Identifying what expertise is needed on the board and orchestrating different—if not conflicting—points of view into constructive conversation can be a challenge. During a session at the second annual NACD Diversity Symposium on the opening day of the Global Board Leaders’ Summit in Washington, DC, panelists James Lam, director and chair of the risk oversight committee at E-Trade Financial Corp. (E*TRADE); Myrna Soto, director of Spirit Airlines and CMS Energy Corp.; and Charlotte Whitmore, vice chair and chief, brand strategies, of Analytics Pros., discussed how boardroom talent and a robust mix of perspectives are critical to ensuring a company’s success.
Conversation centered around two themes:
1. Striking a Balance. When considering the future needs of the company, Lam recommended that directors think about their business and its risk profile and then consider the following questions: “What are the key megatrends that will impact the business?” and “What director skill sets will be needed to mitigate this potential impact?”
Considering the continuously growing list of threats and disruptors facing businesses—such as cybersecurity, globalism, and climate change—some boards debate the need to focus on recruiting subject-matter experts to help them oversee these risks. But panelists agreed that new perspectives should replace long-standing expertise.
“Seasoned directors can be a voice of reason,” Soto said. “New executives can be what you need to push the strategy. When you have that diversity of thought, you really challenge the strategy, but it comes down to the nominating committee and how it thinks about what the next director is going to bring to the table.”
Drawing on her own experience, Whitmore concurred. Whitmore is cofounder of the data analytics start-up, Analytics Pros, and knows what it’s like to both recruit directors whose business experiences are different from her own and to be recruited to a board because of her particular expertise. At her own company, Whitmore said she has learned from more seasoned directors that taking actions to grow the company too quickly might do more harm than good. “They bring a sensibility to corporate culture that’s not just about driving results,” she said. In her role as a director, she said her older colleagues often look to her data-analytics savvy to discover new ways to support the organization.
2. Facilitating Dialogue. Having diverse perspectives around the board table does the company no good unless they are heard. Effective director onboarding is vital to acquainting a new director with the company and establishing both the board’s expectations of the new recruit and what that director expects of fellow board members and management. A director’s ability to successfully contribute to the conversation is contingent on the conditions on which they were onboarded. Soto said that she turned down several directorships based on what she learned about the companies’ governance structures. Lam recalled having his own agenda during his onboarding at E*TRADE, ensuring, for example, that he was able to meet with the risk committee and senior management.
In addition, the lead director plays the very important role of ensuring that all directors are heard. When new directors are called upon to join the board of a company in crisis or during a transition—such as a CEO succession—the lead director can be instrumental in managing and balancing the perspectives and experiences represented around the table and getting the full board to a point where it feels comfortable not only in making major decisions, but also in communicating those decisions to stakeholders outside of the boardroom.
Times sure have changed. Whether a company’s equity is owned by a few venture capitalists or a league of activist investors, investors today want to have their say about where the company is headed and who is leading it.
Perhaps the time has come for companies, both public and private, to consider better use of an underused and under-appreciated asset that many of them already have and others should acquire: the role of the investor relations (IR) professional. Integral to the board’s oversight of corporate asset allocation (i.e., dividend policy, investment in research and development, external growth through M&A and other measures to return value) is a current understanding of how the securities and capital markets work, characteristics and propensities of investor types, investor attitudes and concerns, and relative values of the enterprise.
Request Reports From Your IR Professional
It is commonplace today for the corporate IR professional to present quarterly market analysis reports to the C-suite and in particular the CEO and CFO, regarding relative market performance, changes in ownership, and current investor perceptions and concerns. In my opinion, such reports should find their way to the board of directors as well, both in formal, written form, and as in-person presentations, inviting questions and discussion—all in an effort to keep the board up to date regarding pertinent market activity and best prepared for contingencies.
In the current market environment, the IR professional requires special and multi-disciplined skill sets that can help a board. As spokesperson for the company and often the proxy for the CEO and CFO with investors, the IR professional must be thoroughly familiar and conversant with the business plan, financial structure and strategy, and the performance of the company. He or she must be aware of and sensitive to disclosure Regulation FD, securities laws, and other regulatory imperatives.
Intentionally Include IR Experience and Perspective on the Board
In addition, nominating committees should consider seeking an outside director who has IR experience in addition to other useful boardroom skills. Just as public companies are required to have a financial expert on the audit committee, perhaps boards should be urged to have a skilled investor relations professional among their ranks. While the same might be said of other core disciplines (cybersecurity, finance, human resources, law, marketing, technology, and so forth), the domain of IR knowledge seems worthy of particular consideration at this time of market turmoil and uncertainty. Having IR expertise on the board certainly would make the board smarter and better prepared to deal with myriad corporate and financial decisions within its purview.
The corporate IR professional could be an invaluable asset to the board, as he or she must be cognizant of the pulse of the investment community on specific issues, while bringing this critical perspective to bear on the board’s discussion and decision-making process. The corporate investor relations discipline has evolved significantly over the years out of necessity. No longer simply a stockholder relations functionary, the IR professional is the primary, and sometimes the only daily, interface with owners (as well as prospective owners and market influentials) of the enterprise. The IR professional thus has a keen sense of investor interests and concerns, their perceptions of relative value, and of their voting propensities.
Suggesting the addition of an IR skill set on the board is not to be taken lightly. Recognize that there are numerous skilled and experienced IR professionals available, all of whom, in addition to the aforementioned experiences, know how investors think and know all the hard questions and concerns regarding material corporate events, financial performance, prospects and policies—all in a constantly changing economy.
Robert D. Ferris is an investor relations and crisis counselor and commentator, with more than four decades of experience with both domestic and foreign issuers. A former chairman of National Investor Relations Institute’s Senior Roundtable, his ideas on C-suite communications strategies in challenging corporate situations have been widely published.
As NACD works with corporate directors of public, private, and nonprofit boards to oversee and ensure the long-term sustainability of the enterprise and bolster investor confidence, I am frequently asked: “What companies have the most significant challenges?” While unique challenges certainly exist across boards of all company types, many view the roles of small-cap public company boards to be quite challenging.
These unique challenges span time and effort (workload) requirements, compensation, talent, financing, regulation, risk, strategy, competition, and internal resources, just to name a few. Small-cap directors and governance professionals may identify and prioritize the unique challenges of these companies differently, however, but one thing remains constant and that is that small-cap companies represent the majority of companies listed on U.S. exchanges, and the long-term prosperity of these small-cap companies is essential to a growing, thriving economy.
So where can small-cap company directors turn to reinforce their strategic agility?
Second, I highly recommend that all directors read NACD’s Board Building white paper, another high-impact, quick read. Most important in this resource is the skill set matrix enclosed in the appendix. Many companies are now using the skill set matrix to both determine and articulate the experiences and talents required for their future strategies.
Lastly, I suggest that current and aspiring small-cap directors attend NACD’s Small-Cap Forum on April 10 in San Antonio or on July 17 in San Francisco. Both sessions will focus on current and emerging issues facing small-cap boards, and these interactive events will include a range of interactive, peer-to-peer networking opportunities for robust dialogue.
Contact me at hstoever@NACDonline.org if you have specific questions or suggestions on how NACD can assist you, your board, and other small-cap directors advance exemplary board leadership.