning of this tone. Regularly posing the following questions is one example:
Are your governance processes appropriate for the speed of change today?
Is there sufficient clarity about the roles and responsibilities of the directors and management?
Are the right people in the right places for today and tomorrow?
Is the orchestra playing in concert in the eyes of the audiences, i.e.. customers, employees, shareholders and the broader community?
The answers are less important than asking the questions and bringing this kind of curiosity to the board room now.
As the aforementioned NACD Blue Ribbon Commission reported, even for companies with healthy cultures, resting on laurels isn’t an option. The stakes are simply too high and the operating environment too volatile not to seek continuous improvement.
It concluded that, “Performed properly, culture oversight not only can be embedded into directors’ existing activities, but also can significantly improve the quality and impact of the board’s work overall.” This notion of making the music match the words when setting the tone at the top goes right along with the Commission’s finding. That, and a little help from friends, might even mean singing on key.
Roger O. Goldman is chair of the executive committee of American Express National Bank, lead director of Seacoast Bank, and former chair of the board for Lighthouse International. Opinions are his own.
“In my experience, we need to start all our discussions about board membership, accountability, and responsibility with the term ‘leadership,’” said CACI International Executive Chair Dr. J. “Jack” Phillip London. “Leaders cultivate and sustain an organization’s culture. They set the expectations right from the beginning. They are continually communicating what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate in terms of behavior. And that’s done by example, by discussion, by dialogue, and by role modeling.” As London pointed out, however, having leaders with strength of character is not enough to transform an organization’s culture.
London further explained his view of the role of the board in helping to establish and perpetuate a strategically advantageous culture during an interview with Steven R. Walker, NACD general counsel and managing director, Board Advisory Services Group. Among the highlights, excerpted from their interview, were his reflections on contagions, communication, and culpability.
For these aspiring directors and current directors, how can the board verify and check on the fact that every company holds itself as having high integrity and high ethics?
One of the things that we’ve done at CACI in the last year or so is put together our culture, character, integrity, and ethics [board] committee. We have at least 20,000 employees around the planet, and we surveyed them to get feedback on how they viewed the company’s culture, our standards of ethics, and our operational perspectives on being innovative. This committee is now in the process of putting together a dashboard of metrics that we can use to assess and evaluate as we go along. Turnover rates, anonymous reports of problems—those kinds of things. Of course, you want to do it in a light-handed way. You’re trying to bring people along and encourage them. It’s amazing what happens when you ask people to perform with sincerity and integrity. Good folks, well-intended folks, will tend to rise to the requirement, and it’s amazing how that can be contagious. And the beauty of that is, when there are people who come along who don’t subscribe to that kind of thing, they find a way to meander out the door.
What was the motivation to create the board’s culture, character, integrity, and ethics committee?
I saw too many things going in the wrong direction in our society, our culture, our government, religious institutions, and the athletic world that I didn’t care for. And I thought, “We’ve got a pretty good culture at CACI, and I think we’ve got a good reputation. Let’s put something together that can sustain this.”
How do you, as a leader, make sure the board has access to the layers beyond the C-suite and has open access to things and can nip problems in the bud?
We have concerns in that area. One of the things I do is go around to my organizations and sit down and talk to people. I meet with our customers. I’m confident that the board wants me to do that. And when you do it in the field, you’re diving way below a lot of players. And I’m amazed at the kinds of questions I get in one of these sessions.
Communication’s a big deal. And we work hard at making sure we communicate with our people. But it takes persistent effort and, again, priority, and one of the wonderful things is that our leadership group—the CEO, general counsel, and human resources executive vice president—are very on board with this. By the way, they are members of our culture, character, integrity, and ethics committee. It’s not just board people. It’s members of the C suite and others, and I’ve even thought about bringing on some people that are outside the corporation with appropriate liability considerations.
How do you address crisis from the top?
Well, you’re probably talking about our Abu Ghraib situation. If there’s anything that I’ll absolutely never forget in my career, it’s the experience that CACI went through with the wrongful allegations and charges with regard to our interrogators in the early days of [the war in] Iraq. I first found out when Seymour Hersh put out his article in The New Yorker [in 2004] making some claims. The public was ready to hang me. I made the fairly early discovery that the allegations in the leaked report had flaws in them. They had listed some people in there as being our employees, who weren’t our employees.
And so, I dug down into it and found out that our culpability was really misrepresented. It gave me the fortitude, commitment, and the confidence to stand up on it. The main problem was a lot of people wanted to have me fired because of the type of work that we were doing. I would save my neck in the media at least by letting all those people go, but that was not the right thing to do. If you just hang in there, and you’re credible, and you’ve got your facts together, you’re going to prevail—and our reputation today is probably better than ever.
Dr. J. “Jack” Phillip London is the Executive Chairman of the board of CACI International, a Fortune 1000 Largest company that provides services to many branches of the federal government, and serves on the boards of the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, the Naval Historical Foundation, Friends of the National WWII Memorial, the Senior Advisory Board of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, and CAUSE (Comfort for America’s Uniformed Services), the “wounded warriors” support organization. He has served on numerous other boards and foundations.
“Tone at the top,” a phrase that’s bandied about a lot these days, tends to surface any time a scandal arises. When something goes bump in the night, the tone of the top tier of management—i.e., the CEO and his or her chief lieutenants—suddenly comes under scrutiny. As a long-time corporate executive and member of numerous boards, I would submit that we ought to examine the leadership style and tone set not only by the management team, but also by the board.
Wisdom has it that when it comes to long-term performance, culture beats strategy. I happen to agree, which raises the question, “Are we spending enough time on tone at the top at the board level?”
Below I reflect on some of what it takes for a board to practice oversight with a guiding tone of continuous improvement.
What Does Tone Mean for the Board?
Originally tone at the top was narrowly defined as a company’s internal financial controls, but today it refers more broadly to general corporate culture or ethical climate. It’s a normative system of values that’s very personal to each company. Simply put, “It’s the way we do things around here.”
Every company has a “way,” but what is it? Is it articulated? More narrowly, does your board’s way mirror the same tone that has been identified as the greater tone of the company? Conversely, does the board’s tone set the right tone for the rest of the company? While it can be difficult to articulate tone in words, you know it when you see it. Make time to describe what you observe and commit it to policy or collective memory.
As a lead independent director, the tone set by the board should matter. First and foremost, an ethical, positive culture prevents your company from getting into trouble, but more importantly, it helps the company perform well if the standards, rules, and expectations are cleared understood. The same should stand in your boardroom, and the lead director can help articulate the tone to his or her peers.
Get Tough On the Soft Stuff
The average board spends a lot of time on administrative tasks, firefighting, and worrying about management. Often times the soft stuff gets neglected as a result. There’s a huge emphasis on financial results, to be sure, but how much time in each meeting does the board spend on leading indicators versus trailing indicators? Given how hard it is to develop a strategy that lasts more than a minute and a half in today’s dynamic world, we need to ask what the company is doing to prepare for what’s completely unexpected.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re leading a mining company in the 1850s. Gold has been discovered, and you know you’ve got to get to California, but because it’s such new territory, you’re not quite sure how to get there. There’s not enough room in the wagon train for all the food, water, and bullets that you think you’ll need along the way to sustain and protect your crew. How do you decide what to take? What bets are you going to make?
Boards do talk about bets and the risk and reward trade-offs related to their business, but does your board talk about who should be on the wagon train? Do they discuss what kind of leadership DNA (not resume or skills) they need as independent directors and how to find them? Do they ask hard and honest questions about the roles, responsibilities, and performance of directors?
The lead director of your board is uniquely positioned to guide his or her peers through tough conversations about performance, whether current directors are embodying the right tone, and how to get tough when hard decisions about staffing have to be made to get to the proverbial gold at the end of the road.
Ours is a rapidly changing world. Boards still may be putting too much emphasis on “knowing the business,” meaning knowing today’s business model and how to provide oversight of that model accordingly. But many (maybe most) of those business models are going to be extinct soon. Consequently, companies would be better served by boards that spend more time on the key business processes that are germane to any business, as well as on—you guessed it—corporate culture.
It is up to the lead director to spearhead this effort by working closely with the board’s individual directors and committee leaders to find the right people and ensure that they work together productively—with each other as well as with management.
How Do You Know You’ve Gotten it Right?
Do research. Very few companies spend time understanding what their “tone at the top” is and then improving it on more than an ad-hoc basis. Tone at the top is not what the board thinks or management thinks. Rather, it’s what employees, customers, and whole communities think about the actions and performance of the whole body of the company—including the board. Companies routinely do 360 reviews of management to “see how we’re doing.” Why not ask the same questions of the board?
This is another place where the lead director can make a difference. He or she should have the courage to measure the performance of the board and its members.
As directors, we wouldn’t dream of neglecting to measure the performance of management. Shouldn’t we be just as rigorous and demanding of ourselves?
Roger O. Goldman is chair of the board of American Express Bank, lead director of Seacoast Bank, and former chair of the board for Lighthouse International. Opinions are his own.