Despite this call to action, overcoming short-termism remains a stark challenge for many companies. In fact, as the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) 2015 Blue Ribbon Commission observed, “factors encouraging a short-term focus are stronger now than ever before.” Additionally, in a 2015 report, the Conference Board contemplated whether short-term biases might jeopardize future business prosperity altogether.
Yet if short-termism is a sizable challenge, so too is the commitment to understanding why short-termism is so entrenched as a business practice and the task of mitigating its harmful effects. In July, the Anti-Fraud Collaboration, a group of organizations focused on fighting financial reporting fraud, hosted a webcast on Coming to Terms with Short-Termism. The discussion, which I was privileged to moderate, featured top experts and generated a wealth of useful takeaways for participants across the financial reporting supply chain.
Let’s look at a few key takeaways from the discussion.
1. Acknowledge and Define the Complexities of the Issue
To address the challenge of short-termism, it helps to understand the complexities of what companies are up against. For one thing, “short-termism” doesn’t equate to short-term activity, which isn’t necessarily bad. NACD Chair Karen Horn, director of Simon Property Group, observed at the outset of the webcast that the “long term is made up of many, many short-term actions.”
Another tricky step to understanding the complexities of short-termism is how to define “short-term” at your company. Is it a month? A quarter? A year? “It depends on the company,” said panelist Bill McCracken, president of Executive Consulting Group LLC. McCracken, who previously served as CEO of CA Technologies, added that even within a company the meaning of “short-term” can change according to different contexts, such as strategy or compensation.
2. Think Strategically
However complex a challenge combatting short-termism may seem, there are several simple solutions for directors to consider. One of them is this: think strategically. A strategic mindset helps short-term actions align with long-term goals. “Boards really need to be conversant with the company strategy,” said Horn. McCracken agreed, noting that board members should become “activist directors” who immerse themselves in the details of the company, its strategy, and its industry. This engaged approach, he added, can help directors be prepared to handle situations such as share buybacks or changes to dividend policy where questions of short-termism may arise.
Similarly, strategic thinking can also help directors gauge the validity of the use of non-GAAP measures. “Shouldn’t the use of non-GAAP measures also tie in to the strategy of the entity?” asked Douglas Chia, executive director of the Conference Board’s Governance Center. “Absolutely,” responded fellow panelist and KPMG Partner Jose Rodriguez.
3. Strengthen Tone at the Top…
One danger of short-termism is that it can heighten fraud risk across the enterprise. Companies need to ensure that management is setting the right tone at the top. “I can’t underemphasize tone at the top,” said Rodriquez. “How do [senior executives] talk to employees? Is everything geared around meeting that analyst’s [earnings] expectations?” From his auditor’s viewpoint, he added, “that would be concerning.
4. …But Don’t Forget the “Mood in the Middle” and “Buzz at the Bottom”
While emphasizing tone at the top, panelists also stressed that short-termism shouldn’t be a point of concern for only senior management. Many instances of fraud, noted Rodriguez, occur outside the C-suite. “It’s middle management and lower management that had to get that sales number to a certain amount of dollars,” he said, and this pressure can lead to channel stuffing or other undesirable activity. Such activity is what audit committees, auditors, and the board ought to be looking for, added Bill McCracken.
5. Dial Down the Emphasis on Quarterly Results
“Our entire [financial reporting] structure is built around quarterly reporting,” said McCracken. While eliminating this quarterly focus might not be possible—or even desirable—panelists agreed that reducing the quarter-to-quarter mindset was an important part of addressing short-termism. “Obviously you can’t get entirely away from that,” said Chia, “but there are ways you can reduce the emphasis and build on the timeline that you think is appropriate—not what you’re being told by the analyst community.”
Fostering robust communication internal and external communication is a core priority for the Anti-Fraud Collaboration, and communication at all levels was a recurring theme throughout this webcast. When discussing the use of non-GAAP measures, Horn noted that “the chairman of the compensation committee should be talking to the chairman of the audit committee as these measures work their way in to [compensation] programs.”
Likewise, communicating effectively with external investors and other stakeholder parties is critical. “Boards need to really understand investor communications,” said Horn. “The way that we can pursue long-term value creation is in partnership with our investors.”
On the heels of the NACD Directorship 2020™panel, Virginia Gambale, director, JetBlue and managing partner, Azimuth Partners LLC; Helene D. Gayle, president and CEO, CARE USA; director, The Coca-Cola Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co.; Michael D. Rochelle, founder and president, MDR Strategies LLC, director, Military Officers Association of America, trustee, U.S. Army War College Foundation; and Clara Shih, CEO, Hearsay Social and director, Starbucks, discussed the perspectives, expertise, and skill sets that will be critical for boardrooms of the future.
Gambale noted that some of the issues that will confront boards in 2020 are obvious today. Globalization, technology and innovation, the drive for transparency coupled with short-termism, and a focus on shareholder returns will require a certain expertise at the board level. To meet these challenges, Gambale suggested one valuable mindset is contextual awareness—the ability to lead and make decisions in the context of what is going on in the environment around you with the information you have.
“Another way of thinking about contextual awareness is as the intersection of situational awareness and the ability to use intuition to take advantage of opportunities,” said Rochelle. “It’s a 360-degree awareness.”
“Part of situational awareness is to ensure that in a globalized world you have the ability to speak each other’s language and talk across the divide,” explained Gayle. “We can be brokers for merging creating wealth with creating social value.”
Reinventing the Future
While some technologies, such as social media and mobile, enhance existing business models, some companies are developing technologies that will completely alter the future. Shih pointed to the examples of 3-D printing and self-driving cars, noting that embracing embrace rapid innovation can redefine the customer experience.
Directors and management will need to prepare to keep pace with evolving technology. “The bylaws in corporate governance were meant to maintain stability. We need to be aware that in that environment we need to try harder to carve out time to brainstorm about how businesses can be transformed by these technologies.”
Onboarding Future Directors
“Ensuring a board is prepared to embrace emerging technologies starts with an effective onboarding process. Boards must do a better job of thinking about diversity as more than numbers,” Gayle explained. “How do we make sure what that person has to offer is brought to light? In onboarding, we need a focus on dialogue—having a discussion about what that member brings to the table.”
In addition, considering younger directors may also prove fruitful, she continued: “We have deliberately looked for younger candidates on my board—they understand some of these worlds better.”
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.”