Tag Archive: strategic risk

Help Your Company to Face Its Future Confidently

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Jim DeLoach

Jim DeLoach

The uncertainty of looking to the future presses boards to consider how confident their senior executives and supporting teams are in executing strategy. How can the board help the companies they oversee to face the future with a greater sense of confidence?

Confidence is neither a cliché nor an assertion of mere optimism. Rather, it is a quality that drives leaders and their companies forward. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confidence as “the state of feeling certain about the truth of something” and “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” This definition focuses on the board and management’s appreciation of the collective capabilities of the enterprise, including the ability to carry out a company’s vision. It raises three fundamental questions:

  • Do we know where we’re going directionally and why? Are our people committed to achieving a common vision that is clearly articulated, meaningful, and aspirational?
  • Are we prepared for the journey? Does our staff have the capabilities to execute our strategy? Do we have a great team, a strong roadmap, and the required processes, systems and alliances, and sufficient resources to sustain our journey?
  • Do we possess the ability, will, and discipline to cope with change along the way, no matter what happens? Does our board have the mental toughness to stay on course? Is our management team agile and adaptive enough to recognize market opportunities and emerging risks, and capitalize on, endure, or overcome them by making timely adjustments to strategy and capabilities?

Definitive, positive responses to these questions from the board will enable confidence across the organization.

Looking back on experiences working with successful companies, seven attributes were identified that organizations must have when facing the uncertainty of future markets.

How to Build the Foundation for Confidence

  1. Confident organizations share commitment to a vision. Commitment to a vision provides a shared “future pull” that is both inspiring and motivating. This perspective fuels enterprise-wide focus and energy to learn, which encourages participation and altruistic camaraderie. An effective vision crafted by the board and executive team leads people at all levels of a company to recognize that the enterprise’s success and their personal success are inextricably linked.
  2. Confident organizations have a heightened awareness of the environment. A confident organization constantly reality tests its market understanding by facilitating effective listening to customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders. Boards should encourage companies to generate sources of new learning, encouraging systemic thinking in distilling and acting on the environment feedback received, with the objective of driving continuous improvement. The confident organization fosters a culture of sharing and supports formal and informal continuous feedback loops to flatten the organization, get closer to the customer, and promote a preparedness mindset.
  3. Confident organizations align their required capabilities. It is a never-ending priority of the board to ensure that the right talent and capabilities are in place to achieve differentiation in the marketplace and execute strategies successfully. Capabilities include an enterprise’s superior know-how, innovative processes, proprietary systems, distinctive brands, collaborative cultures, and a unique set of supplier and customer relationships.

How to Sustain Confidence

Achieving a foundation of confidence is necessary, but alone is not enough without concerted efforts to sustain confidence. Astute directors and executives know that the ability, will, and discipline to cope with change are also needed to sustain their journey. Those winning traits are enabled by the attributes below.

  1. Confident organizations are risk-savvy. The confident organization is secure in the knowledge that it has considered all plausible risk scenarios, knows its breakpoint in the event of extreme scenarios, and has effective response plans in place (including plans to exit the strategy if circumstances warrant). Most importantly, the confident organization should have an effective early-warning capability in place to alert decision-makers of changes in the marketplace that affect the validity of critical strategic assumptions. In a truly confident organization, no idea or person is above challenge and contrarian views are welcomed.
  2. Confident organizations learn aggressively. Confident organizations improve their learning by: creating centers of excellence; embracing cutting-edge technology to drive the vision forward; fostering an open, transparent environment of ongoing knowledge sharing, networking, collaboration, and team learning; perceiving admission of errors as a strength and requiring learning from the missteps; and converting lessons learned into process improvements. Aggressive learning stimulates the collective genius of the entire enterprise.
  3. Confident organizations place a premium on creativity. Innovation should be an integral part of the corporate DNA of the confident company, and should be evidenced by setting accountability for results with innovation-focused metrics at the organizational, process, and individual levels to encourage and reward creativity. Companies committed to innovation have the creative capacity to take advantage of market opportunities and respond to emerging risks. When innovation is a strategic imperative, companies empower and reward their employees to take the appropriate risks to realize new ideas without encumbering them with the fear of repercussions if they aren’t successful.
  4. Confident organizations are resilient. Confident organizations have adaptive processes supported by disciplined decision-making, and are committed to adapt early to continuous and disruptive change. They have the will to stay the course when the going gets tough, and are prepared to act decisively to revise strategic plans in response to changing market realities. They do not allow competitors to gain advantage by building large capital reserves, having great relationships with their lenders, and by cultivating trusting relationships with their customers, vendors and shareholders. The strategies that their boards approve include triggers for contingency plans that directors and management will implement if certain predetermined events occur or conditions arise.

In summary, the speed of change continues to escalate, creating more uncertainty about future developments and outcomes. If there was ever a time for a board to assess an organization’s confidence, we believe it is now. It’s one thing to have a confident CEO, but if the people within the entity lack confidence, the organization itself may not have the creativity and resiliency needed to sustain a winning strategy.


Jim DeLoach is managing director with Protiviti, a global consulting firm. 

NACD’s Second Small-Cap Forum Helps Directors Understand the Risks and Responsibilities of a Growing Business

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The majority of companies in the United States are small cap, defined as companies below $500 million in market capitalization. While they are rich in ingenuity, small-cap companies have unique challenges that can be daunting for any board to manage. With smaller staffs and fewer resources than their large-cap counterparts, the time and talents of company executives are spread thin in the face of pressure for fast growth in an uncertain economic environment. This July, NACD, in partnership with Epsen Fuller Group, Fenwick & West, and Latham & Watkins held its second Small-Cap Forum. Over the course of a day, a collective of experts helmed six sessions at San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel to dissect the directors’ role in helping to build their companies. The following are three themes that emerged from the presentations:

Plan ahead. Many small-cap companies make the mistake of placing too much emphasis on budgeting. Innovation rarely, if ever, emerges from evaluating figures. Shift gears to take a close, hard look at your company and think about creating a strategic plan. A plan should ideally map out the next five years of the company—no fewer than three—and determine what resources are needed to meet those goals. Allot plenty of time outside of regular meetings to discuss various game plans, setting milestones to review the strategy.

Work with the founder. When assessing and building out the company’s long-term goals, the board also needs to pay attention to management. Small-cap companies often have a culture centered on the founder/CEO, and while that person’s innovative and entrepreneurial drive may have been enough to give legs to a nascent business, those skills may not be aligned with the firm’s needs and goals in subsequent stages of growth. That said, the board shouldn’t write off the leadership already in place. Building support around the C-suite can help enable the CEO to succeed in an increasingly expanding role, or to step down with dignity if required. By extension, start looking within the company for talent that can take the reins in the next three to five years. Broaching this topic can be highly sensitive; however, the longer a leadership gap exists at the CEO level in a small-cap environment, the greater the risk of a succession crisis.

Mind the gaps. The purpose of board-level committees is to share the workload so that board members can effectively “divide and conquer”; however, small-cap boards are traditionally half the size of a large-cap company—so small that the same directors frequently serve on multiple committees. Stretching resources this thin means that there is zero room for non-contributing directors, or else the board runs the risk of being unable to carry out its responsibilities effectively. Small-cap boards should create a skills matrix that charts each director’s areas of expertise—and reveals where the board’s collective knowledge base may be lacking.

A small-cap board should also put forth the effort to bridge the gap between the company and its shareholders. Any opportunity to engage with and better understand your shareholder base is a good idea, and is a particular imperative in the small-company environment where ownership may be more concentrated. Also realize that many small-cap boards become targets of activist investors. Prepare for those interactions not only by doing due diligence on activists’ investment styles and track records, but also by being willing to listen to the activists’ points of view.

Look for a full recap of the Small-Cap Forum in the September/October 2014 issue of NACD Directorship magazine.

Information Flow Beyond the CEO

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As a delegate to NACD’s Advisory Council on Risk Oversight recently said: “Directors don’t know what they don’t know.” This Fortune 500 director was referencing one of the challenges facing corporate boards today: asymmetric information risk.

Asymmetric information risk refers to the risk inherent in the imbalance in the information flow between management and the board. Directors serve in a part-time capacity while the management team operates full time. Naturally, senior-level executives have a much deeper knowledge about the organization’s operational processes and risks than the board. As such, directors rely on senior management for the information necessary to carry out their oversight duties.

In our experience working with boards, we’ve found an effective solution for mitigating asymmetric information risk is to develop a systematic process in which the board is given access to the executive team – beyond the CEO. Examples of senior staff with whom the board should regularly meet include the chief risk officer, chief compliance officer, head of internal audit, chief ethics officer, general counsel, CFO, and chief information officer. NACD’s C-Suite Expectations: Understanding C-Suite Roles Beyond the Core helps directors understand the types of information they should provide.

One way to ensure that this systematic reporting occurs is to include a recurring slot for key executives and functional leaders to present – perhaps during the board and or committee executive sessions. The goal here is to help the board understand what keeps these executives up at night and anticipate issues in advance.

The board is responsible for providing oversight on the appraisal of strategic and enterprise risk. The inherent nature of a director’s role, however, results in a reliance on the information presented in the boardroom and between meetings, by select members of the management team. For the board to mitigate this natural imbalance in information flow, directors should have in place a systematic process for engaging with key executives, in addition to those limited few who traditionally participate in board meetings.

For more on leading practices in risk oversight, read the latest Summary of Proceedings from the NACD Advisory Council on Risk Oversight.