For the 1,200-plus directors convened at this year’s NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. had words of advice that ranged from improving time management to establishing a Tobin-like tax on financial transactions. The nation’s leading jurist on corporate matters also cautioned against using electronic devices during board meetings for unrelated matters because that information may one day be discoverable in court.
Interviewed on Tuesday, Sept. 29, by NACD President Peter Gleason, Strine was at his provocative best. The proliferation of technology in the boardroom, Strine observed, may lead to an unintended consequence: the ability to discern just how engaged directors are and by what in board meetings. Strine warned of the possibility, and even the probability, of a shareholder suit that alleges inattention and seeks to support that allegation with a review of the director’s online activity when in board meetings—measuring just how much time was spent looking at material on the board portal versus sending e-mails, text-messaging family or friends, or playing fantasy football.
Boards also need to assess whether they are using their time to best effect. “There are no disciplined studies about how boards should be scheduled and what you do in certain committees,” Strine said. “The pattern is that if something is required legally or by statute, then that tends to get done first. A real challenge is to think like business people about your function as a director and how you use your time, and [recognize] that it reflects the priorities that you (as a board) set.” Strine challenged directors to set “a board budget of hours.”
Strine repeated a suggestion he has made previously that U.S. tax policy be adjusted to include a so-called Robin Hood or Tobin tax. Such a tax is named for the late Nobel Prize-winning Yale economist James Tobin, who in 1973 recommended a levy on short-term currency swaps in order to thwart speculation. A similar tax on stock trades, Strine maintains, would discourage short-term fund-hopping and generate new revenue.
Strine took issue with the voting practices of some large asset managers, noting that the sheer volume of votes created by shareholder proposals and the numbers of companies in each fund make informed voting impossible. Even the most “rational” investors, such as Fidelity Investments and the Vanguard Group, tend to vote their funds in one direction for the sake of expedience, he said. (See related content:Taking the Long View with Bill McNabb.) “It would be good for index funds to have their own voting policies. Why is the index fund voting the same way as the dividend fund?” Strine asked. “Why?”
One of the CEO’s most important jobs is to develop the next generation of leadership, Strine reminded the assembled directors, and boards should have opportunities for regular contact with up-and-comers.
Strine also recommended that boards consider the benefits of adopting a forum-selection bylaw. The inclusion of such a bylaw would allow corporations to determine where court cases are adjudicated when suits cover more than one jurisdiction. The state of Delaware in May enacted an arbitration law that is intended to provide speedier, more cost-effective dispute resolution as long as one of the companies in the dispute is domiciled in Delaware.
One of the few downsides to board service is the exposure to liability that directors of all corporations potentially face, day in and day out, as they perform their fiduciary duties. The chance of being sued for a major merger decision is now 90 percent; but that well known statistic is just the tip of an even larger iceberg. The Court of Chancery for the state of Delaware, where some one million corporations are incorporated (among them most major public companies), hears more than 200 cases per year, most of them involving director and officer liability. And given the high esteem in which Delaware courts are held, these influential D&O liability decisions impact the entire nation.
Why did we get involved? Since its founding in 1977, NACD has striven to serve members in many ways. Through research reports, webinars, and live events, we provide directors with the information, insights, and networks they need to become effective board leaders. Yet there is another important way in which NACD has been helping directors over the years. From time to time, when directors express concerns about pending policy matters, we amplify those concerns to the powers that be—including all three branches of the federal government as well as state courts, particularly Delaware’s. In this way, we can be the “voice of the director.”
In our Rural/Metro brief, we spoke on behalf of the directors in this case (who, because they had settled out of court, could not directly represent themselves); far more importantly, however, we spoke on behalf of all directors in every state, addressing the legal principle at issue. We urged the Delaware Supreme Court to reverse Chancery’s finding that Rural/Metro’s directors had breached their fiduciary duties when they approved the company’s sale. NACD believes the Court of Chancery’s decision may expose directors of Delaware corporations to an unreasonable risk of litigation and personal liability for good-faith decisions made on the basis of their reasonable business judgments and in consultation with expert advisors.
Will our line of reasoning in the Rural/Metro amicus brief prevail? Whatever the outcome, NACD’s messages is likely to keep Delaware’s courts focused on standards of good faith rather than an ideal but unreachable goal.
In this regard, we can take heart from precedent. The Rural/Metro friend-of-the-court brief was the second one NACD has filed in recent years. The previous amicus brief, written in 2008 and presented by the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP, addressed the issue of indemnification in the matter of Bohnen v. Troy Corp. 962 A.2d 916 (Del. 2008). NACD asserted that the indemnification protection of former directors should continue past their years of service in legal matters that involved those same years.
Initially, the court could not consider our brief for technical reasons. However, NACD’s position was ratified in 2009 when, in response to concerns expressed by various parties including NACD, the Delaware legislature amended Section 145(f) of the Delaware General Corporate Law. As revised, Section 145(f) provides that a director’s right to receive indemnification or advancement pursuant to a company’s charter or bylaws generally “shall not be eliminated or impaired … after the occurrence of the act or omission that is the subject of the … indemnification or advancement.”
Even now the issue of indemnification remains current. Late last month, in the case of Blankenship v. Alpha Appalachia Holdings Inc., C.A. No. 10610-CB (Del. Ch. May 28, 2015), the Delaware Court of Chancery upheld and clarified the rights of former directors and officers to receive advance defense costs when they are named in litigation connected to their past board service. As stated in a recent article from Gibson Dunn, “This decision reaffirms the strong protection of director and officer indemnification and advancement rights under Delaware law.” The decision in this case cites Section 145 of the Delaware Code more than a dozen times, which demonstrates that NACD is truly making a difference for directors and the companies they serve.
I take governance very seriously, having spent 32 years in the field (ouch! I’m old!), so when it came time to write my blog, it was more like a block (as in writer’s block). Today, in desperation, the NACD “Blogmeister” gave me a simple assignment: name Five Governance Myths.
Where to begin? There are hundreds of them—and we at NACD spend much of our time dispelling them. Our main tool for setting the record straight is our set of Key Agreed Principles, reflecting a consensus of managers, shareholders and directors.
So, what are some of the myths, why do they matter, and how can directors overcome them through action?
Governance Myth Number 1: The fundamental purpose of the board is to represent the desires of shareholders.
This “agency theory” is close, but no cigar. The truth is that the board is there to build the long-term value and sustainability of the corporation on behalf of shareholders and all stakeholders. Believing the agency theory myth causes problems because it cuts other constituents (for example, rank-and-file employees) out of the picture.
Action step for directors: When requesting reports from management, ask for long-term financial projections and constituency impact statements (with proper disclaimers, of course).
Governance Myth Number 2: The main job of the board is to monitor management.
There goes that agency theory again. This isn’t even close, and frankly, it’s insulting (makes it sound like all CEOs and CFOs are crooks). The main job of the board is to select and develop a CEO, who will in turn select and develop a management team that will in turn select talent that can create and market worthwhile products and services. Believing the monitoring myth creates headaches because it puts everybody on the defensive and impairs productivity.
Action step for directors: Work with senior management and the head of human resources to develop and implement a CEO succession plan that empowers managers to be the best they can be.
Governance Myth Number 3: The main purpose of a board or committee meeting is to hear, discuss and vote on proposals from management.
This is fine for Civics 101, but the real world delivers more board value. If your company is using directors in this way, it is wasting a powerful resource. When a company has a fully engaged board, not all ideas come from management; sometimes they come from the board. There are times when instead of giving a long proposal to the board, management is better off making a very short proposal and then asking a question: What do you think? The board meeting then becomes a living proposal. (Indeed, this was exactly how we came up with our Key Agreed Principles mentioned above!) The idea that directors are there only as a sounding board deprives a company of board brainpower.
Action step for directors: Insist that the meeting agendas have short timeframes for presentations and long timeframes for discussion.
Governance Myth Number 4: When considering management proposals, directors only know what senior management tells them.
The fancy name for this is “information asymmetry.” It’s a problem but hardly a universal law. Directors receive information from many sources—including from the results of their own research, and reports from the consultants they are empowered to hire. Under Sarbanes-Oxley Act Section 301, “Each audit committee shall have the authority to engage independent counsel and other advisers as it determines necessary to carry out its duties,” and “each issuer shall provide for appropriate funding … to any advisers employed by the audit committee under paragraph (5).”
Also, remember that audit committees receive direct reports from the internal audit function, which may or may not be part of senior management, and hotlines bring the information connection down to the shop floor. Most governance guidelines specifically permit board members to make and receive direct contact with any employee, as long as they inform the CEO of any non-routine contact. Believing otherwise impedes communication.
Action step for directors: Learn as much as you can about the companies you serve, from as many sources as you can. Rob Galford’s recent post on this subject is a good place to start.
Governance Myth Number 5. When it comes to governance, process is everything.
This is a half-myth, because it’s almost true, but it still misses the mark. To be sure, it is much more important for the board to make a decision the right way than to make the right decision. This is the basic idea behind the judicial concept called the Business Judgment Rule, and it was the great lesson of the 2005 Disney case decided by the Delaware Chancery Court as well. But the problem with believing in this half-myth is that if directors believe process is everything, they may start focusing too much on the mechanics of decision making and avoid making any decisions based on their own experience and intuition, which can sometimes transcend procedures:
Action step for directors: Go through all the proper steps—but don’t get so hung up in process that you miss a chance to make a good decision.