With the principle of the rule of law and democratic governance under siege in numerous parts of the world, corporate board members are increasingly considering how global events are creating mounting risks to both their businesses and the bottom line.
These actions are taking place in jurisdictions that have long been high risk for companies. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Venezuela, and Myanmar, for example, have for some time presented operational challenges as a result of poor governance. In recent years, however, countries thought of as bulwarks for the rule of law have also begun to present challenges for businesses. Some argue that these include the United States, a country that traditionally has been known as a powerful advocate for the rule of law and democratic values and the long-time guarantor of the system of global governance, and the United Kingdom, where the legal and regulatory uncertainty caused by Brexit has seen many investment decisions put on hold.
Just in the last few weeks actions taken by the United States with rule-of-law implications have given some in the business community great pause. US actions regarding Chinese telecom company ZTE Corp. have raised questions as to whether a law enforcement action against a corporate entity can be used as a point of leverage in an international trade negotiation. Notwithstanding policy arguments for and against, the US’s withdrawal from the Iran agreement and pending re-imposition of secondary sanctions create significant uncertainty both for international businesses making investment decisions in Iran, and with respect to the US’s long-term commitments to international agreements. Many also note that America’s executive in chief has imposed considerable pressure on elements of the Federal government whose independence has long underpinned the rule of law in the United States, from individual judges and the judiciary to members of Congress, to law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This pressure has at times taken the form of quite personal attacks that set a concerning precedent, including for businesses that must ask whether they could become a target for a president who dislikes what they may be doing.
It is no secret that businesses do well in jurisdictions where the rule of law is strong: where contracts are enforceable, where fair judicial decisions are rendered without unreasonable delay, where assets aren’t arbitrarily seized or contracts arbitrarily renegotiated, where laws and regulations are transparent and applied fairly, where bribes need not be paid for discretionary actions by government. These are environments where businesses thrive. Indeed, as a 2015 Report by law firm Hogan Lovells and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law makes clear, there is a strong correlation between foreign direct investment in a country and the existence of a sound rule of law.
Businesses also do well where basic principles of the rule of law and associated norms are embedded. The separation of powers, the existence of a resilient and independent law enforcement system, and basic respect for truth and fact-based decision making are all important contributors to business success.
Finally, the existence of a strong rule of law correlates with broader societal thriving, making for an invigorated source for customers, employees, partners, and suppliers.
Given this reality, it is imperative that boards be sensitive to the range of rule-of-law issues that impact their businesses, even in jurisdictions where they least expect it. This means considering specific risk factors involving rule of law, above and beyond more generic political risk factors, whenever contemplating entry into new jurisdictions. The same can be said for assessing merger and acquisition or joint venture prospects, even in places where rule of law issues aren’t on the front page of newspapers every day. Indeed, a broad range of rule of law risk factors should be included in standard risk matrices so that business-critical issues such as prospects for the enforceability of contracts, or the ability to get a fair and timely judicial decision, or the independence of law enforcement are specifically considered when assessing risk. Existing governance and compliance frameworks can readily be adapted to reflect rule of law issues, alongside human rights and other risk issues. Rule of law matters should be included on the agenda of board meetings when appropriate.
In addition, boards should consider their companies’ own self-interest in the existence of a strong rule of law, and decide what their role might be in encouraging better governance, both within the companies themselves and in the environments where they operate. Many high-profile businesses have stepped up in recent months to publicly support such issues as countering climate change (as occurred when the US withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement last year, which precipitated an outpouring of commitments by businesses to meet the goals set out), or in response to gun violence (as with Dick’s Sporting Goods following the Parkland school shooting), for instance.
In this regard, business can serve as a champion of good governance and the rule of law, advocating for improving the standards of governance where appropriate, and initiating collective efforts with like-minded companies with shared interests in stronger rule of law. Chambers of Commerce and other trade associations can be powerful voices when it comes to advocating for a strong rule of law that encourages foreign investment and secures stable business environments. Directors can urge the associations they are involved in to initiate efforts to support the rule of law, helping to bring to bear the influence and credibility of the business community to move the needle, in a positive way, on the quality of governance and the rule of law. Further, there are business-driven associations that provide a platform for collaboration to support the rule of law.
With the rule of law being challenged in so many countries around the world, businesses have both a strong interest in and ability to contribute to fostering a strong rule of law everywhere. Businesses, and their directors, should be part of the urgent work to publicize and mitigate what it is we as a global community will lose if the rule of law is undermined.
Ulysses Smith is a US-based lawyer and director of the Business and the Rule of Law Program at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. All thoughts are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of NACD.
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.
Over the next few years, the digital revolution will force many organizations to undertake radical change programs and, in some cases, completely reinvent themselves to remain relevant and competitive. Ask executives and directors what their company’s biggest threats are, and chances are the answer will include the threat of disruptive innovation. That said, is disruptive innovation sufficiently emphasized on the board agenda?
Our experience indicates that most boards do not fully grasp the opportunities and risks associated with digital transformation. There are four important activities for organizations to consider as they contemplate what digital means to their business and strategy.
1. Assess digital competencies. Protiviti’s original research has identified more than 30 competencies at which digital leaders excel. These competencies consist of empirically supported capabilities and structural characteristics that can be used to benchmark the organization. They are arrayed across six core disciplines that many traditional businesses struggle with:
vision, mission, and strategy;
management and employee culture;
organization, structure, and processes;
communication, marketing, and sales;
technology innovation and development;
and big data, analytics, and automation.
An example of a competency related to “vision, mission, and strategy” is that executive management must have a clear understanding of the potential impact of digital disruption in the industry segments in which the organization operates and be able to articulate a clear strategic vision fit for the digital age. In addition, digital strategy-setting and review should be a continuous activity for the business and in the boardroom.
Competencies can be useful when plotting the path toward digital maturity. The strategy should reflect the competencies that currently define the organization and address the absence of those which present barriers to success. This is important because the digital age is forcing organizations to radically rethink how to engage with customers and pursue design breakthroughs for improving processes and functions continuously. That means they must balance outside-the-box thinking with the practical considerations of repositioning the business. Many strategies ignore these fundamental issues, resulting in a business that is digital on the edges but not at the core. Our view is that a truly digital business has a digital core.
2. Define and refine continuously the digital vision and strategy. Organizations need to make a conscious decision about whether they are going to lead as the disrupter of the industry or, alternatively, play a waiting game, monitor the competitive landscape, and react only when necessary to defend market share. For many companies, the answer may be somewhere in between. For organizations choosing not to actively disrupt the status quo, their challenge is to be agile enough to react quickly as an early mover. Few are ready for that challenge, however.
A leader of the organization must own responsibility for understanding the competitive landscape, the opportunities emerging technologies present, and the threats to existing revenue streams. Management must frame the digital vision and the strategic initiatives supporting it around the enterprise’s core competencies. The vision must reflect the direction in which relevant digital technology is trending. It should express how technology can elevate the company’s differentiating core competencies and deliver unique customer experiences. With technology and regulations changing, and innovation happening so rapidly, the business needs to review and refine its digital priorities constantly.
3. Define the target operating model. Too often policies, processes, and organizational structures get in the way of a business becoming and remaining digital. The key is to empower, trust, and monitor people, not control them. That’s a different way of thinking for organizations rooted in “command and control” structures. The business should clearly define where it’s going in its vision and strategy, and management must recruit and train the right people while ensuring that the enterprise’s policies, processes, and systems are suitable to compete in a digital world.
Accordingly, management should define the processes, organization, talent, methodologies, and systems comprising a future operating model that remains true to the company’s identity and brand promise. In the rush to become digital, the importance of policies shouldn’t be forgotten to address risks and ethical questions leaders must consider.
With the current and future states defined, improvement plans should be developed to close the gaps based on industry best practices and reviewed with executive management and the board. The risks associated with the target state should be identified and assessed against the entity’s risk appetite. In this respect, management should be careful to avoid understating the hyper-scalable business model component of digital transformation. Digital thinking requires organizations to solve the problem of rapid growth and scalability to rely primarily on technology rather than people, as opposed to the traditional focus on scaling ahead of demand.
4. Align the organization with the needed change. Using digital technologies to improve products, services, and processes requires focus and discipline. To enable continuous or breakthrough change with confidence, buy-in must be obtained from executive management and the board for significant changes in strategy, processes, and systems. Support also is needed from business-line leaders, operating personnel, and process owners affected by the change. The communication of change and its implications must address why a digitally-focused culture is necessary for the entity to survive and thrive, and offer a compelling case that the interests of employees and the enterprise are inextricably tied to effecting change.
Depending on a director’s perspective, the exciting or worrisome truth is that the digital revolution is just getting started. Even when executives are aware of emerging technologies that obviously have disruptive potential, it is often difficult to have the vision or foresight to anticipate the nature and extent of change. That is why every organization must chart its own digital journey.
To that end, the board should be engaged in all of the above activities, from readiness assessment to organizational alignment. When addressing digital, directors should recognize the signs of organizational short-termism and executive management’s emotional investment in traditional business models. Ultimately, the board must ask the necessary questions to encourage management to advance the enterprise’s digital journey at a pace that will sustain the company’s sources of competitive advantage and market position.