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Boards Should Not Misjudge Regulators

When a regulator advises corporate directors that progress on gender diversity is “simply not good enough,” that is code that the status quo will not continue, and that more regulation may result. And the second wave of regulation is often worse than the first.

Regulators have limited levers at their discretion. They are not going to come into boardrooms and assess performance. Thus, they are tending to land on numbers: ranging from 9-10 years for director tenure and 25% – 50% quotas for women.

Once or if this happens, directors will complain that the regulator is imposing a ‘one sized fits all’ or ‘check the box’ solution, when directors had the chance to act but chose not to. We have seen this pattern before. Paradoxically, directors may choose not to act, waiting for stronger regulation, to which they can then point and say, “now we have no choice.” Even the CEO of a major bank told regulators, “you should push us on gender targets.”

Canadian regulators have adopted a flexible and progressive ‘comply or explain’ approach to director term limits and gender diversity.

The progress recently reported is, in a word, inadequate: Only 19% of boards surveyed have term limits; only 14% disclose written diversity policies; and only 7% have targets for women on their board.

Our comply or explain regime has the disadvantage of permitting explanations that are irrelevant or spurious, such as targets for women not being adopted because candidates are selected based on merit, as if both goals are mutually exclusive. There is not an excuse for inadequate governance progress that I have not encountered.

But the real reason for the above low figures, which is not in the public domain, is self-interest. Why would any director, particularly an over-tenured male director, agree to a policy that moved him out of the boardroom? Directors speak in code publicly, but in private interviews, many open up. I had a 28-year director tear up when I recommended a 12-year term limit for his board, without grandfathering.

The academic evidence in favor of director term limits and diversity is becoming more clear: Diverse groups make better decisions. And over-tenured directors are worse for innovation and shareholder value. Regulators – in several countries – are acting. Regulators want independent directors who are the most qualified sitting in boardroom seats. As they should.

In Canada, regulators have not imposed quotas or term limits, but these should not be ruled out if inadequate progress continues. Regulators have asked boards to articulate their own numbers, and why that number works for them.

This brings us to what directors and boards should be doing to forestall further regulation. Here are my recommendations:

  • Do not misjudge the regulator, or the importance of gender diversity for the new federal and the current provincial Liberal governments. Tone-deaf boards should listen.
  • Act on conflicts of interest. If a tenure or diversity policy affects one or more of your directors, excuse these directors from the room. They should not influence the decision.
  • Do not assume director consensus. There are directors who believe that other directors have outlived their usefulness and should be replaced.
  • Land on a target. If your board has zero women, start with one woman as your target. Targets should be aspirational and dynamic.
  • If you think 9 years is too low for director tenure, choose 12 years. 15 years is on the high end, and companies are landing on 12, particularly large, complex companies. But pick a target.
  • If you do not pick a target for director tenure, then you best have a rigorous and consequential peer director assessment regime, whose output is actual director resignations. The evidence is that many boards do not have or do this.
  • Do not assume that your board can draft an inadequate tenure or diversity policy, and that this will go unnoticed. The regulator is offering guidance and examples of robust policies.
  • Own the policy. Draft the policy yourself, or have an independent advisor assist you. Management or company advisors are not independent. They work for you and have a vested interest in keeping you satisfied.
  • Watch for past practices that might bias women, including assertions that your talent pool is shallow. If your talent pool are directors whom you know, rather than the best directors available, then you best enlarge your talent pool.
  • Regulators are giving you an opportunity to craft policies that work for you. Do so. No director is irreplaceable, and directorships are not lifetime appointments. But if you believe a particular director’s tenure is advantageous, use average director tenure or have exceptions built into a policy to give you degrees of freedom.

The regulatory evidence, above, is that boards may be incapable of changing from within. As such, regulators will act when boards do not.

A rebuttal to Terence Corcoran’s “OSFI and the bureaucratization of corporate governance”

Terence Corcoran launched a scathing attack against recent regulatory announcements by the Office of Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) and the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) on assessing and interviewing directors, and strengthening gender diversity, respectively.

OSFI announced, in a draft advisory, that it intended to ask for curricula vitae of, and interview, certain directors and senior management, who include oversight functions. The Ontario Securities Commission, in a request for comment, has proposed disclosure amendments that include addressing term limits; the representation of women on boards and in executive officer appointments; and internal targets that companies could set to achieve greater gender diversity.

Mr. Corcoran calls OSFI’s announcement a “bureaucratization” of governance; contends that the OSC will “force” women directors onto boards in a “social policy agenda”; and calls an academic study “Junk Science,” while accusing the study’s authors of “manipulating” their data: a very serious charge. All these contentions warrant a counterpoint.

Currently, financial institution and public company directors are self-selected by themselves or, worse yet, management. Shareholders may not propose their choice of, or remove incumbent, directors. They press for this right, otherwise known as “proxy access,” (e.g., shareholders who own 3% of common shares for three years can propose up to 25% of a board’s directors in an uncontested election), but boards resist. Company management has challenged proxy access in court, and has won.

Therefore, there is no third party oversight or validation of director skills, qualifications and selection. This reality enables self-interest, entrenchment, recruitment on the basis of personal relationships, discrimination, and directors who do not possess requisite expertise and background.

My own research and work with boards suggests directors can and often are conflicted through gifts, donations, offices, vacations, jobs for acquaintances, prior friendships, and other perks that management gives them. I have observed and assessed bank directors who tell me they do not understand acronyms that are being discussed. One director, emblematic of many, told me, “we don’t understand derivatives.” I have witnessed directors: arrive unprepared for meetings; fall asleep at meetings; who have “not made a single contribution in years” (according to other directors); and who do not do “any of this” (proper risk management). In one instance, a female director was proposed to a largely male OSFI regulated board, and a male director remarked “she’s attractive … since she likes skiing and sailing, she’ll be a good board member.” In another, a director asked “You want us to appoint a lady to our board?” A board chair once told me “There are only twenty women in Canada who are board ready.” (The qualification to be a director is often minimal: over 18, not bankrupt, and not insane.)

I also regularly conduct reviews of significant companies where directors are lacking in relevant industry and risk expertise. This is not true of all boards.

In short, how directors are selected, and what their qualifications are, are largely shielded from scrutiny. Investors are left to rely on fuzzy short bios, and assertions that a proper recruitment process based solely on merit has occurred.

OSFI enacted significant changes to governance, requiring: boards to have directors with risk and financial industry expertise; an explicit risk appetite framework; and oversight functions (including internal audit) reporting directly to them.

I know of at least one bank, one utility, and one university (and these were the only three organizations I checked) where the Internal Audit function reports to the CEO or CFO, which is wrong.

Corporate governance involves a legacy of “independent” directors, opaque selection, and deficient reporting, assurance and internal controls. Interviews, CV checks, and greater disclosure, which shareholders should be doing, can put the heat on boards to clean much of this up. Regulators have shown internationally that they are prepared to conduct interviews and enact competency matrixes in the absence of shareholder oversight. If boards wish to forestall regulation, the answer is to improve their practices and disclosure consistent with best practice, which now includes diversification.

Indeed, Canada is late to this global board diversity movement. The majority of peer countries around the world have already enacted diversity legislation, in many cases in a much more intrusive approach than the balanced and proportionate approach the OSC is suggesting. Mr. Corcoran states the OSC is going to “force” companies to appoint more women. This in my view is not correct because companies with no or few women on their boards are free to describe why this is the case, and why this should continue.

This is not a bureaucratization of governance, but a prudent assurance of systemically important financial institutions. Interviews are wise because simple questions, such as “To whom do you report?” “How did you come to be selected?” and “What relationships do you have with directors or management?” address what CVs can hide.

Shareholders can tell when they meet with a director whether that director is “camera ready,” and OSFI will be able to as well. If a director is camera ready, and possesses all the requisite qualifications to be fit and proper, they should have nothing to worry about. Indeed, good directors should welcome the interview.

Lastly, Mr. Corcoran derides academic studies. This past summer, a primary drafter of guidelines that had a profound effect on governance and director selection in Canada remarked publicly, “We did virtually no research.” This is unfortunate because academics bring something to the table. They adopt an independent, evidence-based approach. I have numerous studies underscoring the positive effects women on boards have. There are studies suggesting CEOs do not make better directors; tenure beyond 9 years diminishes shareholder value; and busy boards with over-boarded directors result in diminished board oversight and performance. People should not be afraid of, or deride, academic studies. On the contrary, they should welcome and learn from them.

Academic studies should be more widely consulted, not less. My own LinkedIn group, Boards and Advisors, has almost 10,000 members, attesting to the benefits of academic, practitioner – and journalist – interaction.

Richard Leblanc is an Associate Professor, Law, Governance & Ethics, at York University. He also teaches corporate governance at Harvard University, and regularly advises boards and regulators. His views are his own. Disclosure: Professor Leblanc has advised, and has been retained by, OSFI and the OSC.

My submission on gender diversity to the Ontario Securities Commission

There was a consultation paper put out by the Ontario Securities Commission, Canada’s largest securities regulator. See the paper here, which calls for responses on page 20, and deadline was extended to Oct 4, 2013.

Here is my letter in Word, here.


Getting More Women on Canadian Boards, Part 1

The Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) should be congratulated for addressing gender diversity last week. Other than Quebec, the addressing of boardroom and senior management diversity (beyond gender) has been long overdue in Canada.

However, the central thrust of the proposal is a “policy” that listed companies may – or may not – draft; and that listed companies may – or may not – disclose. Measureable objectives within the policy may – or may not – occur. These requirements are very wishy-washy. This is an overly tempered, passive and permissive approach.

The OSC’s approach was said to be modeled off of the Australian one, but it was not in several dimensions, as I read things. The Australian approach actually defined diversity, which goes beyond women, and holds companies responsible for setting measureable objectives and reporting specific progress against their achievement. There are several content suggestions Australia provided as well. The UK’s approach to diversity is also stronger than the OSC’s, as are several countries in Europe.

A “policy” approach with insufficient guidance is unwise. The Americans adopted this approach with regard to diversity and it has been an abject failure. Clever lawyers can craft well sounding polices that are so general that it is virtually impossible not to comply with them. I remember one case where a NYSE company lawyer (a white male) actually tried to convince me that eleven all-white-male directors were, indeed, diverse because all the men had a diversity of “perspective” and “opinion.” This is what happens when regulators are passive or complacent.

This is part of a larger issue with the OSC, and that is inadequate articulation of principles and practices within its overall corporate governance framework. Other than disclosure, here, which is in turn modeled off of guidelines for publicly-listed companies, the actual guidelines are a mere four pages. They have not been updated since the financial crisis and are outdated, originally drafted in 2004 and approved in 2005.

For example, the approach to risk management within this National Policy is only two lines. (See 3.4 (b) and (c) here.) This hardly captures what has happened in the field of risk governance best practice since 2008. I advised a company last week that had a massive risk management failure and the word “risk” is not even mentioned in the vast majority of its governance terms of reference documents. This is hardly surprising given the OSC’s approach to risk itself.

The superficial approach to strategic planning and value creation is similar (See 3.4 (b) here.) A TSX board must simply “adopt” a strategic planning process [what exactly is a “strategic planning process”?], and approve a strategic plan once a year that takes into account the risks of the business. It is hardly surprising that strategy gets short shrift in many boards, my research suggests.

Without guidance, any policy, approach, or plan, or even a director “competency” can mean whatever the drafter [usually management or an advisor beholden to them] wants it to mean. This is precisely where blockage, entrenchment, and ultimately decision-making failure can and does occur.

What the OSC should instead do is move towards a comprehensive framework of governance (i) principles and (ii) practices that achieve the objectives of the principles, which other jurisdictions use. A series of succinct almost binary guidelines is simply inadequate and naive. Other jurisdictions, such as the UK, South Africa and EU have far more comprehensive principle and practice approaches, which guide companies when they comply or explain. A set of recommended practices, when it comes to diversity for example, can be pointed to by progressive directors or investors. And it is not an excuse that comprehensive principles and practices cannot be crafted because of the variety of Canadian companies. South Africa has just as great a variety of companies, and its King III Code, which is one of the most comprehensive in the world, applies to all types of companies, including: listed, private, not profit and state owned. Principles and practices is a drafting exercise and require work.

Without principles and practices, other initiatives such as diversity are bootstrapped onto inadequate guidelines.

Take individual competencies and skills of directors for example, which relate to diversity. TSX companies should recruit directors on the basis of “competencies” and “skills” (see sections 3.12 – 3.14 here), but nowhere are “competencies” or “skills” defined, nor are examples of competencies or specific expertise suggested. Other Canadian regulators (including ones I have advised) are more specific in articulating what expertise directors are expected to possess, offering comprehensive frameworks and practices, including for risk management.

Otherwise, a company is free to draft fluffy guidelines, policies, charters, and so on, that are largely public relations exercises or designed to keep the power with management, rather than designed to advance the spirit of what the regulator intended. They ultimately have limited force or effect. They are designed to protect and forestall. Many of the companies I research who have failed have similar fluffy policies. Retained management lawyers perpetuate this with cut and paste precedent exercises spread amongst their clients.

Without sufficient guidance provided by a regulator, short bios occur; or it is simply stated that a director possesses a given competency, without articulating how and when the competency was acquired. What happens here is that women are short-shrifted as they are alleged not to have the experience or the qualifications when they may or do. Second, guidance can be offered on how directors should come to be selected for membership, including interviews, short-lists, advertisements and so on, as other jurisdictions are doing.

In my next blog, I will outline specific defects of the above OSC’s proposed policy, in accordance with best practices other jurisdictions have adopted.

Diversification of Corporate Boards – Suggestions for Action

Last week, I presented “eight traps” limiting the diversification of corporate boards. Here I present some proposed solutions.

Leadership by Shareholders

Major institutional shareholders should commit resources to develop an electronic registry of prospective directors based on skills, experience and attributes. The technology exists and doing so will begin the dialogue of shareholders proposing prospective directors. In Canada, the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (“CCGG”) and Ontario Teachers Pension Plan Board should develop registries. See how CalSTRS and CalPERS have done it.

Investor groups should propose model diversity policies, with best practice language, for investee boards to adopt, similar to what was done for majority voting and say on pay. Women and minority groups should be explicitly mentioned in the policy.

Leadership by Companies

Companies should disclose how prospective directors are assessed for board membership. This disclosure should include the use of a competency matrix, assessment of skills and experiences, candidate origination, advertising of board vacancies, short-listing, interviews, recommendation to shareholders, and mentoring and on-boarding practices. This disclosure should be public and on the company’s website.

Companies should adopt self-objectives for diversifying their board and senior management team, and disclose to shareholders progress in this regard annually.

Leadership by Regulators

Regulators should consider imposing a tenure limit of 9 years on company boards, as is done in other countries, including the UK, Singapore and Hong Kong. Regulators should provide guidance to companies on defining diversity and its benefits, including on debate and decision-making within the boardroom.

Regulators should provide guidance to companies on the transparency and disclosure of director nomination practices (see above), and give greater consideration to the role of investors can and should play in selecting and removing directors.

Leadership by Search Firms

Search firms should develop and adopt a rigorous and readily disclosed firm- or industry-wide code of principles and practice. The code should address methods firms use for validating candidate competencies; initial selection, short-listing and recommendation practices; conflicts of interest; confidentiality; remuneration policy; client loyalty; quality of service; assurance controls; and enforcement.

Leadership by Industry Associations

The National Association of Corporate Directors (“NACD”), Institute of Corporate Directors (“ICD”) Institute of Directors, and large shareholder associations (including pension plans and unions) should disclose CEO/President succession plans (referencing the skills and experience of the next CEO); the total compensation of the incumbent CEO; and the internal pay equity ratios of other officers within the organization. This disclosure is regarded as best practice for listed companies, and director and shareholder groups should follow suit. Such disclosure would provide member information and interest prospective CEOs (internal or external). The CCGG, NACD and ICD nominating committees should give consideration to appointing a next female or minority CEO with a value creation background (e.g., investor or entrepreneurial) as opposed to a compliance one (e.g., accounting or legal).

Industry associations should develop robust competency matrixes for company boards to use in selecting directors.

Some of the above suggestions may be controversial, but different models and techniques are needed if progress is to be made.

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