Few institutions represent American ingenuity and innovation more clearly than its space program. With rapt attention, the world watched July 20, 1969, as Mission Commander Neil Armstrong of NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft became the first person to walk on the moon.
Ron Garan—retired astronaut and chief pilot for commercial space launch provider World View Enterprises Inc.—was one of those who watched. “My most vivid childhood memory was July 20, 1969,” Garan said. “On some level, I realized that we had just become a different species. A species no longer limited to our planet.”
Garan delivered the opening keynote address to an audience of more than 1,300 on Sunday evening in Washington, D.C., at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit, the world’s largest gathering for corporate directors.
Four decades later, Garan’s childhood dream became reality. He had trained with NASA to become an astronaut himself. “That first day in space when I got to take a look at our planet, [I] was absolutely breathless.…What I felt was an incredible sense of gratitude. Being physically detached from the world made me feel closer to the people on it—more interconnected.”
Reflecting on his second space mission, Garan remembers similar feelings of gratitude, but that gratitude was coupled this time with internal struggle. The technological advances that make space flight not just possible but routine offer the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Yet, Garan pointed out, some people on this planet still do not have access to basic resources like clean water.
“These days we’re more connected than ever, and the Internet is the backbone,” said Garan. “The Internet can be our nerve center, enabling us to solve problems in an entirely different way.”
Garan further explored that challenge in his third mission, when the seeds to a solution began to root. The answer? Collaboration. On this space mission, Garan was weightlessly floating about 100 feet over the International Space Station, attached to the craft’s large robotic arm. That station represents the collaborative innovation of 15 nations—including the United States, Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation, and 11 European nations—that have, at times, been at odds with each other politically and ideologically.
“What would it look like for us to have that kind of collaboration here on the [Earth’s] surface?” Garan asked. “Collaboration doesn’t mean we agree on everything. What it does mean is that we find the things we do agree on so we have a platform to work [from in order] to address the things we don’t agree on.”
Risk: Necessary for Innovation
But innovation and collaboration don’t come without risk. As a highly decorated fighter pilot, Garan had run several missions and trainings in which he’d successfully flown and had no mechanical problems in flight. Then one day, while piloting a jet during a routine takeoff, he heard a loud pop that jolted him. He very quickly realized his engines no longer had any usable thrust. Garan tried to land in a wooded area and quickly realized that he had no need to be in the jet at that point. Seconds before impact, he ejected and his life was spared.
That incident, though life-threatening, did not change Garan’s outlook on life or risk. But the very next day, he was in flight and, because of a mechanical malfunction, had to conduct an emergency landing. After having completed thousands of flights, he’d had emergencies two days in a row. The second day is when the idea of what it means to take risks sunk in.
Before ever entering a plane or spacecraft, one must decide if doing so is worth the risk. The same is true for business leaders who want to innovate and collaborate. When NASA is planning a mission, they consider every possible issue that could go wrong and develop a response plan that’s ready and waiting to be activated. Boards should do the same. Similarly, a great idea on the shelf can only provide value if it’s activated. “Ideas are overrated. There’s got to be a streamlined path to action,” Garan shared.
“Any change involves some level of risk,” Garan said. “Any innovative business strategy must involve risk. Collaboration can help mitigate risk and also provide an engine for growth.”
Implications for Businesses
It’s important for businesses to understand that we don’t live on a globe; globes are just abstract lines on a map, Garan shared. We too often think of the world in terms of it being about business and economy supporting a society that sustains a planet, he said. “Instead, we live on a planet that sustains a society that has built an economy.” Understanding that concept is adopting what Garan calls an “orbital” view.
It’s time that enterprises realized that it’s good business to care about issues like sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR)—beyond just doing it to boost a brand or reputation, Garan shared. Issues like CSR should be part of a company’s DNA now, not just for future generations, he added.
The retired astronaut described how, on his last space mission, his spacecraft entered back into the Earth’s atmosphere and landed on its side. “Now out of my window, I saw a rock, a flower, and a blade of grass. I was home. In Kazakhstan, nonetheless,” he said. “I wasn’t in Houston, where my family was. But I was home and had a different idea of home.”
Thinking of the planet as “home” may be what’s required to actually make one small step for directors and one giant leap for corporate governance.
As shareholders and stakeholders focus more on sustainability, board members increasingly are taking responsibility for the long-term sustainability of their companies. In this BoardVision interview, NACD’s publisher and director of partner relations, Christopher Y. Clark, moderates a discussion between Kellie Huennekens, from EY’s Center for Board Matters, and Brendan LeBlanc, partner at EY’s Americas Climate Change and Sustainability Services, on why directors should prioritize sustainability in the boardroom:
Sustainability is no longer being viewed as a “soft issue” for board members. Rather, it’s an issue that is tied to oversight of corporate strategy.
Shareholders are becoming more concerned about how environmental and social issues are affecting companies.
There are so-called quick wins for management and boards who realize their companies should address sustainability issues.
Brendan LeBlanc, partner at EY’s Americas Climate Change and Sustainability Services (left), and Kellie Huennekens, from EY’s Center for Board Matters.
Here are some highlights from the discussions.
Christopher Y. Clark: [Has] there been increased activity and interest by directors in the governance and oversight of sustainability?
Brendan LeBlanc: I would suggest that governance and oversight of sustainability is simply governance and oversight of the corporate strategy. Companies execute their business models in the context of planetary limits and societal expectations. Sustainability is a word that goes by a lot of other synonyms: citizenship, stewardship, responsible growth, resiliency, profitability, [and] in perpetuity. All of these concepts get at the essence of sustainability, and the idea of how a company’s strategy is executed has always been a board issue.
Kellie Huennekens: It’s all about shareholders, at least from my perspective. The EY Center for Board Matters has ongoing engagement with a full range of institutional investors. We track proxy voting of the 3,000 largest companies in the U.S., and what we’re seeing and hearing from them is that sustainability topics, [like] environmental and social issues, are key concerns…gaining traction among a broader range of investors. Basically, what investors are searching for is a better understanding of how nontraditional, nonfinancial developments are impacting the companies in their portfolio, and accordingly, they want to know more about board oversight of these issues.
Clark: The perception is that this was a soft issue, and I want to hear more about EY’s work with boards on not forcing it but enhancing it so it’s no longer viewed as a soft issue.
Huennekens: There are a number of companies that appear to be redefining how boards should be looking at sustainability topics. These companies are the leaders in the space, and they’re constantly communicating with one another [and] with investors to explore how to approach sustainability topics. It’s a very difficult area, partly because it’s new and partly because the topics covered are very broad and very challenging.
LeBlanc: Boards are meant to safeguard the assets of the companies they serve. And one of the trickier but more important assets is your social license to operate, [with] an engaged workforce that comes to work…[not only for a paycheck but also] because they’re doing something that they believe in. And how companies actually understand, report, and capture this information [is] a business issue. Today, that whole process is maturing, and as boards get more engaged on what we think our social license-to-operate issues are, [we’re asking], “What are the things that really matter to our business? What do we depend on for natural resources? What are society’s expectations of us? And how are we meeting that responsibility?”
Clark: I read the appendices of NACD’s handbook, Oversight of Corporate Sustainability, and one tip that stood out to me…was: get quick wins. I was hoping that you could flesh that out for me.
LeBlanc: Quick wins for the management of the company [have] historically [included being] good at cost savings. If you do well by managing energy, [and] reduce costs, that’s fine. If you do well by managing a safe workplace, and you reduce cost and increase morale, that’s fine. The company manages risks very well if they are [also] engaging stakeholders, those who might be impacted by getting them in the tent with them early and understanding what their expectations are of the business. Those are all good, quick wins in producing a report from the company that explains the progress that they’re making….On quick wins for the board, I would strongly suggest taking a look at the [handbook’s] appendix, where we’ve put a model charter [that helps with] understanding the board. Who’s responsible for what? What’s the governance around the nonfinancial commitments that you’ve either explicitly made or are expected of you from your stakeholders?
Huennekens: As an indication of investors’ interest on sustainability topics, more specifically environmental and social issues, we’ve been seeing in recent years that shareholder-sponsored proposals to management on environmental and social topics now make up one of the largest shareholder proposal categories. It’s now about half of all the shareholder proposal topics submitted. While some boards may ask [whether or not this is] really a big deal [considering the amount of stock the shareholder who filed the proposal holds], what we’re seeing is that the broader base of investors is supporting a number of these key topics. [These topics include] greenhouse gas emissions reduction, whether to produce a sustainability report on an annual basis…, a human rights assessment, [and] supply chain management issues. [These issues] are increasingly becoming more prominent in terms of the broad range of topics boards cover, and we’re seeing average support for these proposals increase as well.
One of my favorite comments from an attendee at last year’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit went something like this: “I was expecting to be informed; I wasn’t expecting to be inspired.” For a team that works year-round scouring the globe to discover and deliver to you voices that are shaping the future, that’s about as good as it gets.
This year’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit is on track to be our biggest ever, and one big feature of the Summit remains the same: a diverse array of thought leaders will share paradigm-shifting insights that will challenge the way you think about leadership, give you new tools to approach your directorship practice, and perhaps inspire you in surprising ways.
Here’s a sampling of some of the most exciting sessions at Summit this year:
Michelle Crosby’s start-up Wevorce is not only shaking up Silicon Valley, it’s turning the historic, antagonistic model of divorce on its head. The company’s mission is to “help couples ensure their divorce is less damaging to themselves, their finances, and the people they love.” Crosby was named one of the American Bar Association’s Legal Rebels in 2014, a distinction reserved for “lawyers who are breaking new ground using technology.” “Every institution is subject to change, and the more entrepreneurs who learn to work in the system to create that change, the further we’re going to get,” Crosby said in an interview with USA Today. In an intimate fireside chat, Crosby will discuss innovation, entrepreneurship, disruption, and how the company applies the Wevorce model to talent management inside the company.
Howard Ross, one of the most highly rated thought leaders at last year’s Summit, is back again to share insights from his groundbreaking work on unconscious bias, diversity, leadership, and organizational change. The question directors should ask themselves, says Ross, is not “Is there bias?” Rather, directors should ask one another, “What biases do we have that keep us from making choices counter to the values that we say we believe in?” Ross will open the Diversity Symposium on Saturday and will lead an in-depth workshop on Monday focusing on board dynamics.
The United Nations estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face fresh water shortages, a critical concern for business and society. Whitewater rafting guide turned CEO Pat Crowley is betting that the solution to that crisis might literally be in our backyards. Crowley’s passion for the outdoors led him to work as a water resource planner, which drew his curiosity to crickets, of all things. “I heard about insects as a more environmentally friendly form of nutrition. From a water perspective, it was clearly a game-changer,” he said. Crowley founded Chapul, a company that makes cricket-based energy bars, in 2012, “to leap over this psychological hurdle of eating insects in the United States.” With explosive growth— 500 percent annually for the past two years alone—Crowley is on track to break through those barriers. On the summit mainstage on Monday, Crowley will discuss what it means to be part of building a new industry that is challenging societal norms, reshaping the competitive landscape, and may just help save the planet.
Phil Gilbert has been working with start-ups for the past 30 years, the most recent of which was acquired by IBM in 2010. Now Gilbert leads IBM’s design team with a focus on an empathy-centered workforce. Bringing a start-up mentality to 100-year-old company can be a challenge and almost immediately Gilbert was forced to confront a disconcerting question: “Is the entire way we’re working an anachronism?” Embracing that hard truth has been nothing short of transformational. Gilbert comes to the Summit mainstage to discuss lessons learned in this transformation. “We’re at an interesting crossroads in business. I think the way business is done and businesses work inside themselves has got to fundamentally change in the twenty-first century,” he said.
As managing director of famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Scott Kupor has been part of building brands like Airbnb, Buzzfeed, Facebook, Foursquare, Lyft, Pinterest, and Skype—companies that have become synonymous with disruption. “Things that are fringe today might become mainstream over time,” Kupor explained on Fox News back in June, describing the philosophy that underpins Andreessen Horowitz’s approach to finding the next disruptive trend. In a mainstage fireside chat Tuesday, Kupor will discuss this philosophy in context with everything from M&A activity and shareholder activism, to IPO trends and the next big innovations he sees poised to disrupt the business landscape.
When Chelsea Grayson took on the role of general counsel at American Apparel, she faced a daunting task: to help turn around a company that was operating in an increasingly competitive industry and was coming off of a tumultuous series of events, including high-profile sexual harassment allegations, layoffs, bankruptcy, and protests. In February, Grayson told the legal blog Above the Law, “I have been in-house for over a year now, and I have encountered just about every legal issue a general counsel might experience in an entire career.” Next month, Grayson will share her insights on governing complexity, a subject she has become adept at navigating during her tenure at American Apparel.
These are just a few snapshots of the incredible line-up of thought leaders who will join us in September. Want to learn more? View the full list of speakers and sessions at www.NACDonline.org/summit.