Tag Archive: Center for Audit Quality

Seven Principles for Understanding and Avoiding Short-Termism

Published by
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.

Skepticism Lessons Learned

Published by

I’ve always been a trusting soul. One of my earliest lessons involved me diligently removing debris from a stream for someone in exchange for the official deed to the stream. The problem was, he didn’t own it.

I did not possess the skill of skepticism—defined in Audit Standard (AU) 316 as “an attitude that includes a questioning mind and a critical assessment of … evidence.” If I had, I would have observed that the shiny gold seal I was given was the kind you can buy at Woolworth’s 5 &10, and that the stream ran not only behind the deedor’s property but contiguous ones as well.

Yet there’s hope for us all. On October 1, NACD launched a unique new webinar series on Skepticism as part of an ongoing Anti-Fraud Collaboration with the Center for Audit Quality (CAQ), Financial Executives International (FEI), and The Institute for Internal Auditors (IIA). Along with many at NACD, I was involved in this exciting project, and had a chance to review the upcoming episodes.

“Skepticism” relates to a search for the truth. The term comes from the Greek skeptikos used some 2,300 years ago by disciples of the philosopher Pyrrhos. The verb skeptesthai means “to reflect, look, view.” The earliest self-declared skeptics emphasized the importance of the senses in confirming reality. Over time, the word’s meaning expanded to include the notion of reasonable doubt. Today, the “skeptic” is perceived as a doubter—someone who may trust, but must always verify.

It’s an attitude we all need. And perhaps no one knows this better than series moderator Michele J. Hooper, president and CEO of The Directors’ Council, and board member of NACD and CAQ’s governing board. Through questions and comments based on her considerable experience on a variety of public company boards she brings out the best in the six-part series, outlined as follows:

  1. A brief introduction.
  2. The Etiquette and Ethics of Skepticism with Mary M. Mitchell, president, The Mitchell Group, and Bill White, professor at Northwestern University and experienced director.
  3. Professional Skepticism and the External Auditor with Cindy Fornelli, executive director, CAQ; and Greg Weaver, CEO and chairman, Deloitte & Touche.
  4. Skepticism and the Audit Committee with Marty Coyne, lead director and audit committee member, Akamai Technologies; and Ken Daly, president and CEO, NACD.
  5. Skepticism and the Financial Executive with Marie Hollein, president and CEO, FEI; and Greg Kabureck, chief accounting officer, Xerox Corporation.
  6. Skepticism and the Internal Auditor with Richard Chambers, president and CEO, The IIA; and Paul Sobel, vice president and chief audit executive, Georgia Pacific.

In addition to these webinars, NACD will release a white paper with in-depth background and additional resources on skepticism in December.

Why skepticism? It’s a great way to break the fraud triangle—composed of incentive, opportunity, and rationalization—which can cost businesses so dearly. Financial reporting fraud, the focus of this series, is responsible for a significant percentage of the $3.5 trillion that businesses lose to fraud every year, according to a recent study by the Association for Certified Fraud Examiners.

The value of the labor I devoted to cleaning out that stream for a fake deed may not be worth much in dollars, but whenever trust is violated the cost is too high.

Fraud is unfortunately a fact of life; therefore skepticism is a skill we all need.