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Archive for the ‘Board and Committee Leadership’ Category

How Tweeting by a PwC Partner During the Oscars Sullied PwC’s Reputation and Offers Lessons for Distracted Board Members

PwC partner, Brian Cullinan, evidently was tweeting backstage moments before he handed the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty, resulting in reputational damage for PwC in its assurance role over award envelopes and the announcing of the wrong award for Best Picture.

Social media use can become an addiction, and can compromise not only reputation, but decision-making as well.

The most common complaint I have during my reviews of boards of directors’ performance is distracted directors. I see distracted directors in boardrooms and distracted students in classrooms all the time. More leadership and common sense is needed by board chairs and professors.

I was auditing a graduate university class recently, and most of the students were on their laptops, typing away, apparently oblivious to the lecture occurring in front of them. Their eyes were not on the professor or their colleagues. They were not engaged in the moment. This is like directors looking at iPads and laptops during the board meeting instead of each other.

I stopped the class and asked what the point was that the professor had just made. No one could answer. I instructed all students to close their laptops and discontinue all technology for the remainder of the class. Further, students were not to consult any notes and stay in the moment for the entire class.

In another board meeting, the board chair was obsessively using his cellphone during the board meeting. When I walk around boardrooms and classrooms, I see directors and students typing, answering emails, texting, using social media – in other words, not doing their job.

The laptop creates a physical and psychological barrier. It also takes two hands to type, as opposed to one hand to write.

Certain Toronto high-schools announced a few days ago that they are banning cellphones from classrooms. Hospitals and courtrooms also ban the use of cellphones.

The answer for boardrooms and classrooms is not to ban technology, but rather to use technology to enhance individual and meeting performance, not diminish it.

You are four times as likely to be distracted when you use technology. Studies show that retention increases when notes are taken the old-fashioned way, on paper, rather than on a computer. Technology does not necessarily enhance performance; indeed, studies show it may diminish it.

If you are prepared for class or a for board meeting, there is no need for any technology, or very many notes for that matter. The use of technology, including PowerPoint slides, can be a safety blanket or used to manipulate your audience. If a person reads PowerPoint slides, chances are they are unprepared, and further, you have a weak board chair or weak professor.

A great board – management discussion or presentation can occur without any technology whatsoever. Think of twenty years ago when this technology did not exist. Some of the best discussions that I have moderated and witnessed in boardrooms and classrooms do not include any technology.

What is the answer for boards of directors and classrooms, and the use of technology?

•    Resist the use of technology simply because it is available. The litmus test for technology is performance.
•    Lay down the rule if you are the board chair or professor: No technology unless it is directly related to the meeting. And lead by example.
•    Make sure all discussions, agendas and information are relevant, to respect your audience’s time, and resist their temptation to be distracted.
•    Insist on full preparation and focus on the discussion. The discussion is where the learning and important decisions get made.
•    Have students submit 2-page summaries of the readings at the start of class, to validate their preparation.
•    The foregoing would be draconian for directors, but it is blindingly obvious to directors who is prepared for the meeting and who is not. Have a system to enforce preparation.
•    Insist on peer assessment of directors and students.
•    Make sure that you can see someone’s eyes. If you cannot see their eyes, chances are they are distracted.
•    Take frequent breaks to use technology for personal purposes.
•    Insist on in-person meetings to the fullest extent possible.
•    Self-police any errant director or student who cannot comply with the above.
•    Most of all, lead by example.

Dr. Richard Leblanc, Editor of The Handbook of Board Governance (Wiley, 2016), can be reached at rleblanc@yorku.ca.

The Problem with Independent Directors

“The Board Chair is owned by the CEO,” directors told me after I was called in by the regulator to assess the board. The Chair owned a condo next to the CEO and was a close personal friend. I have not assessed a board when there was not at least one director, and oftentimes, after governance failure, several directors who are viewed as non-independent by their fellow directors, even though these directors are independent by regulatory standards.

Academics have never been able to show that independent directors strengthen company performance for one major reason: true independence is not being measured from the outside, and can readily be undermined by clever, self-serving management and directors themselves by allowing it to occur. Bright-line independence tests or rules can be out-smarted, and many fail to capture the underlying conflicts of interests.

In my research involving shareholder activists, activists tell me how they investigate director backgrounds to show the compromising of independence. Activists’ inherent presumption is that each director is non-independent to begin with. They are put in place by management or other directors, not shareholders.

Here are the ways directorial independence is compromised, before or after a director begins to serve: a close social or personal relationship with another director or member of management; serving on another board or in another business relationship with a director; excessive tenure on the board; excessive director pay or expenses; an office at the company for the director; the use of secretarial staff; gifts such as cigars; vacations with other directors, a significant shareholder, or management; jobs or contracts for acquaintances or referrals of the director; lunches, dinners, entertainment or sporting events with a small group of directors and management (rather than collective board dinners); informal collaborating in a decision by a board or committee chair with management in advance of the meeting; boards or committees not hiring independent advisors but are beholden exclusively on management; directors taking advantage of a corporate opportunity, resource or perquisite with full knowledge (or not) of other directors; or having a bias towards a particular stakeholder in board deliberations (including a significant shareholder).

There exists pressure on Canadian directors to allow their independence to become diluted, directors tell me, and to be collegial in this dilution. I have interviewed some of the top board chairs in Canada, and one of their major concerns was the “slippery slope” of directorial independence. I have found that directors can become less independent, but I have never found them to become more independent. Boards, in theory at least, should decide what degree, if any, of independence slippage (see all of the above real examples) they are willing to tolerate.

If one or more directors has their independence compromised, particularly a board or a committee chair, then governance failure can and does occur. Conflict-seeking directors are toxic to a board and should be removed. Directors know which director(s) has lost their independence. By the time I arrive, I am confirming what they already know and failed to act upon. A trained outside expert can readily observe captured directors during board meetings, interviews and customized questions.

Why is There a Director Independence Dis-connect?

If director independence is compromised and regulatory standards fail to detect this, then the regulators have failed. It should not be possible, if regulators are doing their job, to have a director who is not independent, inside the boardroom, and at the same time that director complies with independence guidelines outside the boardroom.

What is the Standard for Independence of Public Company Directors in Canada?

Directorial independence in Canada is presently a subjective standard (what directors believe), rather than an objective one (what is reasonable to believe). This means that if directors collectively believe that a director does not have a “material” relationship that can reasonably be “expected” to “interfere” with that director’s independent judgment, then that is the end of the analysis. The absence of an objective, reasonable or perceived point of view is anomalous when it comes to overseeing conflicts of interest in the workplace, so why should boards be any different? What should matter is what is reasonable, not what a director or a board believes. This subjective view can be unreasonable.

How Can Director Independence Be Strengthened?

Director independence is important because independent directors control management. It is important to get independence right – in theory at least – but also in practice if directors are to possess independence of mind coming onto the board and maintain it once they are on.

Here are some reforms I recommend and use to address director and board independence:

  • Regulatory reform should occur so independence of directors espoused by regulators equates with actual independence inside boardrooms. An objective, reasonable person standard should be used.
  • Boards should enact a robust conflict of interest policy, for directors, not drafted by management, and this policy should be disclosed to shareholders.
  • Independent advisors should facilitate an annual peer review of director independence, as is done in the United Kingdom. The review process should be disclosed and acted upon.
  • Codes of conduct should be drafted (not by management) to apply to a board of directors. Boards should not be using the company code because director independence issues are not captured.
  • Boards (and if not, regulators) should impose reasonable term limits on director tenure, beyond which the director is not regarded as independent, as is done in several countries.
  • Boards should require the confidential disclosure of directorial perceived conflicts (including assets and financial information relevant to the company’s business) to the audit committee, including that of family and affiliates of the director.
  • Audit committees should review and recommend to the board perceived conflicts of interest by directors, and should create a special committee of independent directors who are independent of the matter and the director, if and when required, with independent advisors retained by the audit or special committee.
  • An anonymous procedure for reporting on directors who do not disclose potential conflicts should exist, to the audit or special committee.
  • The governance committee should recommend independent board and committee chairs, and the board chair should be selected by confidential ballot without the CEO being present or unduly influencial.
  • For significant shareholder boards, independent directors should be chosen by and from minority shareholders, so a portion of directors are independent of the significant shareholder, commensurate with the significant shareholder’s portion of common shares.
  • For widely held boards, shareholders should select a portion of directors so directors are independent of each other and management.
  • Boards should disclose the origination of each director, namely how that director came to be recommended for election by shareholders.
  • Boards (and if not, regulators) should diversify themselves so directors do not come from the same homogenous pool and are independent from one another.

Dr. Richard Leblanc, Editor of The Handbook of Board Governance (Wiley, 2016), can be reached at rleblanc@yorku.ca.

CEO Coaching: Lessons from the Trenches

Alcohol problems, drug use, sexual misconduct, financial misconduct, defensiveness, denial, berating of other senior management and directors, litigation, loss of key employees, toxicity and bulling. There is not much I have not seen when I am called in to coach the CEO. And CEO misbehavior happens in the highest level of corporate Canada. You may be surprised, but I am not.

Here are ten recent examples, disguised for confidentiality purposes: The CEO called a CFO a “moron” in front of the board and finance staff. Another CEO went silent, not talking to the Board Chair for a month. A CEO sat, arms folded, and did not say a word during an entire board meeting. A fourth CEO coaching regime occurred after a major failure, involving death and property destruction. A fifth CEO coaching was of a large manufacturing company, where the CEO’s effect on board colleagues was highly disruptive. In a seventh example, the CEO’s behavior was so disruptive that a major board rift occurred. An eighth example involved loss of key staff and an investigation into CEO conduct. A ninth example involved a CEO deliberately blocking board access to a potential successor and silencing of other senior management, from the board. A tenth example was a CEO of an iconic Canadian company shielding his compensation and expense arrangements from all directors, until I was called in by a regulator to investigate.

By the time I am called in, much of the damage has been done. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

The board’s most important job is hiring, paying and firing the CEO. Boards can get all of corporate governance wrong, but hire the right CEO, and be successful. Boards can hire the wrong CEO, and the company will fail even if the board has high governance scores.

The question that boards, prior to my coaching, often have for me is “Can the CEO change?” There are two things that are needed to change: awareness of the deficiency, and a willingness to change. I am optimistic, and usually have coaching success, but in a few instances, the CEO would not or could not change and I recommended firing the CEO.

Here are lessons for CEO coaching for any board:

The CEO’s coach is always hired by, and accountable to, the Board Chair and the Governance Committee, not the CEO.

For CEO coaching to work, the coach should understand board dynamics and report directly to the Board Chair, not the CEO. The Coach reports on coaching sessions, developmental plans, deliverables and progress, candidly and thoroughly, without the CEO present.

Prospective CEOs should be thoroughly vetted.

Normally, people’s personalities are stable, and the warning signs were visible long before the CEO was hired. A wrong CEO hire is always the board’s fault. Proper vetting now includes detailed resume checks, reference checks, professional background checks, social media and profile checks, personality testing against culture, exposure to all Directors, and multiple interviews in different settings, using external assistance. Put rigor and independence behind the CEO hire, base it on the strategic plan, and conduct an external search if only to test the market. Boards then make the mistake of not working closely with the new CEO after hire, and not onboarding them.

Collect your data and listen to employees.

CEO evaluation should always be 360 degrees, and include a board line of sight to views of direct reports in an anonymous fashion. Employee surveys should not be funneled by management, but should occur anonymously, reporting right into the boardroom. There are even software programs now that will collect employee meta-data for boards so bad news rises.

Link CEO behavior to pay incentives.

Frequently, I find the CEO has little incentive to change, as most of the pay metrics are financial and short-term in nature. In CEO coaching assignments, I normally restructure the CEO’s pay package to include non-financial metrics such as leadership, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, company culture, CEO succession planning, and/or board relations, or a combination of the above. Indeed, now, 75% of the value of a company are leading intangible measurements, such as the ones I mention, so pay metrics should reflect this. People behave the way you pay them. Boards often make the mistake of incentivizing aggressive, even unethical behavior. CEO pay should be tied explicitly, unambiguously, to ethical conduct.

Have the tough conversation with the CEO early on.

In two recent board meetings, I had to ask both CEOs to leave the room. The conversation completely changes when this happens. A board talks about CEO performance openly. When the CEO is called back into the meeting, there is a message delivered to the CEO by the Board Chair. The message is that the Board wants the CEO to succeed, and that behavioural and leadership issues need to be addressed. The CEO has to receive this message, the board needs to be aligned, and the executive session without management is the first step. Executive sessions should occur at each and every single board and committee meeting. To this day, remarkably, there are still CEOs who do not leave board meetings. The last thing a dominant or misbehaving CEO wants to do (and many CEOs are type As) is to leave the room.

Craft the CEO contract properly.

The person advising on the CEO contract should not be the company lawyer, nor the law firm that advises management. These people have a vested interest in not making the CEO contract hard-hitting. Firing a CEO “for cause” should be defined and broader than fraud. Just as athletes and entertainers have morals clauses in their contracts, CEOs should as well. The reputational, morale, talent and financial damage from CEO misconduct, to the company and to Directors, can be significant. Misconduct should be properly drafted to include ethical and professional conduct, with a defined process to determine whether a CEO is ever offside, with which the Board and CEO agree.

Engage in CEO succession planning and be prepared to fire the CEO.

There is a direct relationship between CEO leverage over a board and the lack of CEO succession planning by that board. CEO behaviours can get worse when the Board has no immediate or near-ready CEO successor.

In one major company, I detected defensiveness by the CEO and disrespect of certain directors. I found out that the CEO refused coaching, and that the board was four years out from an internal candidate being CEO-ready. “This is your failure as a board,” I said. The CEO is taking advantage of you because you have no options.

Conclusion

Some of the country’s best CEOs have had personal coaching, and that has contributed directly to their and the company’s success. No one is perfect, and we all benefit from one-on-one feedback, peer assessment, mentoring, and motivating coaches and trainers. Boards should see CEO coaching as a wise investment, and in the longer-term so old habits do not return.

Richard Leblanc is a governance consultant, lawyer, academic, speaker and advisor to leading boards of directors. His recent book is entitled The Handbook of Board Governance. Dr. Leblanc can be reached at rleblanc@boardexpert.com or followed on Twitter @drrleblanc.

Advice to Boards: Renew Your Directors or Shareholders May Do It For You

Here is a top 10 list reflecting forty recent director and executive interviews and ongoing advice and assessment provided to activist investors and boards.

Infuse your board with a shareholder mindset and directors with value creation track records

“Too many service providers” … “with no industry experience” … “who have not run anything” and “who lack value creation experience” go silent when tough business decisions need to be made, directors say. They “cannot provide the hard core insights to the management team” other than “be careful.” They default to process, “flavors of the day,” and recency, rather than leading substance and strategy. Directors and executives describe such formally independent but experientially lacking directors as “immature,” “provincial,” and “naïve.” Management is more critical: They “lack depth” and “contribute nothing.” Trying to get them off the board, in the words of one director, is like “pulling teeth.”

Remove over-tenured directors and ensure committee chair rotation

Long-serving legacy directors and committee chairs are described as “tired” and “complacent” by fellow directors who have been there “much too long,” and block renewal efforts when “they are the most conflicted.” Research suggests that directors beyond nine years diminish shareholder value. Tough discussions are occurring in boardrooms. Conflicted directors should leave the room during the discussion, directors say. Long-serving directors are loath to give directorships up, arguing they are different. Fellow directors and investors are increasingly unpersuaded by self-interest.

Conduct an independent performance review

One answer, according to head of corporate governance at CalSTRS Anne Sheehan who served on a recent panel discussion with me, is to have independent director performance reviews, with expectations set at the outset, and link the results to renewal. Don’t rely on retirement age as a performance proxy. Directors and regulators are mandating independent reviews. Blockage by self-serving chairs and directors are increasingly falling onto deaf ears. The review should have consequences, which means removing directors who have outlived their usefulness. “Rigorous evaluation,” consistently is a theme in my interviews. If a board blocks independent critical review, or does not act on the results, investors will step into the gap, and it will be far more consequential, costly and adverse.

Engage directly with investors on board performance and composition

What investors want to see now is recent, relevant, validated industry experience contributing directly to the company’s value creation chain, by each and every director. If a board cannot lead a value creation model that is endorsed by major investors, including capital and asset allocation and performance, and what each director’s contribution is to that, the board is vulnerable. Few boards have conducted this internal review with the rigor that an activist does. Camera-ready boards are having structured meetings with long-term shareholders to listen, learn and act. Boards ignore investors at their peril.

Address director origination and its impact on independence

Assume that investors will ferret out any and all conflicts, including friendships. If a director has previous or current relationships, to each other or to management, they lack independence and will not ask tough questions, new research suggests, unlike directors who are recruited primarily on the basis of merit who are unknown previously to the board. These directors are “owned” is the common refrain. Current examples include reciprocity, favours and capture. These directors cannot push back as the cost is too great. They are part of management. Therefore, boards need to rid themselves of these directors and discontinue recruiting based on prior relationships.

Diversify your board to add value

Make sure your board is diverse, and underpinned by the skill sets needed. Many companies do not have board diversity policies. Defensive, perfunctory policies are not useful. The best policies are prescriptive, have measureable objectives, and define diversity, with increasing numbers that a board holds itself responsible for meeting and on which progress is reported. There are measureable objectives for gender, age, ethnicity that align with the company, its business, its industry, and the markets in which it operates.

Focus on company performance over governance box-ticking

Governance has been a cottage industry dominated by self-serving professional advisors and associations, many directors and investors have told me. The pendulum as swung so far, such that investor performance is either entirely absent or an afterthought rather than the primary focus. “You can tick all the governance boxes, and underperform your peers,” one director states. So-called governance awarded companies have even been rife with corruption. Conversely, you can have many governance boxes unticked and perform for investors. Good boards do not let the governance tail wag the performance dog. Investors want performance, not governance accolades. We know that governance rating agencies and proxy advisory firms have metrics that lack prescriptive validity. We see award-winning companies who have failed in their performance, subsequently being attacked by activists with share price appreciation soon following. Activists are unimpressed, and, increasingly, the governance community is questioning its own focus and priorities. One award winning company with a director who has seen the activist light remarked that his board could be “10 times stronger.”

Conduct a thorough transparent director competency review, and act on the results

The director competency matrix belongs to investors and directors, not management. A matrix can be back-doored and manipulated, resulting in a complacent board. An inclusive, dynamic, objective, peer-to-peer, validated matrix review will generate development opportunities, remove directors who are lacking, and generate desired skills in the next directors. Regulators are calling for curriculum vitaes, interviews, and want to see each director is fit for purpose. Boards are wise to ensure that matrix design and administration is expert, free from management control, and reflects investor input.

Focus on softer director attributes

Skills I have recently developed for directors include: integrity, teamwork, communication and commitment. If only one director does not possess these, a board can be poisoned. These attributes can and should be recruited for and validated. A director who is lacking and cannot improve should be promptly replaced. The best boards are embarking on this review.

Display leadership and integrity

Lastly, ultimately, board renewal is about leadership and integrity. The Board Chair position is rapidly maturing. Directors who dig in and entrench are placing their own interests ahead of those of the company, resulting in grave disquiet. This is an integrity issue. Entrenched directors should do the right thing when it is time to go. Activism has become mainstream and shareholders may have much greater power in the future than they do now to propose effective and remove ineffective directors, if directors do not do it themselves.

Richard Leblanc: Ten Corporate Governance Trends for 2014

1.         Active owners focused on performance. Expect pressure by activists and institutions for boards to control under-performing management to continue unabated. Boards incapable or unwilling to rein in inefficiencies, improper capital allocation, asset mismanagement, or operational improvements will be targets. Directors whose skills do not support value creation; and ossification, complacency and atrophy more broadly, will also be targets.

2.         Shareholder accountability: Expect greater direct communication between boards and major shareholders, with “listening” mode and restricted management access continuing. Look also for pressure on asset owners themselves, by investee companies, for engagement transparency, protocols and disclosure. Expect proxy access demands by investors to continue; management and retained advisor resistance to it; and potential regulation enabling it in the future.

3.         Regulation. Continued widespread regulation targeting boards will continue. Industry Canada is contemplating governance reforms in 2014 or beyond. In the US, pay for performance, clawbacks, pay ratios, and proxy advisory regulations are likely in 2014.

4.         Director and auditor entrenchment. Expect pressure for board renewal and auditor rotation to continue in 2014. This will take the form of tenure limits, caps on directorships, diversity legislation, director and auditor evaluation, and mandatory requests for audit tender. Expect continued resistance by incumbent directors and the big 4, but expect also shareholder pressure and regulation to overcome.

5.         Cybercrime and other operational and reputation risks. Expect lawsuits targeting boards for data breach and investor loss at Adobe, Skype, Target, Neiman Marcus and Snapchat that precipitate governance enhancements. Expect greater risk regulation and spends for financial service companies and non-banks. Many boards and management have immature risk management, deficient – or at times non-existent – controls over IT, operational, and reputation risks. Look for efforts by good boards to have risk expertise on the board; internal oversight functions and third party reviews reporting to the board; and assurance over the entire risk appetite framework. Expect lawsuits and increasing regulation for the laggards.

6.         Focus on longer-term value creation. Expect asset owners to exert pressure on directors and asset managers to develop long-term metrics commensurate with the product and risk cycle of the company. Pay metrics such as health, innovation, culture, R and D, etc. will drive long-term investment. Look for “integrated” reporting and metric maturity in 2014 and 2015, making it easier for corporate boards to direct long-term non-financial incentive pay and investment.

7.         Focus on the Board Chair. Expect greater movement to non-executive Chairs from Lead Directors in the US, and Chair position maturity in other Anglo-American countries. Look for rigorous roles and responsibilities of board chairs developing, beyond formal independence, including driving value creation and company performance for investors.

8.         Greater clarity on pay for performance. Look for guidance by the SEC, including on realizable pay. Expect movement from short term, quantitative, financial pay metrics to long term, non-financial, qualitative, multi-year return metrics, and pay that adjusts for risk and performance over the longer term, with greater discretion to compensation committees and boards – and if necessary shareholders.

9.         Tightening up of independence standards. Look for boards to tighten up independent standards over lawyers, compensation consultants, auditors, and themselves, to arrive at “non-conflicted directors getting non-conflicted advice.” Look for scrutiny over soft management influence and capture over all of the above. Expect continued regulation if or when boards resist.

10.       Greater focus on culture, whistleblowing, tone in the middle, and anti corruption. Expect good boards to go beyond the CEO to scrutinize compensation of “risk takers” anywhere in the organization; share the hiring, firing and compensation decisions for risk, internal audit, compliance and the CFO; and receive assurance and reporting over all material risks and controls. CEOs (or any operating or senior management) who block or are not transparent should be regarded as red flags.

Richard Leblanc is a governance lawyer, academic, speaker and independent advisor to leading boards of directors. He can be reached at rleblanc@yorku.ca or followed on Twitter @drrleblanc.


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