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American Banks Should Split the Chair and CEO Roles

Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein (Chairs and CEOs of J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, respectively) should be relieved of their Board Chair responsibilities.

Here is why.

Consider how two hypothetical – but typical – board meetings play out: the first occurs with a Chair and CEO role combined in one person, with another director as a “Lead Director,” and another board meeting occurs with Chair and CEO roles separated into two people.

In the first board meeting, when one person occupies both the Chair and CEO roles, there is a very high concentration of power. Another director independent of management acts as a “lead” director and the counterpoint. The Lead Director may sit next to the Chair and CEO in the boardroom, but the Lead Director does not chair the actual board meeting. Nor do lead directors have final say when push comes to shove over the board agenda. Nor do they establish the information flow the board receives, as good chairs do.

The Lead Director has influence, but the Board Chair has actual authority. What gets discussed, when and how, is the purview of the chairperson of any board. The most important role a Board Chair has is to control the discussion, who speaks and in what order, and how decisions get made (or not). These meeting levers shape outcomes. If the person controlling the discussion, the information and the agenda (i.e., the chair) has a vested interest in the outcome and is the same person (i.e., the CEO), there is an inherent bias in all decisions. The board’s fundamental oversight role in controlling management is compromised.

When I observe the second type of board meetings — with non-executive, independent Chairs and separate CEOs (i.e., two separate people), the dynamics are very different. The board meeting is almost “bi-polar” in nature. There is a natural counterpoint when debate happens because the CEO is separated out of the critical proposal and approval parts of the discourse. Power is more flat. Directors feel free to speak up because the chair is one of them (independent). It is hardly surprising to see the lead director role marginalized by a strong personality who controls a board meeting. CEOs have very strong personalities. Directors are more likely to weigh in and exercise independence if they aren’t blocked by their chair.

At one point, Canadian bank boards argued – unsuccessfully – and of course their CEO and Chair incumbents were the primary proponents, that good governance could include the fundamental conflict of a combined Chair and CEO role. “Good” governance, the argument goes, could include having exclusively independent committees, an effective lead director, and an effective reporting and assurance structure. Proponents for maintaining the Chair and CEO roles also argued whether to split of not “depends on the personalities,” somehow implying an effective chair who has a good working relationship with a CEO could not be found. The real resistance to splitting the roles were the egos and hubris of the incumbents, and a captured board beholden to them.

Shareholders and regulators prevailed in Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, where non-executive chairs are the norm. In the most recent set of governance reforms of 2013, for example, Canada’s financial institution regulator stated that the role of the Chair should be separate from the CEO, as this separation “is critical in maintaining the Board’s independence, as well as its ability to execute its mandate effectively.” Back in 2003, OSFI (Canada’s financial institution regulator) stated that both a non-executive chair versus a lead director could achieve board independence. The choice was up to the board, OSFI stated. Regulators have since progressed, advising that the roles can and should be split, for all federally regulated financial institutions, for the sake of good governance.

Having a non-executive chair separated from the CEO role (two different people) won’t guarantee success or prevent failure. Academics cannot prove a systemic relationship between board leadership and performance because chair effectiveness is so difficult to measure. But this can be posited: if the chair is effective, there is a much greater likelihood of better governance than relying on the effectiveness of a lead director. I have yet to see an effective lead director who approaches how effective a separate chair can be. A lead director role is institutionally more passive. Ask yourself if Jamie Dimon had to answer to a separate no-nonsense Chair who understood banking and risk whether the J.P. Morgan Chase’s risk meltdown would have occurred. (See the Senate report here.) The roles of a Lead Director and Board Chair are different. More and more American corporations are moving towards effective, non-executive chairs. Banks should not be dragging their feet.

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