At a mainstage panel during NACD’s 2016 Global Board Leaders’ Summit on September 19, directors, economists, and former regulators discussed the potential regulatory, economic, and geopolitical implications of the coming election and reflected on how corporate directors and executive teams should adjust to greater levels of ambiguity. One of the panelists, Nicholas M. (Nick) Donofrio, director of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., BNY Mellon Corp., Delphi Automotive PLC, Liberty Mutual Co., the MITRE Corp., and NACD, and the former head of innovation at IBM, characterized today’s external environment as “lumpier and more abrupt than even a few years ago,” forcing companies and their boards to be always on alert and to act quickly in response to change.
The panelists offered a range of projections to help corporate directors assess the business impact of the upcoming elections. They emphasized that aside from a new occupant of the White House, the elections also have the potential to drive significant changes in Congress, major regulatory agencies, and the judicial system. The discussion centered on four major questions of importance for companies and the boards that oversee them.
How likely is a major reform of the tax code?
Reform of the corporate tax code is long overdue, said former U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe, director of Aetna, Inc. and the Bipartisan Policy Center. For years, companies have learned to accept the “permanent temporary tax code,” and the resulting policy uncertainty has made investment and capital allocation decisions more challenging. Snowe suggested that even if House and/or Senate control switches from one party to another, it is unlikely that Democratic and Republican congressional leaders will be able to transcend their fundamental differences about taxation and break the current gridlock. Most likely, she believes, the incoming president will use the power of the pen to tweak the current tax code through executive orders.
Should we expect continued regulatory activism?
Troy A. Paredes, director of Electronifie and former Commissioner of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), shared his concern that “the tidal wave of regulations” seen in the past few years won’t slow down, and it will force companies to commit more time and resources to compliance. “Elections are always major inflection points,” he said, that either sustain or reset the policy priorities of the SEC and other key regulatory bodies such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, Paredes urged directors to be alert as to whether Mary Jo White, the current chair of the SEC, will have enough time in her remaining tenure to finish rule-making on key corporate governance matters covered in Dodd-Frank.
Will our political system address skill shortages in the labor market?
Nick Donofrio offered a mixed view of how the country is addressing the looming crisis in the labor market where current skill sets do not align with the future industry needs. “Our political institutions are too polarized to take meaningful action,” he said. However, it’s crucial that the United States build a digitally competent and productive labor force that can be employed to deliver high-tech manufacturing. “We cannot afford to only create [financial] value in this country, but we must also [manufacture] value here. That means returning much more research and development and production to American soil.” In the absence of government investment, he’s optimistic that the private sector will step up to address this critical challenge and find innovative ways to reskill displaced workers.
How will the United States make itself more competitive globally?
Harry Broadman, a seasoned economist and the CEO and managing partner of Proa Global Partners LLC, reminded the audience that the United States faced a similar set of challenges to its global competitiveness in the 1980s when Japan was projected to become the world’s economic leader. A major difference today may be the backlash against free trade, which could jeopardize the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threaten the underpinnings of the European Union. Broadman underlined that it will be critical for U.S. policymakers to remove barriers to foreign investments from high-growth emerging market companies that will contribute to quality job growth. This new generation of enterprises is important to the future of global business, which will no longer be dominated by firms headquartered in the West.
He and other panelists also spoke extensively about the importance of major investments in public infrastructure. America’s crumbling highways, bridges, ports, and technology infrastructure significantly impede further productivity growth, which Broadman believes is the country’s major Achilles’ heel.
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.
As the marketplace grows in complexity and turbulence, it is increasingly clear that true success depends on people. As boards face more disruptions, they will need to ensure the company has the right skills and agility in the talent pipeline to meet these challenges. This topic—talent development—was the subject of this year’s Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) report. In the second session of Tuesday’s Board Leadership Conference, NACD’s Managing Director and CFO Peter Gleason was joined by the chairs of the 2013 Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Talent Development: A Boardroom Imperative Gregory Lau, managing director of the board of directors practice at RSR Partners, and Mary Pat McCarthy, director of Mutual of Omaha and Tesoro, to discuss the commission’s findings and examine the “next” practices in executive talent development.
Why Talent Development?
The reasons for the board to prioritize talent development are obvious. Over 50 percent of a company’s expenses are related to talent and people. “With the right talent,” observed McCarthy, “you can take on more risk than you might otherwise be able to do.” And yet, for the first time in decades, the talent pool is shrinking. When companies do find themselves at an inflection point, they may not easily have the necessary talent on deck.
Both chairs observed that traditionally, the board has focused on CEO succession. One of the report’s recommendations, however, is to have a multi-level, multi-year talent pipeline overseen by the full board. “Directors,” according to McCarthy, “need to think beyond the CEO and the current year.”
Building vs. Buying Talent
Directors need to take a critical look at the organization’s hiring philosophy. Does the company develop and promote from within, or hire from outside? Although there are situations that may require a significant external recruitment strategy—for example, a turnaround situation—internal hires are often less expensive and on average more successful.
Further, oversight of the talent pipeline should not be a “start and stop” process. The chairs recommended that the board continuously monitor the talent pipeline. Directors should spend time as a board thinking about strategy and the skills the company is going to need, and actually allocate time to do a deep dive. Going beyond the company, Lau recommended looking at competitors’ talent to figure out how they are developing their pipeline. A red flag for directors should in fact be that their competitors are consistently recruiting talent from them.
Strategic Human Resources Function
At BRC meetings, a significant portion of the debate was where the authority of talent development should rest in the company. The commission came to the conclusion that the human resources function should serve as a “strategic architect” to the company. The chief human resources officer or equivalent position, in fact, should make sure that the talent development process is “constant, moving, with good results,” according to Lau. “That person should have time on the board agenda, throughout the year, talking to the directors on talent.”
The Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Talent Development: A Boardroom Imperative is available at the NACD Bookstore and free to download for all NACD Full Board Members.