Tag Archive: shareholders and stakeholders

A Closer Look at the Emerging Debate Over Board Tenure

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Steven Haas

The appropriate length of service by a company director is an emerging issue in corporate governance that yields varying responses among large shareholders, proxy advisors, and directors themselves. Recent board tenure concerns center around a director’s ability to remain independent after extended service, lack of industry expertise and technological familiarity, and poor diversity on corporate boards. Conversely, long-tenured directors can be beneficial because of their deep knowledge of the company acquired through service, the continuity and stability they offer, and their grasp of the historical perspectives that can inform current company strategy. As this issue continues to draw attention from various interested constituencies, corporations should continually assess board composition and consider their current policies on director tenure as shareholders become more attuned to extended service and its implications.

The Current State of Director Tenure in the U.S. and Abroad

No overarching law or regulation currently limits the length of board service in the United States. In fact, few United States public companies address board tenure directly in their bylaws. According to SpencerStuart, approximately 3 percent of company boards in the S&P 500 have specified term limits for directors. Only 17 companies in the S&P 500 set term limits for their directors in 2012, with no company adopting a term of less than 10 years. That same year, board turnover on the S&P 500 reached a 10-year low, reflecting the trend toward directors remaining in their positions.

Mandatory retirement ages are more common. SpencerStuart reports that 72 percent of companies in the S&P 500 have mandatory retirement ages, which reflects a 6 percent increase since 2003. Of those, the mandatory age exceeds 72 in 88 percent of corporate boards. Over the last 10 years, the percentage of boards with mandatory retirement ages of 75 or older has increased from 3 percent to 24 percent, while the percentage of boards with a mandatory retirement at age 70 decreased from 51 percent to 11 percent. Moreover, some U.S. public companies allow boards to waive the mandatory retirement age for directors, which is typically between age 72 and 75, according to David A. Katz and Laura A. McIntosh, authors of Renewed Focus on Corporate Director Tenure.

The lack of term limits and mandatory retirement ages promotes extended board service. Last year, 20 percent of U.S. corporate boards in the S&P 500 had an average director tenure of at least 11 years. The median age of directors was 63.

Director tenure limits are more prevalent outside the United States. The European Commission notes that an appropriate maximum tenure for a director is three terms, or 12 years. The United Kingdom employs the “complain or explain” model, which presumes that directors are no longer independent after nine years of service unless a company can explain why it has determined that a director remains independent after they reach the presumption threshold. France employs one of the most stringent guidelines for independent directors, capping director service at 12 years, though this does not give France the lowest average director tenure in Europe. That distinction goes to Germany, with an average director tenure of five years., Collectively, Europe has relatively shorter board tenures on average compared to the United States, which is 8.6 years. For reference, Spain has the highest average tenure in Europe at 7.7 years. In Asia, Hong Kong does not limit director service, but companies appointing an independent director to serve longer than nine years must employ a separate vote for the director using a special resolution.

Calls for Change

Recently, shareholder advocates have pushed director tenure to the forefront. Institutional Shareholder Services has been visible in highlighting potential issues with corporate director tenure, with its new Governance QuickScore 2.0 program. The product, which uses specific governance factors and technical specifications to rate company governance, takes director tenure into account. According to ISS, “[a] tenure of more than nine years is considered to potentially compromise a director’s independence.” ISS has not disclosed the weighting that each metric will actually have, so it is unknown how much impact long-tenured directors will have on a company’s QuickScore rating.

ISS has yet to alter its voting policy outside of QuickScore such that tenure can lead to a determination that a director is not independent. ISS does urge shareholders to vote against proposals to limit tenure by mandatory retirement ages or term limits, but it suggests shareholders scrutinize the average tenure of alldirectors if their tenure exceeds 15 years in order to promote independence and alternative perspectives.

State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) revised its view on board tenure in 2014 to reflect its support for board refreshment and planning for director succession. According to SSGA’s Head of Corporate Governance Rakhi Kumar, the new policy is “designed to identify companies with a preponderance of long-tenured directors, which may indicate a lack of refreshment of skills and perspectives . . . . [L]ong tenure may also diminish a director’s independence.” Though SSGA does not consider long-tenured directors to be entirely ineffective, SSGA discourages their presence on committees where “independence is considered paramount,” including the audit, compensation, and nominating/governance committees.

SSGA has indicated that it will screen companies based on whether their average board tenure is above one standard deviation from the average market tenure. If a company has a longer-than-average board tenure, SSGA will further screen it for (a) whether one-third of the non-executive directors have tenures in excess of two standard deviations from the average market tenure and (b) classified board structures. Following this screening, SSGA has indicated it may vote against the chair of the nominating committee, long-tenured directors serving on key committees, and/or (c) both the members of the nominating committee and long-tenured directors at companies with classified boards. SSGA, however, has not provided additional details on how it computes average board tenure.

The Council of Institutional Investors supports board turnover in order to guard against a “seasoned board member” losing his or her independence or thinking more like an insider over time. Further, CII’s policy highlights the high salaries that accompany director positions, and how the compensation fails to promote board refreshment. It is estimated that S&P 500 companies pay independent directors an average annual salary of $250,000. Despite an updated policy, however, CII refuses to deem its policy as endorsing a tenure limit, highlighting that removing long-tenured directors “could rob the board of critical expertise.”

Glass Lewis & Co. pushes back on the idea of an inflexible rule limiting director service. Glass Lewis believes such inflexible limits may not provide benefits or returns for shareholders. Its 2014 proxy policy thus reflects the idea that term and age limits are not in shareholders’ best interests, and that there is no evidence of a connection “between either length of tenure or age and director performance.” Nevertheless, Glass Lewis supports “periodic director rotation” through shareholder monitoring to promote fresh perspectives, new ideas, and business strategies. Glass Lewis notes that if a company does have an age or a term limit, shareholders should vote against the board waiving its self-imposed limit absent extenuating circumstances like a merger.

The Effects of Board Tenure Limits

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to board tenure. There are merits to imposing board tenure limits at some companies, specifically the potential to promote the independence of corporate directors by limited extensive service. Some directors may also become complacent or out of touch with the company or industry after extensive service. Replacing long-tenured directors may offer a new opportunity for the company to infuse fresh perspectives into the board, whether it may be in corporate strategy or industry expertise. In addition, boards can use mandatory retirement ages or term limits to avoid otherwise unpleasant conversations with directors whom the board believes should retire.

Despite the potential benefits of mandatory director refreshment, there is no strong indication that long-serving directors are not independent, which is the primary concern of those who criticize extended board service. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to term limits or mandatory board refreshment would restrict or remove experienced, knowledgeable board members arbitrarily and create situational difficulties for the company going forward. As noted above, long-tenured directors are often the most knowledgeable about the company and offer stability, particularly during changes in senior management. In addition, at some companies the most long-tenured directors often exercise considerable influence over less-tenured senior management. These factors balance heavily against any strict rule on board tenure. Additionally, term limits offer the potential to interfere with the development of effective collaboration among board members that have developed strong working relationships over the course of their tenures.

It remains to be seen if the increased attention on board tenure will have a significant impact on the corporate governance of U.S. public companies going forward, or if the international trends will be imitated in the United States. Mandatory term limits applicable to all U.S. companies are inappropriate. Rather, companies should continue to have the choice of whether to impose restrictions on board tenure. The important issue, therefore, is how companies make that choice.  We suggest a thoughtful consideration of board composition by nominating committees, boards and shareholders on a case-by-case basis that considers tenure, expertise in the particular industry, knowledge about a particular company, diversity, director competency, and the company’s success over the director’s tenure. Boards must also carefully assess their own composition in light of various experiences, backgrounds, skills, and traits that could enhance board performance. Boards themselves, along with input from their shareholders via annual director elections and shareholder engagement, are best equipped to assess whether to retain or remove their own directors, and should not be burdened by a uniform rule that may potentially yield unintended consequences to the detriment of the company and the shareholders.


Steven Haas is a partner in Hunton & Williams’ Richmond, VA, office. He represents clients on corporate governance and M&A matters. He also regularly counsels clients with respect to corporate governance issues and fiduciary duty litigation.

Culture and Leadership Critical for Future Boards

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The rate and complexity of change in the marketplace is greater than ever before—and not showing any signs of slowing. From innovation and disruptive technologies to regulatory activity and stakeholder scrutiny, companies are constantly presented with new risks and challenges. As NACD’s new Chair Reatha Clark King observed, writer William Gibson captured the inflection point most corporate boards find themselves approaching: the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. As these changes force global economic shifts, it is necessary for those in the boardroom to understand and prepare for the future structure of directorship now.

This week, NACD held the second in a series of exploratory meetings in Chicago to discuss how the boardroom can define and prepare for the challenges and opportunities expected in the next five to seven years. This meeting series—held in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles—will culminate in the kickoff of NACD Directorship 2020 at the 2013 NACD Board Leadership Conference. An effort to provide directors with a clear vision of what their roles will resemble in the future, NACD Directorship 2020 will extend from educational programs and roundtable exchanges to publications, all shaped by feedback from these events.

At the Langham Hotel in Chicago, more than 100 directors attended the afternoon session to discuss two topics: the future state of communications between the board and C-suite and how to select performance metrics that will generate sustainable organizational profit. Sessions were led by NACD President and CEO Ken Daly; Akamai Technologies Lead Director and Audit Committee Chairman Martin Coyne; NACD Chair King; and former Bell and Howell CEO, current NACD Director, and Northwestern University Professor Bill White. During the highly interactive sessions, each table was given a specific set of questions to discuss and provide thoughts among their peers. Takeaways from the event include:

  • Directorship is a part-time job with full time accountability. Inherent in the board/C-suite relationship is an information imbalance. However, with the right culture and board leadership, the board and senior management can easily communicate expectations and necessary information.
  • A CEO’s leadership style can serve as an indicator that the risk of information asymmetry has become too high. Directors establish a level of trust with the CEO and management to allow for board access to other members of the senior team, as well as site visits to see the company’s operations.
  • With an expanding board agenda, process and expectation setting are critical. The board should clearly communicate to management the types and format of information that need to be presented.
  • An empowered lead director or non-executive chair can help mitigate the risk of information imbalance. By facilitating communication channels and work between the independent directors and the CEO, this leadership position can break down some of the road blocks that may develop between the C-suite and directors. The relationship between the CEO and lead director or chair should be transparent.
  • Culture is critical in effective dialogue between the board and senior management. With the right culture, directors can be sure they are aware of the risks that are keeping the CEO up at night.
  • Sharing information via performance metrics, which are focused on what directors need to know, can bridge gaps in information flow. Ultimately, the board has to make winning decisions which are informed by data.
  • Today, directors balance short-term shareholder expectations with generating long-term sustainable profit. The role of the stakeholder, though, is more significant than ever before and expected to grow. In the future, directors will have to be increasingly focused on balancing shareholder return with stakeholder concerns.
  • It may be difficult for the board to address and to communicate with every stakeholder. The board should identify which stakeholders are critical to the strategic plans, and target communications to those groups.
  • Balance also extends to leading versus lagging indicators. The board should first approve the right strategy and set goals accordingly. Leading indicators will drive ensuing performance—but lagging indicators are also necessary to provide the right feedback loop.
  • Innovation is important to the success of any company. How innovation is defined, though, is largely dependent on the company, and should be rooted in the corporate strategy. For some, innovation will manifest in processes, products, or both.

The next NACD Directorship 2020 event will be held 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 Cos., and PwC—that will take a deeper look into the emerging issues and trends that will redefine directorship.

Problem-Finding: A Vital Board Skill

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Solange Charas is the president of Charas Consulting, Inc. and a senior-level human capital professional with 20-plus years of experience as corporate CHRO and consulting firm practice director. She is currently pursuing her doctor of management at Case Western Reserve. She has served as the chair of the remuneration committee for a NASDAQ-traded company.

Michael Roberto, author of Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen, shared his insights with the 200 directors who attended last week’s NACD Directorship Forum in NYC. He explained why it makes more sense to concentrate on “problem- finding” than “problem-solving.” Practicing problem-finding helps leaders spot and address emerging concerns while they are still manageable and before they turn into disasters. It is a vital board skill.

Roberto opened his talk with examples from the Cuban Missile Crisis and recounted his conversations with Robert McNamara about that perilous time. He also gave examples from the 2003 NASA shuttle failure from his interviews with then Space Shuttle program manager, Linda Ham. Using these two examples he illustrated the fundamental value of actively seeking out problems before they find you.

I think his presentation had the attention of the audience—there was something seductively compelling about the idea of using proactive techniques to anticipate and avoid dangerous problems. Yet, despite our intellectual agreement that being proactive is always more effective than being inactive or reactive, what’s the trick? How do we set about successful problem-finding?

Roberto offered these seven steps to becoming a proactive problem-finder instead of a reactive problem-solver:

  1. Circumvent the gatekeepers – get unfiltered information.
  2. Become an ethnographer – watch what your constituents are doing and stay alert to what’s happening in the periphery. Watch for “Hirschman’s exit” or “voice” phenomena;
  3. Hunt for patterns – try to draw on past experiences but don’t get caught in the trap of misusing analogies.
  4. Use intuition to “connect the dots;” lessons learned from small problems can contribute to understanding the path of large problems.
  5. Encourage innovative thinking and risk-taking on a small scale – piloting programs and experimenting may be the key to learning. “Fail often, succeed sooner.”
  6. “Watch the film” – what is your team and the competition doing? “Adopt the military’s “After Action Review” (AAR) process to learn and improve;
  7. Create a climate of information-sharing – encourage people to speak up and have a mindset of “openness.”

In my opinion, our shareholders and stakeholders expect us board members to do our best to steward the organization. To do that, we need to listen to our inner dialogue to understand what can inhibit our participation in important activities. What can cause us to abdicate our leadership role? Is it fear that we may be viewed as pariahs and shunned if we voice a dissenting opinion?  Do we feel safer if we ignore an issue? Like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, do we believe that if we can’t see the problem, then it can’t see us? Or do we assume that someone else will tell us about the problem when it get big enough? All perilous pitfalls—which might be avoided by practicing problem-finding.

Read more about the NACD Directorship Forum here and here.

To reserve your seat for the NACD D100 Forum, November 8-9 at the Waldorf Astoria, NYC. Sign up to learn from Jet Blue director General (rtd) Stanley McChrystal, Polymer Group CEO Ronee Hagen and HealthSouth CEO Jay Grinney among others, and be our guest at the gala dinner celebrating the NACD D100 and Director of the Year honorees.