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?
A culture of innovation sustains reinvention and breathes life into the organization itself. As high-speed, ever-connected networks and maturing digital technologies enhance ties between organizations and their stakeholders, opportunities to innovate processes, products, and services emerge that were unthinkable a few years ago. With such unmistakable mega-trends in the business environment, the board of directors has a role in ensuring that the organization it serves is not missing out on opportunities to innovate and, as a result, running the risk of getting swept aside by the forces of disruptive change. In this context, the often-referenced adage of “disrupt or be disrupted” gives way to the harsher specter of “innovate or die.”
For organizations that make innovation a priority, the process has traditionally involved designating responsible individuals, setting performance expectations linked to entity objectives, allowing designated innovators to operate in a risk-free environment, monitoring their progress using appropriate metrics, and then holding them accountable for results. However, for most organizations, innovation has been opportunistic and ad hoc.
For innovation to reach its full potential in the digital age, a culture that emphasizes innovation must also encourage diversity, collaboration, empowerment, continuous learning, ingenuity, change enablement, and team performance. Accordingly, it is important to the board’s oversight of the innovative culture to understand how the organization should position itself, even if it has little appetite for competing as a front-runner.
Given that every organization is different, the board should ask management to consider whether the organization is a digital follower, expert, or leader:
Digital follower. The organization has developed a digital strategy and has a proven track record delivering on digital initiatives, which are typically focused on discrete aspects of the customer journey.
Digital expert. The organization has a proven track record of adopting emerging technologies, has achieved high levels of process automation, and quantitatively manages digital aspects of its strategy enterprisewide.
Digital leader. The organization has a proven track record of disrupting traditional business models; digital aspects of strategic plans are continually improved based on lessons learned and predictive indicators.
The approach to innovation is very different for these distinct classes of organizations. Leaders disrupt. Experts aspire to be leaders. Many companies are content to be agile followers, meaning that they frequently reassess and adapt their digital strategy as the market changes. Most businesses are not where they want to be. Many that desire to be followers are in fact beginners. They have multiple digital initiatives underway with objectives that are well-understood, but they lack fully developed digital plans. And many companies that want to be leaders are in fact followers.
Even though they may not know it, some entities are actually skeptics (or observers) because they do not fully buy into the digital revolution and its impact on the business. Usually, these organizations lack formalized digital plans, and their management of digital initiatives is ad hoc. Also, their leadership team may view digital business as mere hype and their business as immune to change.
Neither the skeptic nor the beginner is likely to foster the culture necessary for sustained innovation in the digital age because, at best, they are digital on the edges but not at the core. Therefore, moving beyond these two levels of digital maturity—whether a skeptic or beginner—is desirable.
The challenge for management and the board is to decide the level of digital maturity they desire for the organization. In this context, the digital follower can be a relatively high-performing business. Effective followers play the waiting game, monitor the competitive landscape, and react quickly when necessary to defend market share by enhancing the customer experience. Followers, to succeed, must be agile enough to respond quickly as an early mover, even if they aren’t first movers.
Regarding the assessment of digital maturity, Protiviti’s original research has identified more than 30 empirically supported competencies arrayed across six core disciplines at which digital leaders excel. These competencies consist of capabilities and structural characteristics that can be used to benchmark the organization to identify its strengths and weaknesses.
For example, one of the core disciplines of Protiviti’s digital maturity assessment framework is “organization, structure, and processes.” Within that discipline is the innovation and research competency, which is useful in distinguishing between digital leaders and followers. The point is that competencies can be used to assess an entity’s resilience and likely innovation performance in creating new markets and eventually disrupting existing markets and displacing established incumbents, products, services, and alliances.
These are the real stakes of the innovation game in the digital world. Everything else is small ball.
Companies committed to innovation are confident in facing the future because they know they are playing the right game: viewing innovation as a continuous process rather than a dramatic event. Understanding whether the company desires to be a leader, a follower, or something in between is important, as management’s digital appetite provides directors with the context they need to focus their oversight of the innovation process. If the enterprise is a skeptic or beginner, directors may need to strongly encourage management to assess the organization’s digital readiness and review the results of that assessment with the board. When changes to the corporate culture are needed, the required investments should be made to forge an environment that empowers and rewards employees to test new ideas and take the appropriate risks to make those ideas a reality, without the fear of repercussions or reprisals if they don’t succeed.
There is a buzz in the air about renovating corporate culture in the name of innovation. Directors hear the changing desires of their stakeholders, and are developing a greater understanding of their business’s role for society at large. That buzz guided a recent roundtable discussion in Miami at NACD’s Leading Minds of Governance event.
A panel of governance experts and directors discussed recent trends in corporate governance with a full room of directors (fuller remarks from the panel will follow in the March/April 2018 issue of NACD Directorship magazine). Panelists included:
John Borneman, managing director, Semler Brossy Consulting Group LLC
Stuart R. Levine, nominating and governance committee chair and audit committee member, Broadridge Financial Solutions
Kathleen Misunas, director, Boingo Wireless and Tech Data Corp.; principal, Essential Ideas
Michael Stevenson, partner, BDO USA LLP
Peter P. Tomczak, partner, Baker McKenzie LLP
Highlights from their answers to select questions from directors in the audience follow. Comments have been edited for length.
To Build an Innovative Culture, Start with Hiring
I work in a heavily regulated industry. We’re in a very steady environment, but our industry is changing rapidly in all directions. Helping shift that culture is essential, so I’d love to hear your differing perspectives.
Misunas: I think it starts with the people you hire—and you need the buy-in from your senior staff. The people that are hired help you move in the right direction.
Levine: One of the criteria for hiring should be intellectual curiosity. If you’re hiring people at any level, including on the board, if those people do not express intellectual curiosity, I think you’ve got a problem on your hands. In the boardroom, consider sharing content that stimulates discussions around technology or governance trends. By discussing strategic material, it encourages excellent outcomes.
Misunas: Right. This absolutely should cascade down through the organization. The C-suite alone shouldn’t be concerned with curiosity. The next level should be doing the same thing with their staff, and so on.
Tomczak: When you consider innovation strategy, what does innovation mean to your board? Do you mean bringing in new ideas from outside your industry? If you’re hiring the same 20-year industry veterans, you’re probably going to get the same 20-year-old strategy. I’ve also found that tying individual economic incentives to strategy outcomes is useful, and it’s hard. There’s no right answer to the compensation question and innovation.
Borneman: I’ll add that innovation should be on the CEO’s scorecard. Is it one of the top priorities that you want to hold her accountable to for the organization? You can say it’s important, but if it’s not on the scorecard, you’re merely talking about innovation. There’s no accountability. It doesn’t have to be tied to compensation—to put dollars on it gets tough. But we can find innovation measures in some kind of meaningful, quantifiable way.
Stevenson: I think that when some boards assess themselves, when they probe their expertise, they find that because of the complexity of transactions (for example, in financial instruments and other changes associated with this current business environment), audit committees are finding themselves ill-equipped to handle changes happening in their organizations. As you take a fresh look at your board, understand the other situations that they have been involved with will arm them for change. That’s a critical point to know about members of this committee. Boards that are refreshing [their composition] with this understanding are also the easiest to work with from an audit perspective.
Don’t Miss the ESG Bus
How do we translate ESG into something with real business meaning that management can be held accountable for to deliver results?
Levine: Approaching the governance standpoint, regardless of the business you’re in, we’re all trying to anticipate client and customer needs. If you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds on your board, you risk not understanding the people who are buying your products and services. If you’re looking to deploy capital, and you look around and don’t have representatives on your board of the populations you’re serving, I don’t know how you develop the right strategy.
Misunas: I don’t walk into a business anymore where this is not a topic of conversation. Boards and executives are peeling back the onion to see where their companies stand, and where they should be, on environmental issues. ESG is top of mind for millennials. They speak up about real environmental issues. As a result, companies can look at their distribution lines, for instance. What are our transportation means? What are those contracted companies doing to protect the environment? Could we switch out business partners for a company that is more responsive to these issues?
If there’s no penalty for not doing anything, you’re omitting ESG from culture. I’m not saying you should give an extra reward for doing something, but should there not be some penalty other than getting left off the bus?
Borneman: The penalty is the impact on your business, your employee population, and getting kicked off the bus. It’s not about your bonus. It’s not about compensation. It’s about a longer perspective on business.