Lead directors play a significant role in the boardroom, enhancing board effectiveness by acting as independent figures in communicating the needs between the company’s management and board. Five years ago, only 39 percent of boards had lead directors. That number has almost doubled. Today, 66 percent of boards have a lead director.
NACD broadly defined the duties of the lead director in a 2004 Blue Ribbon Commission Report. Leveraging their years of experience, the NACD Blue Ribbon Commissioners will clarify the role of the lead director in order to enhance the effectiveness of the lead director in the boardroom. The 2011 report will expand the earlier recommendations by exploring how the lead director role can be used to the fullest extent. Specifically, the report will discuss the evolving roles and responsibilities of the lead director; the ideal profile of a lead director; and key relationships and communications of the lead director, including those between management and shareholders. The report will also offer recommendations for future challenges facing the role.
The 2011 Commissioners who contribute their views to the report are directors from leading companies and corporate governance experts. In addition to co-chairs Barbara Hackman Franklin and Irvine Hockaday, the panel includes:
“There is nothing new under the sun,” complained the author of Ecclesiastes. This old lament comes to mind when I hear about “new” solutions in governance. I can usually find a precedent near at hand—whether it is something we have done here at NACD within the director community, or else a solution we’ve seen coming from other governance groups such as managers, shareholders, and professionals.
But I have to say that Bridging Board Gaps:Report of the Study Group on Corporate Boards, released in late April, contains some new perspectives and some new thinking.
A New Gathering
The Study Group on Corporate Boards is new in the breadth of its representation across U.S. public company governance and, frankly, the celebrity status of its members. At NACD we take pride in our Blue Ribbon Commission reports, which bring together a diverse group of participants in governance. The Study Group assembled an equally strong group with a wide range of backgrounds and affiliations.
Study Group Co-Chair Charles Elson
Co-Chairs Charles Elson, University of Delaware; Glenn Hubbard, Columbia Business School; and Vice-Chair Frank Zarb, Hellman and Friedman, currently serve on a total of seven major corporate boards. The Study Group also includes other prominent corporate directors, plus an array of retired chief executives, senior managers, shareholders and professional advisors of note, and also two retired jurists—Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, retired from the Delaware Supreme Court, and Chancellor William T. Allen, retired from the Delaware Court of Chancery.
Also serving in the Study Group is Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; former Treasury Department Secretary Paul O’Neill; former general counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission, David Becker; and a representative of organized labor, Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel of the AFL-CIO. The group even includes Jon Hanson, chairman emeritus of the National Football Foundation and a director of the
Study Group Co-Chair Glenn Hubbard
company that owns the New York Yankees.
So exactly what did the Study Group say that was new? The main message of their report is twofold:
1. There are natural limits to what boards (as part-time nonmanagers), by definition, can do, and we all need to face those limits and adapt to them. Previous reports leave this difficult truth unaddressed.
2. Even given these limits, some boards are falling short of their potential.
The Study Group identified seven gaps: gaps in purpose, culture, leadership, information, advice, debate, and self-renewal. Every member made a significant contribution to the discussion. My own area of focus was the issue of information asymmetry, which I have addressed in a number of NACD publications. Management will always know more than the board about the company; that gap is inevitable, but it can be narrowed.
In my view, however, the truly new message in the report lies in the last three areas: advice, debate, and self-renewal. Boards are not investing enough in advisors; their fear of treading on management’s toes leads to serious gaps in knowledge. Also, boards are too deferential in their discussions. Rigorous debate is required and there is also a place for outright dissent (votes need not always be, as they usually are, unanimous). And finally, the third message that to me seems quite new is the suggestion that although obviously evaluation is the best way to refresh board membership, boards should consider term limits—a backstop that fewer than one in ten corporate boards have implemented, according to NACD research.
A New Start
Although as a lifelong auditor, I am constitutionally incapable of being star struck, I must say it was an honor to serve with this distinguished group. Indeed, I can’t imagine any American man or woman of business being uninterested in what this unique and high-caliber team has to say. I commend this report to the attention of every corporate director, and to all who care about free enterprise in America and in our global economy.
Get the Report and Discuss Its Recommendations with Jon Hanson, Charles Elson, and Ken Daly
Ken Daly and Charles Elson will be joined by fellow Study Group member Jon Hanson to discuss the recommendations in their report at the Master Class NACD will conduct in Wilmington, DE, June 7- 8, 2011. The Master Class is open to experienced directors only, and is best suited to lead directors and committee chairs. Check out the full agenda here. To register for the Master Class, where you will receive a complimentary copy of the Study Group report, click here.
A recent blog by British twitter maven Lucy Marcus got me thinking about where new thinking and fresh strategy comes from. Lucy rightly points out that new beginnings take time and that, in this cost-conscious era, there is a risk that no company has the patience to sew seeds and give them time to grow. We’ll call this impatience, and certainly it is a failing that often besets the super-bright who are restless company executives, and their peripatetic counterparts who become board members.
There are other stumbling blocks in the way of innovation too, and chief amongst them is information overload. At NACD’s recent Investor Insights Roundtable , Denny Beresford revealed that he had seen proxy statements that were longer than the 10-K. Anne Sheehan, director of corporate governance for CalSTRs, concurred. “Don’t send me the charter; I can read that for myself,” she pleaded, making a request for only critical information, presented in a concise and accessible form. As all of us know, too much information can be as bad as too little. Swamp your readers and they’ll find it all too easy to miss your point.
But there is one shortfall that always stands in the way of progress for fresh thinking, and that is lack of imagination. Too few C-suites, committees and other information providers really think about the message they wish to convey, and ways to engage the audience they seek. The best teachers understand that without engagement, there is no education. Information is passed and knowledge is gained through story-telling, entertaining experiences that stick in the mind, and the thoughtful paring down of data and equally thoughtful pumping up of passion, color and context. These are skills and approaches that have value in every area of life, business and governance. They should not be confined to the classroom.
our engagement quotient was high: Richard Levick discussed crisis planning at the board level, using the miserable face of an oil-soaked shag and the equally miserable face of former BP CEO Tony Hayward to make his key points; Rob Galford, compensation chair at Forrester Research, used his physical presence and party tricks (“point your finger in the air. Now, on the count of three, point it at the spokesperson in your group”) to drive home some interesting thoughts on performance metrics; and Charles Elson, a director on the board of HealthSouth corporation, used catch phrases (“Don’t be sleazy; Don’t be sloppy”) to help more than 60 directors grasp the essence of the Duty of Loyalty and the Duty of Care.
All of this leads me to an interesting opportunity for washed-up television producers such as myself: We should position ourselves as Chief Engagement Officers for corporations prone to boring their boards to death. We could be creative conduits, taking the dry, dense and dusty and turning it into presentations worthy of prime-time. Similarly, all boards should look for comedians down on their luck, children’s book illustrators with a gift for detail that captivates, and song and dance acts capable of rhyming “audit” with either “plaudit” or “sod it.” Once identified, this rag-tag group should form an Engagement Oversight Committee with advisory status to the board. This EOC would work alongside the GC and reshape anything terminally turgid into a director’s delight. It would solve an unemployment problem in the entertainment sector, and would greatly enhance not only board meetings, but also board, company and stock performance. It might also offer an interesting second career opportunity for burned out teachers…
If you sleep at night surrounded by spreadsheets and with PowerPoint as your pillow, urge your company to consider this engagement initiative, and soon you’ll look forward to board meetings: We put the “Glee” in governance.