According to Confucius, one should “study the past if you want to define the future.” With that in mind, President and CEO Ken Daly led the session to officially kick off NACD’s future-defining initiative with panelists that have a storied history in the world of governance. The panel comprised Raymond Gilmartin, former president and CEO of Merck & Co., lead director at General Mills, and the newest member of NACD’s board of directors, and Myron Steele, Chief Justice, Delaware Supreme Court.
Based on the observation that capitalism is undergoing a profound shift as a result of shareholder activism, technology, and regulatory activity, work to define and shape NACD Directorship 2020 has been underway for several months. Starting this spring, NACD held three events to discuss and hone the direction of research topics in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Three areas came to the forefront: information flow, performance metrics, and disruptive technologies. For recaps of these sessions, visit nacdonline.org/directorship2020.
Changes in the Boardroom
According to Steele, the most significant changes in the boardroom have been the shift in dynamic of ownership from retail to institutional investors, and the dominance of independence in the boardroom. In the past, the majority of investors were retail, now 60 to 70 percent of stock ownership is in the hands of institutional investors.
As a result of Enron and WorldCom, Sarbanes-Oxley required the board to become more independent than ever before. And yet, as Chief Justice Steele observed, without an empirical study to support this requirement, the legislation missed the mark. Of the 17 directors on Enron’s board, 15 were independent and it “still resulted in a massive failure of corporate governance.”
In his remarks, Chief Justice Steele stressed his belief that regardless of who comprises the shareholders, authority, balanced with accountability, rests with directors. “It is still fundamentally the responsibility of directors to manage the corporation with oversight, loyalty, and care. Also the underlying dynamic has changed, the authority and accountability of directors has not.”
TSR and Short-Termism
Continuing off a theme that began last night with keynote speaker Raj Sisodia, Gilmartin addressed the increasing focus placed on generating short-term quarterly results. Maximizing shareholder value above all else has reinforced practices that can be detrimental to society. Although some practices, such as laying employees off, are sometimes required, they are currently being used with a frequency that destroys long-term value and the future survival of an institution.
But directors have an opportunity to change this. NACD Directorship 2020, according to Gilmartin, “allows an opportunity to challenge the conventional wisdom that has developed over the last few years.”
Innovation and Risk Taking
Both Chief Justice Steele and Gilmartin emphasized the need for innovation and risk-taking in boardroom culture. In addition to using incentive systems that focus on the creation of long-term value, Gilmartin suggested using the company’s ability to innovate as a performance metric.
Chief Justice Steele addressed the increasingly litigious nature of directorship, which as Ken Daly noted has become, “not if you’ll be sued, but when you’ll be sued.” According to Chief Justice Steele, the business judgment rule is alive and thriving. Directors should feel free to take the necessary bold steps to create economic value. “Society is dependent upon a board being empowered to take risks on behalf of shareholders—that is what builds the economy.”
Without a doubt, directorship has changed. In the last 10 years, the effects of legislation and regulatory activity such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank have significantly expanded the role of the director. Taking into account the current trends of increased shareholder activism, heightened media scrutiny, emerging technologies, and disruptive innovations, it is expected that this role will continue to morph. As these shifts in the economy increase in amplitude and frequency, it is necessary for those in the boardroom to understand and prepare for the future structure of directorship—today.
With this in mind, NACD has launched NACD Directorship 2020 to help directors define and prepare for the emerging challenges and opportunities expected to impact boardrooms in five to seven years. More than an initiative, NACD Directorship 2020 extends from educational programs and roundtable exchanges to published research. Using topics informed by an advisory council composed of boardroom luminaries, academics, and governance experts, feedback from educational programs will shape ensuing research on leading practices for the future. In the coming months, several symposiums will be held across the nation, and the conversation will be continued at our annual Board Leadership Conference in October.
This week, NACD held the first of such symposiums at the Harvard Club in New York City. More than 100 directors attended the afternoon session to discuss two areas: the future state of the risk agenda, and how to select performance metrics that will engender sustainable organizational profit. The symposium was led by NACD President and CEO Ken Daly; Akamai Technologies Lead Director and Audit Committee Chairman Martin Coyne; and former Bell and Howell CEO, current NACD Director, and Northwestern University Professor Bill White. During the highly interactive sessions, questions were posed to attendees who were then able to discuss and provide thoughts among their peers. Takeaways from the event include:
Composition and resourcing is essential to navigating the current and future risks to the boardroom. With the right resources and information and the right people around the table, the boardroom can effectively engage in the critical issues.
Inherent in their role as part-time overseers, directors will always run the risk of information asymmetry: management has the full suite of information about the company’s operations that is then selected and parsed out to the board. The challenge for the board is to communicate its expectations on the type and amount of information it needs for effective oversight.
It is essential that directors trust, but verify. In the boardroom, the culture should be fostered so the executive staff feels they are able to report on the high-risk items and things that keep them up at night. To verify the information presented, directors should go beyond the C-suite, even outside the company. This can include meeting with the heads of business units, or gleaning outside sources of data.
In risk oversight, the board can informally meet with senior management and the internal audit team to develop a list of the top organizational risks. After these risks are identified, the board can have an executive session with an outside expert to gain more knowledge of the areas.
Industry experts on the board may not anticipate the disruptive technologies that have the potential to pose either a huge risk or opportunity to the company. While extremely valuable at the table, industry experts may not always be able to see beyond their acumen. Boards can recruit experts from other industries—who bring the perspective and knowledge of different risks and market forces—to serve as directors.
Total shareholder return (TSR) and financial and operational metrics reflect hindsight. These data can be bolstered with a healthy balance of “early warning” metrics derived from the company’s strategy, such as customer and employee satisfaction, dollar investment per employee, or retention.
Metrics are the operationalization of strategy. If the strategy’s underlying assumptions are flawed, however, the metrics have less significance. Is the board looking at metrics that question the strategy itself? This could include a measurement of the organization’s adaptability changes in the marketplace.
Reputational and stakeholder risk is an area that should receive boardroom attention. Directors should encourage metrics that foster stakeholder engagement as a strategy for risk mitigation.
The long-term health of most companies is determined by its success in being innovative. The company should establish early warning metrics that monitor how its innovation systems generate sustainable cash flows.
The next NACD Directorship 2020 events will be held July 16 in Chicago and Sept. 10 in Los Angeles. Between events, NACD’s blog will feature viewpoints and research from our NACD Directorship 2020 partners—Broadridge, KPMG, Marsh & McLennan Companies, and PwC—that will take a deeper look into the emerging issues and trends that will redefine directorship.
In the midst of the general process to determine the next leader of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), current Chairman Elisse Walter spoke to NACD’s Capital Area chapter this week. The conversation covered a wide range of topics, from diversity in the boardroom to the sequester’s impact on the SEC.
A significant portion of the discussion focused on the auditing profession, including activity from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). Having served on the SEC’s staff in a variety of roles beginning in 1977, Walter has had a front-row seat to the evolution of auditing and oversight. From her perspective, although audit has improved in the years since Sarbanes-Oxley, the improvements have not been enough to meet the current environment. Walter also highlighted the utility provided by PCAOB’s new Auditing Standard 16: Communications with Audit Committees and the proposed changes to the auditor’s reporting model.
On mandatory audit firm rotation—another significant proposed rule from the PCAOB—Walter was less committed. While there are many pros and cons to the concept, she noted the potential impact was uncertain.
PCAOB member Jay Hanson has commented several times on the concept release. Without a causal link between an audit failure and the audit firm tenure, Hanson remarked that he could “not see how the Board could move forward on mandatory rotation.” Furthermore, “mandatory rotation would be extraordinarily difficult to justify through an economic analysis of its costs and benefits.”
Last year, NACD’s National Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council spearheaded an initiative to propose an alternative solution to mandatory audit firm rotation: the audit committee evaluation of the external auditor. On Wednesday—the advisory council’s first meeting in 2013—delegates reviewed the status of the project. Since NACD CEO Ken Daly’s participation in a PCAOB roundtable last fall—during which he presented the assessment tool—the evaluation form has been downloaded over 1,500 times.
While directors wait for the PCAOB to decide its next steps regarding mandatory audit firm rotation, the advisory council outlined areas it plans to focus on in 2013. These include:
The quality of information presented to the board from management. Delegates suggested dashboards that are board- rather than management-oriented.
Cybersecurity and emerging technologies. Cyberterrorism and new technologies, such as social media, present significant risks to companies—oversight of which is often assigned to the audit committee.
Oversight of big data. Increasingly, investors are using data found in sources other than the annual financial report to analyze and make trading decisions. In some cases, the markets have information about a company’s products and performance before the board.
Produced with KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute and Sidley Austin, NACD’s National Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council will next meet in early June. For a summary of the council’s 2012 meeting, visit our Board Leaders Briefing Center.
 The Chairman’s views were her own, not those of the SEC.