The complexities surrounding short-termism make it a tough nut to crack. Short-termism in this instance refers to a focus on short-term company performance results at the detriment of achieving long-term strategic goals. But in all its forms, short-termism is not sustainable in a rapidly changing world. That’s why directors need to ensure that the organizations they govern seek a healthy balance in addressing short- and long-term interests of the organization’s senior executives and stakeholders.
Short-termism is certainly not a new concept. In a recent survey of more than 600 public company directors and governance professionals conducted by NACD, 75 percent of respondents indicated that pressure from external sources to make short-term gains is compromising management’s focus on long-term strategic goals. This pressure can affect the board’s risk oversight.
Short-termism manifests itself in many ways. The more common example is focusing on quarterly earnings at the expense of funding long-term sustainable growth. But it can also lead to the pursuit of several risky activities, including: M&A deals for growth’s sake without clear linkage to the overall corporate strategy; releasing new products to market without sufficient testing; allowing cost and schedule considerations to undermine safety on significant projects (e.g., deferring maintenance or taking risky shortcuts); and taking on excessive leverage to pursue activities that are currently generating attractive returns.
Underlying the evidence of short-termism is a complex series of root causes. Globalization, technological developments, improved transparency, and reduced transaction costs have facilitated capital flows, enabling investors to reallocate their assets to seek higher yields with greater ease. Hedge funds and other activist shareholders are also acquiring small stakes in a company with the objective of steering profits to shareholders immediately (through higher dividends, stock buybacks, asset spinoffs, or downsizing in lieu of investing in innovation that will improve productivity and drive future growth, for instance). Still another cause is the existence of compensation structures emphasizing executive pay over the near term to the detriment of long-term shareholder interests. These compensation models skew management’s decision-making toward maximizing short-term profits even at the cost of taking on excessive risk.
Following are six concrete steps the board can take to ensure short-termism does not compromise risk oversight:
1. Focus the board’s oversight on risks that matter. If risk management is focused primarily on operational matters, chances are management is not focusing attention on the right question: Do we know what we don’t know? To face the future confidently, both management and the board need to focus the risk assessment process on:
a. identifying and managing the critical enterprise risks that can impair the organization’s reputation, brand image, and enterprise value; and
b. recognizing emerging risks looming on the horizon on a timely basis.
Even though the day-to-day risks of managing the business are important, they should not command the board’s risk oversight focus except when truly pressing issues arise.
2. Lengthen the time horizon used to assess risk. Focusing on quarterly performance, annual budgets, and business plans may lead to a risk assessment horizon of no more than three years. That period may be too limiting because strategic opportunities and risks typically have a longer horizon—even with the constant pressure of disruptive change on business models. For example, the World Economic Forum uses a 10-year horizon in its annual risk study. Longer risk-assessment horizons are more likely to surface emerging issues, along with new plausible and extreme scenarios, that might have been missed with a shorter time frame. Thus, the board needs to satisfy itself that management is using an appropriate horizon.
3. Understand and evaluate strategic assumptions. Management’s “worldview” for the duration of the strategic planning horizon is reflected in assumptions about several topics: the enterprise’s capabilities; competitor capabilities and propensity to act; customer preferences; technological trends; capital availability; and regulatory trends, among other things. Directors should weigh in on management’s assumptions underlying the strategy. Doing so could reveal insights into the external environment and internal operating impacts that could invalidate the critical assumptions underlying the strategy. This is a useful approach to understanding sources of disruptive change.
4. Integrate risk and risk management with what matters. Short-termism can render risk to an afterthought to the formulation of strategy. Risk management similarly can become a mere appendage to performance management. The strategy, therefore, may be unrealistic and may involve taking on excessive risk. In addition, performance management may be overly focused on retrospective, backward-looking lag metrics. The board should ensure the strategy-setting process considers risks arising from strategic alternatives, risks to executing the strategy, and the potential for the strategy to be out of alignment with the organization’s mission and values. Directors also should insist that prospective, forward-looking leading metrics be used to complement the more traditional metrics used to manage the day-to-day business operations.
5. Watch out for compensation imbalances. Publicly listed companies on U.S. exchanges are required to disclose in the proxy statement whether the company’s system of incentives could lead to unacceptable risky decision-making in the pursuit of near-term rewards. The compensation committee typically conducts a review for excessive risk-taking in conjunction with its oversight of the compensation structure. Board concerns with respect to short-termism are a red flag for the compensation committee to sharpen its focus on the potential for troubling compensation issues that could lead to bet-the-farm behavior. A key question: Do key executives have sufficient “skin in the game” so they will be incented to take risks prudently in the pursuit of value-creating opportunities?
6. Pay attention to the culture. Short-termism can contribute to a dysfunctional environment that warrants vigilant board oversight. For example, management may continue to execute the same business model regardless of whether market conditions invalidate the underlying strategic assumptions. Also, operating units and process owners may be fixated on making artificial moves (e.g., deferring investments) and manipulating processes (e.g., cutting costs to the bone) to achieve short-term financial targets. Instead, the strategy should be focused on fulfilling customer expectations and enhancing the customer experience by improving process effectiveness and efficiency. These and other red flags warrant the board’s attention because they signal the possibility of unacceptable risk-taking that must be addressed.
If short-termism is a concern of the board, directors need to ensure their risk oversight process isn’t compromised by it. A strong focus on linking risk and opportunity can help overcome some of the “blind spots” that a myopic, short-term outlook can create.
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.”