OK, director-colleagues (and those who are similarly aligned), I am sure you are all following the current season of best-film and best-acting nominations and awards with great interest. Or, maybe not. In either case, it’s time to step away, and to take a brief detour from your desktop, or your laptop, or your iPad, or whatever device on which this appears.
We’re going to have our own little group of highly unofficial award nominations. Not “Best Director,” not “Best Committee,” not “Best Board.” Those—or their facsimiles—have already been created. Our job here is to identify the awards that we hope our own boards would win for their own work. And my job is just to start the ball rolling, or rather, to get you thinking.
Here are my categories and a few comments on potential nominees. I hope you’ll read them, and then add to the list. After all, if we’re going to turn this into a three-hour event worthy of a network telecast, we’re going to need awards across a whole barrelful of categories. I’ll start, but then you’ll need to chip in.
Topic That Most Boards Aren’t Sure How to Deal With: Nominees: Social Networking, Political Contributions, Number of Women on the Board. Current Favorite: All of the above. One that won’t go away for a while: Number of women on the board. Our colleagues around the world have begun mandating membership ratios.
Least-Favorite Current Topic among Board Members: Nominees: Social Networking, Proxy Access, Say on Pay, CEO Compensation, Director Compensation. Current Favorite: All of the above.
Most Fruitful “New” Board Practice: Nominees: Instituting and participating in a regularly scheduled, board-management offsite on corporate strategy; reallocating more board time to committee meetings, as opposed to full-board sessions; changing the location of meetings from isolated boardrooms or offsite rooms to onsite, “middle-of-the-action” company locations; changing where people sit at meetings; and putting in a speaking-time limitation or edict to reduce the effect of “air-hogs.” Current favorite: Unclear, but we sure know the LEAST favorite. People HATE changing where they sit. Alas.
Wildest Idea to Improve Board-Member Focus: Nominees: Measurably increase mandatory director shareownership and retention requirements; Take the Undercover Boss reality show concept and apply it to directors by making them go “undercover” as employees; Administer a “How Much Do You Know about Your Company?” quiz to members at the board meeting and openly grade it immediately thereafter; Conduct a “Zero-PowerPoint” board meeting; Have board members randomly selected to present on the topic: “What I Learned in the Past Month about Our Company.” Current Favorite: None. In fact, just the mention of any of these could easily induce a lively—if not awkward— conversation about social networking.
Other nominees? Other categories? The envelope, please.
The panelists for “Just Do It! Board-Shareowner Communications for 2011” were CalSTERS’ Janice Hester Amey, The Corporate Library’s Nell Minow, Computer Associates’ Bill McCracken, and Broadridge’s Marvin Sims. The panel tackled the hot topic issues related to the Dodd-Frank Act such as say-on-pay, majority voting, executive compensation, and separation of the CEO and chairman. While consensus on these topics was elusive, panelists did agree that the next year will be a “bumpy ride” for both boards and shareholders.
The panelists agreed that the Dodd-Frank Act is intended to improve board-shareowner communications; however, the results will likely be mixed. For example, proxy access was a point of disagreement amongst the panelists; some believe it will help foster greater accountability to the shareholders, while others believe it is not well thought-out as presented by the SEC.
Conversation also turned towards executive compensation. Nell Minow believes “nothing is more central than compensation.” Countering Ms. Minow was Bill McCracken, who emphasized that there should not be over-reliance on compensation, as there is more to consider when anticipating the failure or success of the board.
Editor and Co-Founder, The Corporate Library
CEO, CA Technologies; Director, NACD
Portfolio Manager, California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS)
An old comic strip in my office shows the character Ziggy in a car facing two billboards: “Highway of Life” and “ Expect Delays.” This sentiment seems to apply to Sanofi-Aventis’s prolonged merger negotiations with Genzyme.
According to published reports, the apparent source of the delay has been agreement upon price, given the manufacturing problems at Genzyme. However, a bigger question the board must assess is whether senior management can address these issues within a timeframe that provides the expected return on investment.
This situation is not unique. As opportunities for “bargain” deals resulting from performance problems become more plentiful in our rapidly changing business environment, it’s critical for boards to go beyond questioning the logic and price of the deal and also assess the potential impact of cultural issues that can make or break success.
Here are questions to ask senior management:
What are the business culture strengths and obstacles that will impact integration (e.g., speed of decision making, communication flow, etc.)?
What plans exist to deal with the natural organizational anxiety and resistance that comes with mergers?
What is the plan for communicating with stakeholder groups to gain their support before and during integration?
Asking these and other questions regarding culture, combined with questions regarding strategic fit, will enable your board to not only accelerate ROI in the short term but in the long term as well.
Pamela S. Harper
Pamela S. Harper
Pamela S. Harper is founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement Inc (BAI). and author of the book Preventing Strategic Gridlock (Cameo Publications). She is on the boards of two nonprofit organizations. Since 1991, BAI has collaborated with senior executives and boards to develop strategy, increase leadership effectiveness, and improve organizational engagement and capability for maximum innovation, growth and profitability.