It seems recently that one can’t escape reading stories about poor leadership gone wrong. It’s time for action from the boardroom, and it’s no longer good enough to ask unstructured questions about a company’s helpline. Nor is good enough to rely on one’s own experience, instinct, and blind spots in the boardroom to hold management accountable for a healthy culture.
Trust-but-verify culture might be a good way for boards to move forward. While it is critically important to have trust in the CEO, blind trust can only lead to blind alleys where bad cultures can fester and become toxic. The board needs to be equipped with a way to periodically and in a customized and simultaneously adaptable manner understand the company’s culture.
The need for directors of companies to get under the skin of the culture of their organization has never been greater—or more necessary and daunting. Witness the many culture disasters we have recently seen from Uber, Wells Fargo & Co., The Weinstein Co., and Wynn Resorts. Over the past 25 years as a corporate executive, advisor, and board member, I have witnessed and advised on responses to similar instances of culture gone wrong—the good, the bad, the ugly, and, in one or two cases, the uglier. And I have also seen what a good culture can do to propel a company to greater reputational and financial heights (and returns).
It is important to share some of the tools, lessons learned, and insights on how the board can peel back the layers of the culture onion to begin to understand what is going on inside their companies, above and beyond the surface that boards are usually privy to. We start with a look at what happened in 2017 to understand the workplace culture maelstrom that the #MeToo moment has ushered in and crystallized.
A Year in Culture Dysfunction
2017 was a year filled with tales of organizational culture gone wrong. We learned about negative and destructive behaviors in the workplace, mostly perpetrated by powerful leaders, causing serious human, economic, and reputational costs for people and organizations. The toxic workplace cultures extended from the pinnacles of political power to the front lines of manufacturing facilities.
Powered by the ubiquity and raw reach of social media, the #MeToo story quickly became universal—told first by the more glamorous denizens of Hollywood and then extending to the most vulnerable hotel, restaurant, and factory floor workers. All of them were victims of a toxic workplace culture of abuse of power, shame, and lies. Worse still, many victims are submitting to terrible work conditions, are sidelined from needed jobs, or are permanently derailed from pursuing desirable careers and professional passions.
Time magazine’s choice for the 2017 Person of the Year, the “Silence Breakers,” said it all. Though sparked by the Weinstein exposé, the #MeToo story represents the culmination of decades of pent-up workplace silence, lies, cover-ups, manipulation and anger. The overwhelming impact of the #MeToo phenomenon can only be explained by the explosion and maturation of social media, which has led to the amplification and acceleration of reputation risks tied to workplace culture.
Why 2017 Stands Out
Two other relatively recent periods of corporate cultural moments, if we can call them that, come to mind: 2002 and 2008. The downfall of Enron, WorldCom, and others resulted in an uproar about financial accountability and the adoption of Sarbanes–Oxley in 2002. Nearly six years later, we witnessed the downfall of financial giants Lehman Brothers Holdings and Bear Stearns Cos., leading to the humiliation of the U.S. financial sector in general for the massive mortgage and derivative-related scandals, leading to social awakenings such as Occupy Wall Street and the adoption of the Dodd-Frank Act.
While these two watershed moments were important, 2017 was arguably the most momentous year yet for matters of corporate culture. In both the 2002 and 2008 cases, the cultural issue revolved around financial malfeasance. The cultural issue of 2017 is qualitatively different. Challenges are being made against toxic personal behaviors in the workplace perpetrated mainly by leaders against their subordinates, and those actions demand a qualitatively different approach to oversight that is more proactive and requires the ability to look behind the numbers and the dashboards.
By 2017 we had also arrived at the convergence of two other significant developments not fully present or developed before:
the rise of the importance to business of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues (especially in the US, as Europe has long focused on ESG); and
the acceleration and amplified impact of reputation risk associated with ESG risk (which includes workplace cultural issues) because of the age of social media and hyper-transparency.
Companies can no longer reactively manage their reputation in this hyper-transparent environment. Companies have to earn it proactively and watchfully, and getting to the bottom of the culture of their organization is of paramount importance for the C-suite and board.
In this era, the excuse that only shareholders matter no longer holds. Boards and management are responsible to all of their stakeholders for ESG results as well (shareholders, employees, customers, and beyond), which include proactively maintaining and nurturing a healthy workplace culture. In the age of hyper-transparency, it does not pay to turn a blind eye or to wait for a crisis to hit. The rapid-fire downfall of not only Harvey Weinstein but of his entire company, including its damaged board and board members, is the cautionary tale of the day.
On the positive side, there is plenty of evidence that while a toxic culture destroys value, a strong and resilient culture fully championed and embodied by the very top of the organization (read: CEOs and directors) can and will add long-term sustainable value to the company’s reputation and financial bottom line. Such values protect the organization from the crises that will inevitably come and add bottom line financial value, as the famous Johnson & Johnson Tylenol case first demonstrated.
Is our Current Culture Moment Fleeting or Momentous?
We are certainly witnessing a cultural moment. The real question is this: will this moment pass with no more than a whimper, or will it become momentous?
The 2017 stories have definitely awakened awareness at the very top of corporate leadership—at least for now. In one day in December at two major governance gatherings sponsored by NACD in New York City—at Leading Minds of Governance and the NACD Director 100 Gala—this author witnessed how the #MeToo movement was top of mind for directors in general and dominated discussions both public and private throughout that day. Energized directors and experts who were present underscored the importance of action in this moment for the boardroom, and how this topic must be addressed in the long term as part of the board’s responsibility.
Thus, I would argue that this moment is not a fleeting one. The importance of this moment cannot be over-emphasized. It’s one that will be captured by responsible leaders and boards. Indeed, this is a unique time for leaders to step up to their responsibility for creating and owning a healthy workplace culture and for boards to acknowledge and embrace their responsibility: exercising proactive oversight of—and holding management accountable for—creating and maintaining a healthy workplace culture.
The Culturally Attuned Board
The culturally attuned board is one that is organized to understand the company in depth and to leverage that understanding for the success of all its stakeholders. What does that mean in real terms? It means, first, that the board has the tools necessary to understand what the culture really is—to peel that onion to get to the heart of what the tone is not only at the top (in the C-Suite), but also at the grass roots—including among entry-level employees. Second, it means that the board is aware of the red flags that might tip them off to a culture issue or problem. And third, it means that the board does not rest on its laurels but makes the culture conversation a permanent fixture of its work with the CEO, C-suite, and employees generally.
The next blog in this series will describe three specific tools that boards should implement, as well as the ten questions the board should ask to dig deeper and what should be on the board’s culture dashboard.
Dr. Andrea Bonime-Blanc is founder and CEO of GEC Risk Advisory, a strategic governance, risk and ethics advisor, board member, and former senior executive at Bertelsmann, Verint, and PSEG. She is author of numerous books including The Reputation Risk Handbook (2014) and The Artificial Intelligence Imperative (April 2018). She serves as Independent Ethics Advisor to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, start-up mentor at Plug & Play Tech Center, life member at the Council on Foreign Relations and is faculty at the NACD, NYU, IEB and Glasgow Caledonian University. She tweets as @GlobalEthicist. All thoughts shared here are her own.
With headlines trumpeting high-level firings for “inappropriate behavior” in a variety of domains, it’s become more obvious than ever that corporate culture matters, and that boards should oversee it. So what exactly is corporate culture, and how can it be overseen? These questions might sound new, but they are as old as the corporate governance movement that began some 40 years ago when NACD was founded. Indeed, for the past four decades, the role of the board in overseeing corporate culture has been growing in breadth and depth, and much can be learned from history.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 made the board a vigilante against foreign bribes. The original law made it illegal to do business abroad “corruptly” and required “internal controls” through oversight of books and records.
In 1987, the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission put the board on alert against misdeeds not just in faraway lands but down the hall: its Treadway report required independent audit committees to prevent fraud in general.
Another decade later, in 1996, the Delaware Chancery Court’s decision In re Caremark International Inc.said that directors have an affirmative duty to seek reasonable assurance that a corporation has a system for legal compliance. Soon thereafter, NACD published its first handbook on ethics and compliance, authored by NACD pioneer Ronald “Ronnie” Zall, an attorney and educator then active in the NACD Colorado Chapter, which later established the Ronald I. Zall Scholarship in his honor.
In late 2007, as global equity markets went into panic mode, NACD forged Key Agreed Principles of Corporate Governance for U.S. Public Companies, highlighting all areas of agreement among management (the BRT), directors (NACD), and shareholders. Our report, published in 2008, stated that boards must ensure corporate “Integrity, Ethics & Responsibility.” NACD Southern California Chapter leader Dr. Larry Taylor began writing on “tone at the bottom,” publishing a series of articles and books on the topic over the next several years.
And now, in 2017, board oversight of culture has become more important than ever. Our NACD 2017 Blue Ribbon Commission Report on Culture as a Corporate Asset provides useful guidance.
NACD’s 2017 Commission made 10 recommendations, starting with this one:
The board, the CEO, and senior management need to establish clarity on the foundational elements of values and culture—where consistent behavior is expected across the entire organization regardless of geography or operating unit—and develop concrete incentives, policies, and controls to support the desired outcome. The Commission report explains that these foundational elements involve two sets of standards: first, the values and behaviors that help the company excel and that are to be encouraged, and second, the behaviors for which there is zero tolerance.
As I write this blog in December 2017, the business media are continuing to report firings or sabbaticals for executives—some 20 in the past eight weeks alone—over reportedly inappropriate conduct or speech. Many of these pertain to sexual harassment, but the corporate desire to clean house seems to be spreading like wildfire to other domains. One executive was recently fired for making a disparaging remark about regulators in private conversation to a former employee. Could a policy have prevented this? I think so.
Click to enlarge in a new window.
The NACD Commission urges a proactive approach backed by policies and training. The good news is that many companies are taking preventive action. A Wall Street Journal article titled “Harassment Scandals Prompt Rapid Workplace Changes” cites numerous companies that are instituting training to avoid bad behavior in the workplace. Some like Vox Media and Uber Technologies are responding to scandals. Others like Dell, Facebook, Interpublic Group of Cos., and Rockwell Automation are acting more proactively.
Boards in these companies and others are starting to oversee culture in proactive ways, but they still have a long way to go. Our most recent 2017–2018 NACD Public Company Governance Survey found that oversight of culture is stronger at the top than at lower levels, but that boards are taking steps to correct the imbalance.
The best cultures don’t happen by accident. They are intentional. They happen when a company makes a concerted effort to foster a good culture.
In the final mainstage panel discussion of the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Richard Edelman, the CEO of communications marketing firm Edelman, spoke with Nicholas Donofrio and Helene Gayle about how corporate culture drives long-term value. He preceded the conversation by offering some sobering statistics. Since 2001, Edelman has researched and measured the trust invested in business, nongovernmental organizations, media, and government by the public. It found that, around the world, only 47 percent of the general population thinks these institutions are trustworthy.
Little more than half (52%) of respondents say they trust businesses. CEO credibility dropped in all countries surveyed, reaching an all-time nadir of 37 percent. Fearful over disappearing employment opportunities, people perceive their current way of life as being threatened, resulting in a rise in protectionist, antitrade sentiments. In addition, looking at survey responses from the investor community, 76 percent of investors indicated that companies should address one or more social issues, ranging from employee education and retraining to environmental issues.
From Edelman’s point of view, business is the last fortification defending public trust in our age-old social institutions. “The board matters,” Edelman said. “Reputation matters. Are you engaged when a company is considering the issues of the day? You have to be. You can’t sit back and let management do this themselves.”
When looking to solve the widespread issue of flagging trust in businesses, directors may do well to take a look at corporate culture. Healthy corporate cultures help drive bottom-line results, increase customer satisfaction, and attract top talent at all levels of the organization. And in the past year alone, media headlines in industries ranging from banking to healthcare to entertainment to automotive manufacturing have highlighted examples of how deficient corporate culture can lead to financial and reputational disaster. As both a source of competitive advantage and as a potential risk, culture is a natural component of boardroom agendas. Yet all too often, it is regarded as a secondary human-resources issue that gets directors’ attention only when a problem arises. In NACD’s most recent public company governance survey, less than half of directors reported that their boards assessed the alignment between the company’s purpose, values, and strategy in the last 12 months.
To upend the common perception of culture as a soft issue, NACD convened directors and governance professionals to develop practical guidance that directors can use to enhance their culture-oversight practices. The resultant publication, The Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Culture as a Corporate Asset, makes ten recommendations on culture oversight and offers associated action steps and tools for directors. Donofrio, a director of Bank of New York Mellon, Advanced Micro Devices, and Delphi Automotive PLC, and Gayle, a director of the Coca-Cola Co., the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, co-chaired the commission.
“In many ways, the issue of trust is aligned with issues of culture,” Gayle observed. “While we have a sense of what our culture is, we haven’t defined it and put those pieces together so that culture can be a unifier across those issues.”
“It truly is not just about [financial] results anymore,” Donofrio added. “It’s about what you did and how you did what you did.” And if board members have concerns about how those results were achieved, it’s time to start asking the CEO and management team questions about the beliefs, protocols, and procedures underpinning the company’s performance. If the chief executive is resistant to examining these issues in an open dialogue with directors—or, worse, is taking positions contrary to the company’s espoused culture and values— that is a sign the company does not have the right leadership in place. As Gayle emphasized, “Creating and managing the company’s culture is the responsibility of the CEO and management team. Culture oversight, and holding leaders accountable for a vibrant and healthy culture, is the board’s job.”
Regarding the rising importance placed on a company’s stance on social issues such as education, the environment, or free trade, Gayle advised that directors frame boardroom discussions on these matters in terms of how a given issue is aligned with the business and take into consideration the communities in which the firm operates and the customers it serves. When Edelman asked if board recruitment should include asking directors about their views on key social issues, Donofrio said that these discussions ultimately tie in to the director-recruitment process, where the criteria for board candidates should include their ability to contribute to and support healthy culture—in the boardroom and across the firm as a whole.
Gayle agreed. “How you relate to society is part of how the company sees itself and how the company expresses its culture. Having a well-thought-out position on how [a particular social issue] furthers the business, how it creates an environment of trust, and how it fosters talent—all those things have to do with culture.”