Corporate directors are confronted with a variety of recently proposed governance standards, while activist investor campaigns are challenging both board composition and board effectiveness by targeting individual directors. Given the high level of personal reputational risk and the associated long-term financial consequences now faced by directors, a hard look at the adequacy of company-sponsored director and officer (D&O) risk mitigation and board compensation strategies is timely.
The Bedrock of Certainty Shifts
Shifting stakeholder expectations are codified in the frequently conflicting governance standards published in recent years. Following the National Association of Corporate Director’s own 2011 Key Agreed Principles, there are now draft voting guidelines from Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis & Co.; standards from groups such as the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (regulator), CalSTRS (investor), the G20, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (influencer); and, most recently, the Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles from a group of CEOs led by JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon.
This proliferation of standards reflects differing stakeholder expectations and gives direct rise to new risks for directors. With these new risks and expectations emerge associated questions about the adequacy of current governance strategies, company-sponsored reputation-risk-mitigation packages, and director compensation.
Because the board is the legal structure administering governance, the standards that boards choose to guide their oversight have legal force. Furthermore, detailed, prescriptive standards have instrumental force.
For instance, ISS and CalSTRS are promoting highly prescriptive standards. ISS is exploring specific “warning signs” of impaired governance, including monitoring boards that have not appointed a new director in five years, where the average tenure of directors exceeds 10 or 15 years, or where more than 75 percent of directors have served 10 years or longer. CalSTRS expects two-thirds of a board to be comprised of independent directors, and defines director independence specifically as having held no managerial role in the company during the past five years, equity ownership of less than 20 percent equity, and having a commercial relationship with the company valued at no more than $120,000 per year.
The Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles released this summer was an effort to share the thoughts of the 5,000 or so public companies “responsible for one-third of all private sector employment and one-half of all business capital spending.” Certain background facts may lead some stakeholders to discount the Principles. For example, in addition to Dimon, the list of signatories was comprised mostly of executives who hold the dual company roles of chair and CEO. Also, according to the Financial Times, eyebrows have been raised by CEO performance-linked bonuses of about 24 to 27 times base pay at BlackRock and T. Rowe Price, two asset manager companies with executives who were signatories. Coincidentally, these asset manager companies were ranked among the most lenient investors with respect to the executive pay of their investee companies, according to the research firm Proxy Insight.
These standards can be deployed by checklist, and boards can be audited for compliance to the specifics of the adopted standards. But, more importantly, the very existence of these standards lends them authority through expressive force. What they express—or signal, in behavioral economic parlance—is intent, goodwill, and values. Signaling is valuable in the court of public opinion.
Personal Protection Strategies
As reported in NACD Directorship magazine earlier this year, activists often wage battle in the court of public opinion to garner public support when mounting an attack against a company. Emphasizing the personal risks, the Financial Times reported in August that “Corporate names are resilient: when their images get damaged, a change of management or strategy will often revive their fortunes. But personal reputations are fragile: mess with them and it can be fatal.”
Make no mistake: this risk is personal. A director’s damaged personal reputation comes with material costs. Risk Management reported in September that the opportunity costs to the average corporate director arising from public humiliation were estimated at more than $2 million.
Among the many governance standards, pay issues are the third rail of personal reputation risks. “If companies don’t use common sense to control pay outcomes, [shareholders have to question] what else is going on at the organization and the dynamic between the chief executive and the board,” an asset manager with Railpen Investments told the Financial Times recently. Clawbacks may be the most disconcerting pay issue because the tactic places directors personally between both the investment community and regulators.
Governance standards just over the horizon may give boards succor, and reputation-risk-transfer solutions may have immediate benefits. Since 2014, the American Law Institute (ALI) has been developing a framework titled, “Compliance, Enforcement, and Risk Management for Corporations, Nonprofits, and Other Organizations.” Members of the project’s advisory committee include representatives from Goldman Sachs & Co., HSBC, Google, Clorox, and Avon Products; diverse law firms offering governance advisory services; law schools; regulators including the Department of Justice; and representatives from a number of prominent courts. According to the ALI, the project is likely to hold an authority close to that accorded to judicial decisions.
The ALI work product remains a well-protected secret, but the project is expected to recommend standards and best practices on compliance, enforcement, risk management, and governance. It can be expected that the ALI standards will reflect the legal community’s newly acquired recognition of the interactions between the traditional issues of compliance, director and officer liabilities, and economics; and the newer issues of cognitive and behavioral sciences. Such governance standards will likely speak to the fact that while director and officer liability will be adjudicated in the courts of law, director and officer culpability will be adjudicated in the courts of public opinion.
Insurance Solutions Available Now
Boards that qualify for reputational insurances and their expressive force can mitigate risks in the court of public opinion. An NACD Directorship article noted earlier this year, “ . . . these reputation-based indemnification instruments, structured like a performance bond or warranty with indexed triggers, communicate the quality of governance, essentially absolving board members of damaging insinuations by activists.”
Given the increased personal reputational risks facing directors and the long-term financial consequences arising, it may be time for an omnibus revisit of the adequacy of both director compensation and company-sponsored D&O risk mitigation strategies in the context of an enhanced, board-driven approach to governance, compliance, and risk management.
Following the guidelines of the ALI’s project once they are published is a rational strategy. After all, the work product will be one that will have already been “tested” informally in the community comprising the courts of law, and will be designed to account for the reality of the courts of public opinion. And no firm today has natural immunity to reputation damage—even Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway appears to be in the ISS crosshairs. Reputational insurances which, like vaccines, boost immunity, are available to qualified boards to counter all that is certain to come at them in this upcoming proxy season. And for those who insist on both belts and suspenders, hazardous duty pay may seal the deal.
Nir Kossovsky is CEO of Steel City Re and an authority on business process risk and reputational value. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Paul Liebman is chief compliance officer and director of University Compliance Services at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.