A recent meeting with NACD Chair Reatha Clark King has revealed some compelling thoughts on why good corporate governance matters and why we at NACD do what we do.
Over the last 37 years, NACD has researched, documented, and published leading boardroom practices including Blue Ribbon Commission reports, handbooks, white papers, and surveys. Our intent is to advance exemplary board leadership.
As I dug into the question of why we do what we do with directors who serve on NACD’s board, I used a classic marketing approach to define higher order, emotional benefits. A benefit-oriented discussion enables one to organize responses into a pyramid-shaped format. Product attributes serve as the foundation and subsequent perspectives provide product and end benefits, ultimately leading to emotional benefits. Capturing the emotional essence enables one to develop a sustainable, differentiated position.
When I asked the “why we do” question, I received responses such as:
To help directors make better decisions
To ensure that the perspectives of all stakeholders are heard
To do the best job I can
To represent the shareholder
To increase the value of the enterprise
While these responses are appropriate, there was an obvious follow-up question: “Well, why does that matter?” It reminded me of conducting in-home ethnography research and one-on-one interviews when I was in marketing at Kraft Foods–sessions that were typically enjoyable for me, but a bit painful for the participant.
The culmination of responses to “why we do what we do” can be summarized in two remarkably simple bullet points:
To me, this perspective is both impactful and relevant. First, the answers are brief and to the point. Second, each bullet point contains what I would describe as a lightning rod word–sustainability and stakeholder–and each of these words can have a variety of meanings depending on the audience.
Enterprise sustainability means, quite simply, that the company is around for a long time. An enduring enterprise provides long-term benefits to its employees and their families, to suppliers and vendors, to the community in which it operates, and to those who provide financing–bankers, investors, and donors. Further, enterprise sustainability means that the leaders of companies, both in the boardroom and the C-suite, remain aware of current and emerging issues that may impact these companies, and are engaged in robust dialogue about strategic implications. I call this strategic agility.
As a result, stakeholder confidence is established, reinforced, and bolstered. Regardless of how a company is structured–public, private, nonprofit, mutual, or family owned–all enterprises have stakeholders, and the long-term viability of the enterprise is overseen by a board of directors.
Therefore, everything that NACD does–from our NACD Directorship 2020® initiative to our expanding range of events, resources, and services–provides unique value to NACD members to advance exemplary board leadership. The intended outcome of all of our activity is NACD members who demonstrate a commitment to not only continuously learning, but also demonstrating the courage to question the unknown and working to sharpen their strategic agility. Once this is achieved, NACD members are poised to help create sustainable enterprises and bolster stakeholder confidence.
I welcome your feedback on this topic. Please join me in sharing your views of why we do what we do.
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.”