On July 17, NACD hosted a Directorship 2020® forum in Seattle that focused on how disruptive forces are changing the way companies do business. Through keynote addresses, expert panels, and small group discussions, the program provided an in-depth look at environmental and innovative disruptive forces and how boards can oversee management of the risks and opportunities such forces create. This event was held in partnership with Broadridge Financial Solutions, KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute (ACI), Marsh & McClennan Cos., and PwC.
In his keynote address, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) Global Director of Sustainability and Social Innovation Nathan Hurst examined the nexus of environmental issues and innovative technology. Motivated in part by concerns about the anticipated effects of climate change, consumers are more alert than ever to the impacts that businesses and their products are having on the environment. As our increasingly data-driven society shifts to digital media, the new technologies being used to store, manage, and process this data are producing a larger environmental footprint than one might expect. Hurst estimates that if cloud computing were a country, it would rank as the fifth largest country in the world in terms of energy use.
According to Hurst, companies must understand their environmental footprint in order to leverage the opportunities provided by “big data” and other technological tools for managing corporate sustainability. HP, for example, examined its operations, supply chain, and product portfolio to gauge its end-to-end carbon footprint. This assessment involved an organization-wide effort that required expertise and feedback from senior management, information technology departments, and operations departments, which was then used to determine the company’s baseline performance, set sustainability goals, and collaborate with organizational units on initiatives to reach those goals. For Hewlett-Packard, the relationship with supply chain managers was especially important, as the company sought to develop products whose production consumes fewer resources—such as power or water—and generates less waste—such as greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, Hewlett-Packard signed a power purchase agreement with SunEdison, the world’s largest renewable development company, to provide wind-generated electricity to its 1.5 million square-foot data center in Texas. Hewlett-Packard originally set a deadline of 2020 for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent of 2010 levels; however, the SunEdison agreement will enable HP to realize that goal by the end of the 2015 fiscal year.
Hurst succinctly summarized HP’s rationale for its sustainability and social innovation initiatives: the benefits of these initiatives for the company’s reputation and employee engagement, combined with new opportunities for profitable growth, collectively have the potential to produce major gains for HP.
In the second keynote address of the afternoon, Mark Silva, founder and CEO of KITE, spoke on innovation partnerships and described them as a gateway to investments, mergers, and acquisitions. Many companies at the forefront of innovation begin as small start-ups. While these businesses may initially be viewed as competitors with larger corporations, pursuing partnerships can be a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows established companies to embrace the latest wave of innovative ideas, provides start-ups with quick access to infrastructure and resources, and empowers both organizations to unlock growth opportunities. For example, the management team behind Sphero, a toy robot that can be controlled via smartphone or tablet devices, participated in a mentorship program offered by The Walt Disney Co., which subsequently used Sphero’s technology to create a robot featured in its Star Wars franchise. Through this partnership, the Sphero team has realized growth and greater exposure; and by providing a forum in which entrepreneurs can test their ideas, Disney continues to stay abreast of the latest innovations and trends. Other established companies, including Nike and Unilever, have similar brand accelerator programs to rally resources, invest in learning, and develop new capabilities.
Subsequent presentations and panel discussions generated the following key takeaways for board members:
Keep disruptive forces on the agenda. Trends and events that could potentially overturn the company’s business model should be routinely discussed at board meetings so that directors are always aware of and up to date on how management is approaching risks and realizing opportunities. Being proactive and thinking ahead about how to manage disruptors also promotes resiliency when a company faces a crisis. Boardroom discussions should address how the organization can diversify its supply chain so that the success of the business is not dependent on a single link in the chain in order to maintain production. For example, the board might ask management to consider how environmental changes—such as prolonged droughts or severe weather patterns—might lead to new business norms, and to plan how the company will adapt and stay competitive. Panelists agreed that boards need to “ask for the data”: What questions are customers and suppliers posing? What factors are driving their business decisions? What are, or could be, the game-changers in the company’s industry?
Clarify the payoff. Directors should ask management to demonstrate how responses to disruptive trends will impact the company’s bottom line. Nathan Hurst illustrated this point with an example from Wal-Mart, which has worked with several of its suppliers to reduce waste and costs. Noting the high water content of its liquid laundry detergents, the retailer joined forces with Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Church & Dwight to create “doubleconcentrated” detergent, a product that delivered the same washing power as the old formula in just half the volume. Because of doubleconcentrated’s reduced water content, manufacturers could pack the product in smaller plastic bottles. The new product size allowed more bottles of detergent to be packed onto trucks and store shelves, while its lighter weight resulted in lower transportation costs.
Companies can also consider incorporating sustainability metrics into executive compensation plans. Some companies will not embrace sustainability unless it entails demonstrable cost savings or a failure to address environmental impact will cause the company to lose ground to competitors. But, as the Hewlett-Packard and Wal-Mart initiatives illustrate, focusing on sustainability offers a way to drive more efficient business practices, which in turn allows management to make better-informed and more effective decisions.
Furthermore, sustainability reporting can foster positive relationships with both shareholders and the general public. According to an analysis by Gibson Dunn, shareholder proposals on environmental issues—specifically those concerning climate change and greenhouse gas emissions—are among the most frequently submitted types of proposals. NACD’s Oversight of Corporate Sustainability Activities handbook advises that directors should understand how the company has chosen to define sustainability in the context of its strategy, and the board should be comfortable with management’s decisions about how the company communicates sustainability information within the organization and to shareholders. Reporting not only demonstrates the company’s culture and character; it can also give it a competitive edge.
Examine board composition. Another example raised in the panel discussions was that of Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., which had a board composed of bookbinders who, by virtue of their profession, were disinclined to embrace digital innovation. The advent of Internet-based rivals, such as Wikipedia, quickly made the company’s business model and flagship product obsolete.
The board should analyze the company’s current and future business models to see how well the criteria for director selection correspond to those models. Maintaining a balance between tenured directors, who have invaluable insights into the company, and newer directors can present challenges when that new talent pushes against the status quo, which in turn can lead to culture clash within the board. Since culture, by definition, functions to preserve the status quo, it can make or break innovation. By bringing in outside perspectives and people who will question it, the board can keep the company moving forward.
Understanding the behavior of investors, employees, and consumers is a critical success factor for all companies. This can be difficult for corporate directors, however, as America’s demographics are constantly evolving. At this year’s second Directorship 2020® event, NACD partnered with Broadridge Financial Solutions, KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute (ACI), Marsh & McClennan Cos., and PwC to provide an in-depth look at today’s social and demographic trends and how boards can harness the opportunities these often-disruptive forces create.
In his keynote address, Scott Steinberg, CEO of TechSavvy Global and author of Make Change Work For You, affirmed that change is the “new normal.” He emphasized that companies must constantly innovate in order to survive in today’s volatile business environment. Some companies, such as Apple, Amazon, GE, and Samsung, have maintained their competitive edge by mastering the art of “sustainable innovation.” Steinberg pointed out that these companies foster highly collaborative relationships with their employees, who also represent the company’s customer base. By creating avenues for employees to share their observations on emerging threats and opportunities, these organizations are simultaneously constructing platforms to prototype new business products. These collaborative relationships thus enable management to harness the full range of talents that allow an enterprise to continually adapt and grow.
In the second keynote speech, Paul Taylor, former executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and author of The Next America, focused on two major demographic trends that are happening in the United States. First, the bulk of the country’s population is aging. Older generations have always needed the younger ones to drive the economy; the millennials, however—the youngest generation in today’s workforce—are collectively experiencing great difficulty in launching their careers and remain largely dependent on their forebears. Taylor observed that businesses need to mimic these new domestic norms and similarly nurture and invest in millennials to ensure the success of their firms’ future leaders.
Second, Taylor pointed out that by 2050, immigrants will comprise the largest-ever share of the American population: while 20 percent of Americans were of immigrant descent in 1960, that proportion is projected to climb to 37 percent. Not only will this expand the workforce and brainpower of the American economy, but it will also change the demographic complexity of the country’s consumer base. Furthermore, this modern immigration wave has begun to alter traditional attitudes toward racial and ethnic boundaries. For example, children of immigrants are more likely to marry someone of a different race or ethnicity. These trends are already driving business behavior, as contemporary television commercials clearly demonstrate: in an ad for Coca-Cola, the anthem “America the Beautiful” is sung in several languages; and two recent Cheerios ads featured a multi-racial family.
The presentations and discussion in Atlanta generated three key takeaways for directors:
Assess your corporate culture. Corporate culture can often be a significant roadblock to innovation, and many companies stumble because they fail to periodically rethink their identity. A corporate culture that allows for evolution is, by definition, resilient and adaptable. Regard your employees as a wellspring of innovative ideas, because they have the most direct interaction with your customers. Their insights into evolving consumer demands can, in turn, generate your business’s next game-changing idea. A big challenge for many firms is how to encourage employees to speak up, especially at established companies where a the corporate culture has been in place for some time. (FedEx, for example, has a 40-person team that is charged with driving innovation throughout the entire organization.) By contrast, the smaller size and absence of inhibiting precedents at start-ups enable them to be more adept at mining creative solutions from their entire employee base. Spurring and sustaining innovation is about institutionalizing a love of change within your organization. Create forums through which everyone—from the mailroom to the boardroom—feels free to share ideas.
Make educated bets. A lack of risk tolerance is a major barrier to innovation. For companies that are doing well, staying the course may seem like a safe bet; but as the competitive landscape shifts, this approach will ultimately cause the company to falter Create systems that allow the company to take smart risks. In line with the company’s established risk appetite, it’s acceptable—and expected—that a company will have to weather some level of failure. The board can openly discuss unsuccessful ventures with management, leveraging those experiences as learning opportunities instead of viewing them solely as a misstep.
Embrace diversity of all types. According to the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on The Diverse Board:
[A] company’s ability to remain competitive will rely on its understanding of global markets, changing demographics, and customer expectations. Diversity is a business imperative, not just a social issue. The new business landscape will require boards to cast a wider net to find the very best talent available. As a natural corollary, the board’s mix of gender, ethnicity, and experiences will likely increase.
In his speech, Paul Taylor addressed the issue of age diversity specifically. Younger directors with relatively little board experience may be passed over for a directorship because seasoned directors perceive them as lacking the experience and credibility necessary to be effective. However, seeking out non-traditional director candidates (whether that status is determined on the basis of age or other criteria) can be critical to effectively managing a board’s talent pipeline. Established directors have the ability to mentor and develop the next wave of board leadership and, in turn, benefit from the perspectives of new directors who bring varied backgrounds and skill sets into the boardroom.
Look for full coverage of this NACD Directorship 2020 session in the May/June 2015 issue of NACD Directorship magazine.
Now in its third year, NACD’s Directorship 2020® takes an investigative look at the trends and disruptors that will shape boardrooms agendas of the future. This initiative is designed to raise directors’ awareness of these complex emerging issues and enable them to provide effective guidance to management teams as they navigate the associated risks and opportunities. The inaugural 2015 session was held on March 3 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, where subject-matter experts from Broadridge, KPMG, Marsh & McLennan Cos., and PwC and corporate leaders explored the boardroom implications of geopolitical and economic disruption.
Illustrating the boardroom perspective on the impacts of economic and geopolitical disruption on corporate strategy.
In his remarks on economic disruption, Peterson Institute for International Economics Visiting Fellow and International Capital Strategies Executive Chair Douglas Rediker examined the changing face of global competitive markets. Governments around the world are increasingly involved in market activities and are more likely to champion domestic businesses or businesses based in countries with which they have trade agreements. This situation creates a business environment in which companies seeking to expand must assess a foreign country’s protected business sectors in order to fully evaluate the endemic risks and opportunities.
Taking a geopolitical perspective, UBS Executive Director and Head of U.S. Country Risk Dan A. Alamariu considered the ripple effects of government regulation, using a case example of the sanctions recently imposed by the US and EU on Russia. Though these measures did diminish the buying power of the ruble, the sanctions also hurt Western companies operating in Russia because consumers could no longer afford to purchase foreign goods. He cited other examples as well. In its efforts to recover from the financial crisis, the Chinese government has recently implemented a number of economic reforms. While these reforms may succeed in re-establishing China as an “engine of growth,” the infighting that they have triggered among political elites could ultimately dampen growth and set the country on an uncertain course. Closer to home, persistent gridlock in the US government is preventing needed progress on issues critical to the business community, such as tax policy and infrastructure.
Both speakers alluded to the fact that as countries become more divided and inwardly focused—both internally and with respect to international relations—developing collective approaches to major transnational issues such as climate change and cyberattacks will become more challenging. Companies will therefore need to devise their own strategies for addressing these challenges.
Economic and geopolitical disruptors are inextricably linked, and the three main takeaways from both sessions are as follows:
Embrace risk—you may discover opportunities. Directors need to start thinking like emerging markets investors. In other words, they should get comfortable working in a business environment that is volatile and unpredictable. This breed of investor has historically been focused on domestic, regional, and international political and economic risks. Because technology has created a world that is deeply interconnected, investors must proactively cultivate an understanding of geo-economic risks. By extension, it is also important to recognize technology as a major disruptive force that will continue to impact companies across all sectors. For example, tablet devices have completely changed not only how people communicate and access multimedia content but also how companies conduct business. By embracing disruptive technology, companies can in turn create the caliber of differentiated products that will transform the marketplace.
Be prepared. This ageless scouting motto is especially relevant to anyone managing or overseeing a company. Businesses the world over are more interconnected than ever before, which forces companies to compete across national borders and exposes them to international political and economic risks. Boards need to consider the ultimate “black swan” events that could affect their companies. By extension, directors need to be mathematically literate—if they are not already. Black-swan events include natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, which incapacitated businesses in our nation’s financial epicenter; political events, such as the outbreak of war; economic unpredictability; and technological innovation, which we have seen from the automobile to the iPad. Having a by-the-numbers plan for how the company could behave in specific scenarios will create a comprehensive understanding of the risks the business faces. Because it’s impossible to completely protect a company, it is essential to create resiliency. The board must therefore ensure that incident response plans are in place and must routinely test those response plans to confirm that they meet the company’s evolving needs.
Beware of “herd mentality.” Directors need to periodically review the current board composition; and if there are gaps in the board’s collective knowledge that may prevent it from assessing areas of risk, it may be in the board’s best interests to bring in a third-party expert to help inform boardroom discussions. This is especially true of cyber risk. Many boards are still struggling to comprehend the depth and breadth of these threats, and because it’s neither possible nor desirable for every board to have a cyber expert in their ranks, it is imperative to bring in outside sources to inform and educate directors and management.
Look for full coverage of this NACD Directorship 2020 session in the May/June 2015 issue of NACD Directorship magazine.