A recent survey of executives and directors globally found that the top two risks discussed are disruptive change to the business model and the organization’s resistance to change. This incongruence captures what may be one of a board’s most fundamental fears.
No established incumbent wants to fall into the category of companies that were yesterday’s success stories but today are in decline, suffering “death from a thousand cuts.” Yet it happens all too frequently. One well-known CEO says it begins with “stasis”—a state of inactivity that leads to “irrelevance” and is followed by an “excruciating, painful decline” until, ultimately, there is an abrupt demise of the enterprise.
This kind of decline is unmerciful. Its low velocity is one of the primary reasons it is so difficult to spot. Left unabated, it leads a once-proud company to the point where very little can be done to save it as it continues down its committed path. In the digital age, cloud computing, robotic process automation, machine learning, and other technologies are disrupting every industry by presenting opportunities to reimagine business models. With physical locations, people, and infrastructure barriers virtually gone, it’s possible for “born digital” start-ups to disrupt an established company with a hyper-scalable business model that can accommodate rapid growth without significant upfront capital.
Time and speed in business have changed. Business has evolved beyond the tactical to emphasize a more strategic and holistic view of challenging conventional thinking and disrupting traditional ways of working as well as long-established value chains. Managing to the speed of business may seem like a strange notion to some, but why shouldn’t every organization evaluate its processes given the speed of change in the marketplace and within the industry? Considering the stakes, it’s worth a serious look.
Following are 10 thoughts on managing to the speed of business and its implications to board oversight.
Set the tone for speed at the top. Directors should support the CEO in setting the tone for speed through both actions and words, emphasizing the importance of staying close to the customer, keeping an eye on relevant market trends, organizing for speed, and embracing change.
Focus on high-velocity and high-quality decision-making. Many large companies make high-quality decisions but make them too slowly. There is a time and a place for formality, but for many activities, an unstructured approach is sufficient.
Inculcate a culture of speed. Members of the executive team should have a stake in initiatives to improve and sustain speed. A company must be at least as fast as—and endeavor to be faster than—agile followers of the latest trends in its industry.
Focus on the customer experience. The speed-conscious organization is customer-centric. Accordingly, it places strong emphasis on gaining access to market insights efficiently and in a timely manner, likely through big data solutions and advanced data analytics.
Establish an organizational structure that directly supports lean business behaviors. Open, flexible, and agile structures with flat hierarchies drive efficiencies, speed up innovation cycles, and facilitate collaboration, communication, and faster decision-making and execution. Focused, dedicated teams armed with purpose and clear objectives should be empowered by executive sponsors to tackle well-defined tasks and assisted by appropriate alliance partners. Sponsors keep the effort on the fast track with a fail-fast mentality.
Select the talent who will lead to success. Trite as it might be to say, the best and most diverse talent wins in the digital era. Talent strategy must set the foundation for speed.
Understand external trends. Speed places a premium on recognizing global megatrends and their impact timely. Boards should ensure that management is focused on becoming more future-oriented, mindful of external developments, and resilient in the face of change in the digital age.
Speed must deliver desirable outcomes. Speeding up processes and decisions is not the endgame. Outcomes that are on-strategy validate a faster process.
Learn at the speed of business. A committed learning organization fosters a positive culture that embraces open-mindedness, critical thinking, fresh ideas, and contrarian points of view—all of which are vital to speed. Ongoing knowledge-sharing, networking, collaboration, team learning, and admission of errors and learning from them facilitate speed. Feedback loops regarding interactions with customers, suppliers, regulators, and other outside parties that maximize broad employee participation helps to root out unconscious bias.
Speed requires effective change enablement. When processes and functions are reimagined, and products and services require improvement, the organization should have an established process to organize the necessary stakeholder commitment and drive the needed change.
What do Atari, Blockbuster, Borders, Palm, and Polaroid have in common? Each failed to keep pace with the market and suffered a long decline before entering bankruptcy or being acquired or liquidated. Each case illustrates how difficult it is to turn away from a business model or a segment of the market that has served the entity’s stakeholders well over the years.
Confidence in facing the future is what every director and leader wants. Speed is dictated by the market—meaning that external and internal factors influence it. The tailwind effect of embracing change and managing to speed breeds desirable confidence in the digital economy.
Each of us can look back and be baffled by how much change is possible in a short amount of time. Remember landlines? Flip phones? How about the BlackBerry? It’s human nature to be resistant to change: boards and corporate directors are no different. Maintaining the status quo is more comfortable than change. Especially because leading the change requires a straightforward vision, strong leadership, and clear communication. In the words of the cartoon Dilbert: “Change is good, you go first.”
But change is necessary for company growth and success. And the National Association of Corporate Directors is one organization that not only talks about change but gives board members and leaders the tools to help boards model and implement change. At NACD’s Global Board Leadership Summit this fall, we’ll discuss how we as board directors can embrace our leadership role, set a positive example, and encourage change.
Oversight Is No Longer Enough
Emerging technologies and new customer demands are now constant threats to established products and business models. These threats affect sustainable and profitable growth, but boards can counter these issues by continuously helping management to evolve their business models, investments, and skill sets.
Expectations of capitalism and acceptable corporate behaviors are also changing, forcing a better balance of achieving profits and having a positive societal impact. A good example is a company’s focus on reducing its environmental footprint. This means that we are now seeing the focus on shareholders shift to include all stakeholders, such as employees, suppliers, customers, and communities.
All this is part of taking an active role in creating the optimal organizational mission and culture. Changing our behavior, processes, and interactions from oversight and support to an active leadership model is crucial to ensure success in our evolving world.
Leading Change Is Necessary
External pressures, rapidly changing governance requirements, and differing stakeholder expectations are all good reasons to call for change.
Failure to change may jeopardize not only a company’s performance, but also its very survival. Poor performance impacts everyone, but proper board and director performance can create a competitive advantage that increases value for all stakeholders. Stagnation is the enemy and change will keep your organization sustainable and on the lookout to avoid pitfalls.
Necessary Board Components for Success
When I look back over my career as a board member, these four pieces are critical to effectively lead and enact change:
Boards need to be comprised of directors who understand and have effectively led change management;
A board’s culture of embracing change should be a model for the entire company;
Board information and processes need to align with and support the new culture to achieve its goals; and
A board’s composition should reflect and support its new evolving culture and behavioral design.
Key Takeaways to Remember
To start leading change in your boardroom, define and describethe mission, values, and culture that you want your company to embody. Boards should assess what the organization needs to retain and what aspects would be most beneficial to change.
Build off of the strengthsin your company and initiate change management plans to achieve your new vision. This includes evaluating the current board composition, leadership and processes and taking action to make changes in a timely manner. Once initial changes have been made, continually assess progress towards your vision and course correct as needed. Don’t be afraid of needing to shift direction in the future.
If there’s one constant, it’s that change will always continue. It never stops. Change impacts all of us, and for boards and company leadership to be successful, effective change management should be a required element in the makeup of every board.
Like our cartoon friend Dilbert challenges us, are you ready to go first, lead, and create an inspiring vision for sustainable value creation for your constituencies? I’m looking forward to discussing change, the ever evolving transformation of our world and more at the 2018 Global Board Leaders’ Summit September 29 through October 2 in Washington, DC. Register now and join me there.
Martin Coyne is a director of EyeNuk. Coyne is the chair and founder of the CEO Learning Network and he is the chair emeritus of the National Association of Corporate Directors’ New Jersey Chapter.
The word innovation typically conjures up images of new technologies like networked sensors and quantum computers. That was certainly my focus when I wrote my February blog on the age of innovation. We had just closed NACD’s cutting-edge program at the Consumer Electronics Show, and the buzzing excitement felt on the showroom floor was on my mind.
But as directors, we know that although tech is important for our businesses, it’s merely a means to an end: sustainable growth that benefits all stakeholders. Technology plays a major role there, of course, but the real drivers of company value are people and, more specifically, culture.
Recent remarks by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees, as reported by the Washington Post, made this point clear. During the hearing, Zuckerberg told senators that Facebook is going through a “broader philosophical shift.” This is precisely why my recent focus at NACD has been cultural innovation.
When I became CEO of NACD in January 2017, I knew from my previous 16 years here that we had a strong culture. I had seen our staff grow from 12 to nearly 100 during those years, most typically through internal promotion and the hard work of engaged teams. But what was our cultural secret? Could we articulate it, and thus preserve it and pass it on? I got a head start on the topic by serving on the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Culture as a Corporate Asset, which released its report in late 2017. But there was more to come.
One reason I was chosen as NACD’s president and CEO was that the board knew that I would champion corporate culture as a core asset of the organization. Quoted in Lori Sharn’s CEO Update story, our chair, Dr. Karen Horn, stated, “The top people have all been together a long time and really share these values. Because we’re growing so fast, we’ve brought in a lot of new people to the organization. We need to be sure the new people feel the same kind of engagement and buy in to the current culture, and buy in to the development of the ongoing culture.”
Encouraged by the board, one of my first acts as CEO was to establish a Directors Council, made up of the 13 director-level managers. The Council meets every other week to promote collaboration across departments, with the goal of continuing to foster a healthy, thriving culture. The Council suggested that we develop a Values Statement, so we appointed a Values Squad made up of Council members to interview staffers, and by summer a first draft was ready. The six values, which were formally announced in a soft launch to staff in January, follow:
We are one NACD.
We succeed through member impact.
We communicate openly.
We are continuous learners.
We are innovators.
The current phase of this initiative is to weave these six values into the fabric of our organization, and the board has been engaged throughout.
As our own internal effort at NACD demonstrates, directors can make a tremendous difference in culture. In her March 26 blog, Andrea Bonime-Blanc suggests that directors ask management if there is an “explicit culture program in place,” and if it is “intertwined and integrated” with the company’s mission, vision, values, and strategy—all clearly board-level issues.
Along these lines, a recent blog covering a March 28 panel discussion at a Leading Minds of Governance event was aptly titled “Experts to Directors: Innovation, Culture Change Starts With You.” As the blogger (our own Katie Swafford) said, “There is a buzz in the air about renovating corporate culture in the name of innovation.”
I, for one, have heard—and amplified—that buzz. Have you?