Last week in Washington, D.C., directors convened at the National Association of Corporate Directors’ Spring Forum to hear experts discuss how boards can prepare for the future of American business. Panel topics ranged from oversight of emerging risks to talent development and even advertising. The common thread was clear: directors will continue to be confronted with nontraditional challenges.
Case in point: The aftermath of the cyber attack at Target has made the challenge of effectively overseeing cybersecurity risk a priority. ISS recently recommended voting against seven of Target’s ten board members, alleging that those directors inadequately prepared for data risks. Many are looking to the retailer’s tribulations as a sign of things to come: Directors may face additional scrutiny when efforts to oversee quickly evolving, highly technical risks fall short.
Instead of leaving directors anxious, panel discussions throughout the forum honed in on the following actions directors can take to prepare their companies to capitalize rather than capitulate to disruptors:
Leverage Big Data. With massive data collection becoming common practice, former White House CIO Theresa Payton and other speakers suggested using data from your company’s regular web traffic in order to cull anomalous and potentially malicious network activity from baseline data traffic.
Find a Cyber Risk Tolerance. Futurist Edie Weiner said that we can only exist in a state of “cyber insecurity.” Pragmatically speaking, companies cannot fend off every attack, but they can identify their most important assets and ensure they are safeguarded. Insecurity, to some degree, has to be accepted.
Look for Long-Term Trends. Focusing on quarter-to-quarter changes might obscure the large sea-change entire industries may be facing. Erwann Michel-Kerjan, executive director at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, challenged attendees to do their homework before pursuing a strategy, saying that the term “black swan” is too frequently used to describe predictable catastrophes. When given appropriate thought, he said risks can be teased out, analyzed, and planned for.
Secure the Necessary Talent. A powerhouse panel — Tucker Baily, partner at McKinsey & Co.; Earl Crane, former White House director for Federal Cybersecurity Policy; Linda Medler, former director for the capabilities and resource integration at the U.S. Cyber Command; and Krishnan Rajagopalan, managing partner at the global technology and services practice at Heidrick & Struggles—agreed on at least one point: the gravity of having not only those talented in understanding the cyber and IT worlds within the company, but also that those employees are able to discuss these topics with the board in simple and actionable terms.
Transparency is Here to Stay. Jeff Rosenblum, co-founder of Questus, looked through the lens of advertising to show how the connectivity of the social media age is making the machinations of every company more visible. For him, companies in the future ought to be more transparent, disclosing their thinking, actions, and the effects of those actions.
Undoubtedly, the best responses to these rising changes are evolving, becoming more efficient and effective. NACD, through its Directorship 2020 initiative and other programs, remains committed to sharing insights from thought leaders while providing a framework in which directors can better understand a world permeated with risk.
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.
I had the privilege of joining over 30 public company directors this week to discuss lead directors—what they do and how to pick them. Wow, what a lively discussion it was.
We were fortunate to have our partners from Heidrick & Struggles there—Ted Dysart and Stephen Miles, who are both vice chairmen for this leading executive recruitment firm. Through a very candid dialogue, we were really able to dig into this topic. At the session, and in many praiseworthy emails following this gathering of esteemed directors, I heard many common suggestions that all boards can put into action.
The key takeaways? Everything is subtle; just work through the details, expectations and preferences that fit for your situation.
Beyond the subtleties, three key themes did emerge for me:
Role: Define expectations first. How will the CEO and management team work with the chairman or lead director? What do we expect him/her to do?
Criteria: What skill sets and experiences are required, preferred and desired? Surprisingly, this aspect of the process is really no different from other director hire decisions, but many boards overlook this critical step.
Process: Have a process and make it transparent. No need to keep your selection process a secret from your fellow board members. They can help you identify key criteria and you want them invested in the success of whomever you select as your next board leader.
While many other items were discussed, here are a few that rose to the top for me:
Term limits/rotation: No consensus…all over the board: Yes, no, perhaps.
Time commitment: Ensure this person is willing to make the commitment and has the time available after making that commitment.
Crisis and succession: Ensure this person is willing to take on a key role in times of crisis. You never know what can happen, and the lead director needs to be ready to step up, whether as interim CEO or chair of a search committee.
Experience: This leader should be seasoned and savvy (some felt, ideally, from the company’s industry), and can act as a sounding board for the CEO, management and others on the board.
Trust: This is a “no kidding” area, but many emphasized the need to ensure the lead director check his/her ego at the door and not have a personal agenda.
Collaboration: Near the top of requirements, the lead director needs to be a strong team builder with exceptional listening skills. Is he/she a facilitator?
Raising the bar. One passionate participant even suggested that all boards separate the chair and CEO roles. Perhaps this director was thinking about asymmetric information risk. No matter; we assured the participants that NACD does not advocate for specific board structure, rather, it’s situation-dependent—
i.e., it’s subtle! Combined chair/CEO roles make sense for some companies, and separating the roles is appropriate for other companies.