Board best practices in an era of hybrid corporate governance

What are the current board best practices across different governance situations, different ownership forms and jurisdictions, and different industries and maturity of companies?

By Karen Loon and Pamela Ravasio, IDN Board Members

On 26 April 2021, over 100 INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) members had the opportunity to share their international experiences of best practices of hybrid corporate governance in a webinar facilitated by Liselotte Engstam IDP-C and IDN board member.

What were some of the current corporate governance best practices which our global members have observed?

 

The increasing importance of ESG and sustainability

Sustainability and ESG are increasingly hot topics in the boardroom.  It was highlighted that organisations that have so far embraced and succeeded in making good progress in ESG and sustainability have a track record of being more purpose driven.  For organisations with a different history and have not been predominantly purpose driven from their inception, it is much harder, and they have to ‘learn’ or even reinvent themselves to make significant progress in this area.

This is a challenge that not only businesses face. Even many NGOs and not-for-profits who have so far fared well focusing on single issues (for example, animal rights and veganism), have to update their ‘raison d’etre’. Adjusting to a world where not single, but complex and multi-dimensions ESG and sustainability challenges need addressing is something novel for many of them.

It can hence be said that, for organisations, the process towards embracing and embedding ESG and sustainability needs to be viewed as part of change management and culture change exercises, as it will have significant implications on new business, reporting, disclosure and future success, none of which can easily be templated.

Associated with this, some believe that ESG and sustainability discussions at the board level are taking place at a relatively high level (30,000 feet level) and have concerns that there may be a disconnect between board discussions and what is happening at the ground level.  It has been pointed out that best practice board members are visiting facilities or possibly even have independent conversations with on-the-ground members of their network to ensure they understand what sustainability means at the working level, and to feel the organisation’s temperature.

Luckily it becomes also increasingly common for ESG dashboards to be used within organisations. Such tools, assuming that appropriate and relevant metrics are being used, allow for a quick change of altitude and effective deep dives if and where required.

The evolving role of the board and the chair

In an environment where regulators, the investment community, and stakeholders are focused on the purpose and strategy of companies and board performance, directors need to become increasingly curious and ensure that they have the right lenses on the future of their organisations.

In a hybrid corporate governance environment, the role of the chair is essential to invigorate open discussions, create safe spaces and ensure that the board has sufficient time to reflect.  The chair also needs to ensure that he/she doesn’t “broadcast” and that boards operating virtually do not compromise on the quality of debate, become too tunnel-visioned and functional, and have short-sighted discussions.

Board meetings are getting shorter; however, there may need to be more discussions on important topics such as innovation, some of which may need to be away from the board room.

Finally, with an increase in the number of start-up boards, boards and their directors are focusing on best practices in pulling together start-up boards, finding the right directors, and professionalising them.

Board composition – Bringing new perspectives into the board room

With new pressures on companies and their directors requiring them to bring new perspectives into the board room, most boards have been looking at how they can find the right talent.  Expectations on nominating committees to increase the value that they add to their organisations are rising.

In line with increasing recognition that not all expertise needs to be on the board, many companies have established advisory boards to advise management, which allows for talent gaps to be filled more quickly and supplement internal resources.  Some are including people with innovation, digital and ESG expertise on these boards.

Boards are also looking for directors to bring more contrarian views.  Examples include having younger voices in the boardroom, obtaining employee points of view (to understand well-being and resilience) and inviting customers to speak to boards.  The composition of the board needs should take into consideration the need for generational and other diverse views, as well as experience.  Others are looking for expertise beyond their borders. For example, some of the leading practices concerning digital are from Asia (specifically China) and Africa.

Improving board effectiveness

In line with the need for boards to be more agile, more established boards are doing evaluations and gap analyses, which are essential given the speed of change and the need to quickly assess whether boards need new talent.  These are formal and informal, take place more frequently, and look at what to start, stop and continue, moving beyond a checklist approach.

Over the past 18 months, most boards have become more digitally savvy. However, some highlighted that having one or two board members with digital experience doesn’t translate to the whole board collaborating well using technology.  It is taking time for most boards to learn how to best use technology in the boardroom, with some needing to accelerate their progress in this area.  One tool that some boards are exploring is the use of electronic signatures.

 

IDN’s next webinar on Successful Family Business Boards – Best Practice Discussions will be held on Monday, 17 May 2021.

 

INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) – An INSEAD Global Club of International Board Directors

Our Mission is to foster excellent Corporate Governance through networking, communication and self-improvement. IDN has 1,500 members from 80 countries, all Alumni from different INSEAD graduations as MBA, EMBA, GEMBA, and IDP-C. We meet in live IDN webinars and meet-ups arranged by our IDN Ambassadors based in 25 countries. Our IDN website holds valuable corporate governance knowledge in our IDN blog, and we share insights also to our LinkedIn and Twitter followers. We highlight our member through quarterly sharing of their new board appointments, and once a year we give out IDN Awards to prominent board accomplishments. We provide a peer-to-peer mentoring and board vacancy service and we come together two times per year at the INSEAD Directors Forum arranged by ICGC. We also engage with ICGC on joint research.

 

INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre (“ICGC”)

Established in 2010, the INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre (ICGC) has been actively engaged in making a distinctive contribution to the knowledge and practice of corporate governance. The ICGC harnesses faculty expertise across multiple disciplines to teach and research on the challenges of boards of directors in an international context and to foster a global dialogue on governance issues with the ultimate goal to develop boards for high-performance governance. Visit ICGC website: https://www.insead.edu/centres/corporate-governance

 

Cognitive Biases on the board & Corporate Climate Change Inertia

By Pamela Ravasio, IDP-C and IDN Board Member

The influence of decision bias is nothing new when scrutinizing corporate governance. For good reason a not insignificant amount of time during INSEAD’s International Directors Programme (IDP) is spent looking into decision biases as well as learning about how to remedy them in the board context.

Further, we all are aware: The consensus that climate change is having already huge consequences not just for the planet but also on corporate operations, risk profiles and profits. And yet: by and large businesses continue to fail to adjust their strategic decision-making processes to become more climate viable. At best they have just barely started on their journey.

Why is that? As we look deeper into the corporate discourse on Climate Change, it becomes evident that one of the silent yet crucial culprits behind the climate change inertia lies in the cognitive biases at play in corporate decision making.

A recap on decision biases: What is it, and what types exist?

There exist a plethora of cognitive biases recognised in psychology and decision making theory. Only a subset however seems to be of practical relevance for the decision process on boards. Some of the most frequently encountered biases in this context are the Anchor Bias, the Loss-Aversion Bias, or Availability Bias – all of which are being looked into during the IDP.

Equally drawing from the IDP: A good part of the Fair Leadership Process is also intended to neutralise such decision biases, or at the very least to make them explicit and challengeable.

Decision Bias and ESG: Cause and Effect

A 2017 California Management Review article found that in the context of corporate decision processes related to Climate Change – notably on boards – four bias types are of particular relevance: Framing Bias, Optimism Bias, Relevance Bias, and Volition Biases.

What are those biases, what do they mean for boards in the context of strategic Climate Change decisions, and what can be done about it?

Bias 1: Framing Bias:

  • Definition: “Framing bias occurs when people make a decision based on the way the information is presented, as opposed to just on the facts themselves. The same facts presented in two different ways can lead to people making different judgments or decisions.” (Source)
  • Board decision impact: Already framing the issue for example as ‘Climate Change’ rather than ‘Global Warming’ or ‘Climate Emergency’ disguises the urgency with which actions are needed, as well as the extremely tight timelines, and concentrated actions and investments needed. Framing is often decisive in identifying how urgent, critical, and bottom line relevant an issue is.
  • What to do about it? Language matters. Choosing wording carefully is a good start. Spelling out underlying assumptions is another good way to get to a more realistic picture of reality.

Bias 2: Optimism Bias:

  • Definition: People tend to overestimate the probability of positive events and underestimate the probability of negative events happening to them in the future. (Source)
  • Board decision impact: An example of the optimism bias in action is the assumption that advances in technology and innovation will allow us to revert Climate Change at a later date. Through such assumptions, responsibility is shifted away from the current context, and leads to inaction in the present.
  • What to do about it: Brutal honesty is necessary – and some significant efforts around spelling out what worst case scenarios could and would look like. Can a company successfully survive a worst case? And how exactly?

Bias 3: Relevance Bias:

  • Definition: Our subjective understanding of how important and critical an issue truly is, based on what we know or think to know. (Source)
  • Board decision impact: An example of this bias in action is that we all know that temperatures will rise between 2 and 5 degrees Celsius still this century. And yet – subjectively those temperature rises seem to be inconsequential. The reason being that as human beings – and as a consequence also in the professional roles we embody – we are already primed to ignore it.
  • What to do about it: Investigate how the information is anchored. For example in the above case, a 2 degrees temperature rise would be perceived through a subjective lens and set of experiences. Next, work on replacing those subjective views through a more objective, data driven but equally tangible (experiential, pictorial) description of the same, with the intent to replace the subjective experiences through those rooted in objective knowledge.

Bias 4: Volition Biases:

  • Definition: Broadly, these are errors in judgement that result from deferring responsibility (‘it is not my problem’), and can come in many forms such as through deference to authority or the ‘others do it as well effect’. (Source)
  • Board decision impact: Being reluctant to act because of an absence of a legal enshrined ‘level playing field’ is one of the most frequently cited versions of a Volition Bias. Another example is when companies finger point other players in their industry, say for not paying a living wage, and in this way justify their own behaviour and inaction.
  • What to do about it: Ask the question “What should the company (the board, the individual) do if the responsibility for change was theirs, and theirs alone?”

Conclusion

Climate Change “is the predominant moral issue of the 21st Century” (James Hansen, NASA climatologist). And yet, a recent survey shows that only 17% of Board of Directors serving on Sustainability committees have sustainability expertise. (Source, page 12).

Hence, while we’re waiting for boards to get their sustainability literacy up to speed and at a level comparable to their financial literacy: taking concrete measures to recognise, and remedy existing cognitive biases and their impact on decisions related to Climate Change action, is an effective, reasonably simple to grasp and implement, low hanging fruit that no doubt bears a considerable harvest.

 

Webinar: Sustainability and Climate in Strategy and Board Agenda

By Karen Loon, IDN Board Member and Non-Executive Director

With climate challenges increasing, the board has a responsibility to assess the impact and define strategies to handle the risk.  Are we as board members doing enough?  Do we understand how to address the topic?  What are the challenges and opportunities here?

INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) members had the opportunity to listen to Lise Kingo, IDP-C, NED and former executive director at UN Compact and Novo Nordisk, Stig P Christensen, IDP-C and NED, and Silvio Dulinsky, Head of Business Engagement Latin America, World Economic Forum held on 18 November 2020 in an exclusive webinar for members which was facilitated by IDN Board Member, Liselotte Engstam based in Sweden with Q&A support from Hagen Schweinitz, a fellow IDN Board Member based in Germany.

Top left – Lise Kingo, Top right – Silvio Dulinsky.  Bottom – Stig P Christensen

In their introductory remarks, the panellists covered three areas:

Responsible business is now a board and senior management agenda however climate and social inequality remains far behind

The Sustainable Development Goals were issued out five years ago.  Whilst there is much broader recognition that responsible business is now a key board and senior management agenda topic, after five years, we are still very far behind in the whole climate area and also social inequality.

Due to the huge gap and climate emergency across the globe, the whole area of climate change has developed and is now one of the most mature areas in relation to how companies can control, manage and set good risk and targets.  In particular, the financial community has put climate risk as a key priority through how they are setting targets.  Another recent initiative is that investors want to know how companies put climate risk costs into their accounts.

Climate will continue to stay on the board and management agenda.  However, companies need to develop more holistic approaches to running their businesses when it comes to ensuring a successful transition to a net-zero economy. There are a number of tools and initiatives in place to support board members in this process, which means there’s no reason for boards not to stat working on a transition strategy.

We are beyond a tipping point in relation to climate.

  1. We are beyond a tipping point – We have no time to waste. Policy-makers and business leaders have to their best to rapidly implement new ways forward, as younger generations are demanding.  Investors are increasingly more supportive of these changes.
  2. Green and digital is core business – There is currently a risk for boards to get stuck on the compliance and risk agenda and not address opportunity agenda. It is often hard for boards to have strong and precise discussions and evaluation of the opportunity side.  Boards should push this agenda beyond climate.  The way forward requires innovation of the regulatory framework which is currently work-in-progress.
  3. Open the windows and doors – Look outside beyond the borders of your company and M&A objectives you are facing with a systems lens on. Create symbiosis between different companies and sectors.
  4. Listen to the crowds – They can’t be on the boards, but they have to be heard by the company.

Tools are available to support boards. A value chain approach should be adopted.

Tools are available to support boards in relation to setting up effective Climate Governance.  Specifically, there are eight climate principles outlined in the World Economic Forum White Paper “How to Set Up Effective Climate Governance on Corporate Boards – Guiding principles and questions”.  These are:

  • Principle 1 – Climate accountability on boards
  • Principle 2 – Command of the subject; boards need the knowledge to debate and stay informed re climate related decisions.
  • Principle 3 – Board structure; the board structure needs to be effective to embed climate in the decision-making processes of the board and senior management.
  • Principle 4 – Material risk and opportunity assessment; management should assess and manage short, medium and long term climate related risks and opportunities.
  • Principle 5 – Strategic integration; management should integrate climate considerations into their strategic and financial planning of the company
  • Principle 6 – Incentivisation
  • Principle 7 – Reporting and disclosure; reporting and disclosure should be undertaken with the same rigour as a financial report.
  • Principle 8 – Exchange; engage peers, regulators, investors and the whole value chain in the process.

All companies, including SMEs are crucial in relation to transforming value chains.  The role of the board is to support the broader value chain changes required.

A challenge is how can we bring on board others who are not yet convinced on the importance of the issue.  The Chair and CEO as well as a critical mass of directors play a critical role to put climate on the agenda of the board to support driving the change.

Top – Liselotte Engstam.  Bottom – Hagen Schweinitz

Following the opening remarks, the panellists and IDN members engaged in lively discussion in relation to topics including:

  • The importance of getting climate on the board agenda.
  • Being proactive on climate before rules becoming mandatory. Global requirements on climate are increasing rapidly.
  • Leadership agenda – Set goals which are not only financial, but also deal with other areas including climate, diversity etc. to drive the change agenda. The importance of the role of the board to drive this.
  • The increasing focus on climate being placed by investors in more recent times.
  • How do boards look at the risks and opportunities in relation to climate?
  • Sustainability reporting including accountability, accounting and valuation considerations.
  • Directors’ fiduciary duties in relation to climate.

As Liselotte Engstam concluded:

“There’s no question that we need to have increased focus from board directors, and it also needs to be more inclusive and holistic, and we are getting much more attention from investors… Don’t just look at this as negative it’s a fantastic time especially now to look at (it as) a source such as an opportunity to rethink and re-set”.

The next exclusive IDN webinar will be on Getting your First Board Mandate which will be held on 1 December 2020 at 1200 – 1300 CET.

 

Distinction-cum-baggage: The board director’s track record

By Pamela Ravasio, IDP-C and IDN Board Member

A recent Bloomberg article found the following as they analysed the past and present professional affiliations of more than 600 directors and executives of the world’s 20 largest banks: Only few individuals had experience in renewable or sustainable industries. Far more had ties to polluting industries: At least 73 individuals even have at one time or another held a position with one or more of the biggest corporate emitters of greenhouse gases, including 16 connected to oil or refining companies.

More specifically: Of the four (4) banks where the boards directors offered some expertise in renewables or sustainability, every single one had significant links to ‘greener’ companies – notably in electric & utilities. The opposite held true for the remaining 16 of the 20 analysed boards.

In more succinct words: the study found that board expertise and prior affiliation of board directors correlated very well with the extent of investments into ‘emitting’ or ‘renewable’ energy companies.

Ironically, it is precisely the directors’ prior track record and experience, one of the very reasons why they got (s)elected onto the board, that could jeopardize their board’s forward decisions. Because – as the Bloomberg study showed – there are very, very few directors or even senior executives, with sufficient experience and track record in either renewables or sustainability. No matter their industry background.

…there are very, very few directors or even senior executives, with sufficient experience and track record in either renewables or sustainability. No matter their industry background.

To that point: there are even much fewer, if any, board directors in circulation that have a track record on how to marry the prosperity of a (their) company with business models that go above and beyond the traditional ‘growth model’, to just name one example. Hence, there is a tendency in relying on their past winning strategies to tackle the challenges in the wait for us to experience – globally as well as within individual businesses. This is like taking to the skies of the 21st century with technology from the era prior to the industrial revolution.

Track record bias: what is it, and why does it matter?

Track record bias is the unintentional bias directors introduce onto the board precisely through the very genuine, authentic and well-earned achievements of their prior career experiences.

Example: The former country manager of a large Aluminium firm with an excellent reputation for engagement with indigenous peoples and H&S joins the board of a major synthetic polymers company.

  • Pros: The new board director is very familiar with extractive industries, their environmental profile, the challenges around labour conditions and the global nature of such a low-margin business.
  • Cons: It may be tough for this new board director to consider viable alternative technologies based on renewable and/or recycled materials of origins, and the respective differences in client relationships, partnership models and global sales and logistics approaches.

Track record bias is something every director brings to the table once joining a board. In itself it is neither negative nor positive. In fact, consciously managed (key word: board thought diversity) it can add tremendous value by directing the board’s discussions into new, and so far unfamiliar terrain and in this way contribute to the resiliency efforts underway.

However, unsurprisingly the opposite it true if a board is not put together with clear priority given to thought diversity, as can be seen in the results of the Bloomberg research mentioned above.

And there is a somewhat simplistic reason for those results: Most board directors are or have been reasonably successful CEOs and CFOs, or else high-flying executives, of large(r) companies. Often in industries that are traditionally considered ‘adjacent’ to the company on whose board they are sitting.

Successful they may have been. But until very, very recently their role would not have required them to understand the implications of the Paris Climate Agreement, the SDGs, or the scientific consensus around climate adaptation for example. For most, such insights were allocated to the job descriptions of their sustainability speciality staff, or possibly the communications team, who in turn would have been required to pitch the traditional business case for any initiatives they saw necessary.

Board Diversity and Complementarity: The Origin of ESG[1] success and capability

In other words: not only do today’s board members by and large have very little practical experience when it comes to renewables, sustainability, or economic models that do not rely on pure and simple GDP growth. But they also have often built track records in industries that since decades are shown (and known) to be among the largest emitters, and thereby at the root of the current climatic challenges.

Therefore, unless such board directors are aware and accepting of the baggage they bring to a board table, and are willing to question the modus operandi of their industries of origin, their industry track record will only lead to more of the ‘old same’. And in this way merely perpetuate and replicate the issues found in precisely those emitting industries.

Once more: this is not to diminish such directors genuine track record acquired through hard work.

It is to point out that their track record on its own is incomplete. Their board is in needs of a complementary skill and knowledge set for proactive decision taking in the decades to come.

[1] ESG / Sustainability is one area where board diversity is of utmost relevance because the world we shortly will be living in will be unrecognisably different from the one we live in now. This is not to say that other subjects – digitalisation for example – do not require it. They do. The difference is fundamental however: ESG / Sustainability requires a fundamental different economic modus operandi made possible by new, so far unknown business models. Digitalisation in contrast will certainly result in new business models, but may not necessarily affect the fundaments of the economic system as such.

IDN Webinar: Tech for Good – What is the role of company boards?

Company boards have a key role to play in guiding organisations in the digital age.

By Karen Loon, IDN Board Member and Non-Executive Director

To celebrate the first ever digital edition of Global INSEAD Day on 12 September 2020, the INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) Global Club held a webinar open to all on “Tech for Good – What is the role of company boards”.

The global panellists were IDN Americas ambassador, Mary Francia, IDN Australia and New Zealand Ambassador, Helen Gillies and Dimitri Chichlo from Switzerland, who are all experienced Non-Executive Directors and INSEAD certified directors (IDP-Cs).

The panel was facilitated by IDN Board Member, Liselotte Engstam based in Sweden with Q&A support from Karen Loon, a fellow IDN Board Member based in Singapore.

Following an introduction by Liselotte Engstam, the panel conversation covered four broad areas:

  • How technology aligns to an organisation’s purpose and strategy
  • The increasing importance of stakeholder communication
  • How can boards best support management in the digital age
  • How can current and aspiring board members keep up to speed with developments

Technology should be core to your organisation

All three panellists agreed that today’s organisations must ensure that technology is an integral part of their strategies.  With companies facing increasing focus by external stakeholders, whether investors, clients or employees who are holding boards to account, organisations must have a proper purpose, and technology must support that purpose.

As Helen Gillies said, “Technology is just key – it impacts everything that we do; every interface that we have with our external stakeholders, clients, employees, every aspect of our business sales, so it’s just integral.  And so that means we must get that strategy around technology right”.

A challenge highlighted by Dimitri Chichlo which boards face is that few boards have people with technology and operations (including cybersecurity) experience, with the majority being business leaders.

Mary Francia added that a question boards need to tackle is how best to manage new risks which are much wider than financial risks – whether technological, geopolitical, environmental, social and governance.  “Without the right composition with other vital skills and expertise, you may not have the requisite depth to ask the right questions when it comes to technology, and to support and build what is driving tech for good” said Mary.

How can boards best support management in the digital age?

According to Helen Gillies, board members have a key role to ensure that the purpose of their organisations are reviewed regularly with management.

As board members, one thing that’s really critical is we have to be curious. So we have to be looking outside our organisation the whole time thinking what are our clients during, what are our competitors doing, how do we make our organisation better, so that that the concept of being hungry for information is really key” – Helen Gillies

A good practice which Dimitri Chichlo shared on how he supports management was to build rapport with senior leaders outside of the boardroom as soon he started his role to create some proximity with them, which was very much appreciated by management.

Because of increased pressure from investors and stakeholders, to enhance the competence of boards, in addition to more board education to support existing directors, Mary Francia sees more companies looking at their board compositions in detail, and  doing board assessments to look at the skill sets of the boards and gaps to identify whether new people should be brought in, committees created or advisors sought.  She highlighted the importance of boards having an inclusive culture for change.

The increasing importance of stakeholder communication

All panellists agreed that communicating more broadly about environmental, social and corporate governance (“ESG”) to stakeholders is becoming increasingly important.

Organisations should look beyond their local listing disclosure requirements, and share with employees, communities they work in, clients and investors more about what they are doing.  Further, they should understand the stakeholder concerns of their company’s most material stakeholders and ensure that they communicate messages clearly in a language which stakeholders understand.  Appropriate board level dashboards on the metrics which really affect the individual company’s business context are important as well as looking at the right outcomes.  Finally, having the right accountability, measures, and appropriate links between behaviours and remuneration (which are aligned the purpose of the organisation and its strategy) is crucial.

The panellists also highlighted that having technology and HR competencies on the board, and also ensuring that the management of HR and Technology partner together more closely is also going to be increasingly more important in the future, given that technology should be core to all organisations in the future, and often these two functions are not as aligned as they should be.

Mary Francia also reminded participants of the increasing importance of boards having an inclusive and ethical mind when looking at technology, and how it is applied.  Dimitri Chichlo added that this in particular needs to be considered when supporting employees as they adapt in the new world, as technology will impact different generations of employees in different ways.

How can current and aspiring board members keep up to speed with developments?

Our panellists were enthusiastic about the power of IDN’s network, its webinars and its mentoring programme to connect members which are excellent ways for IDN members to engage and keep up to speed.

“… the nice thing is to be able to just get on the phone and talk to one of your directors in Turkey for example or in India, and being able to discuss about a subject because the perspective is so different for every one of them; that that just only enriches and that you just cannot find anywhere” – Mary Francia

Liselotte Engstam highlighted that aspiring directors should seek broad experiences and try to get some P&L experience and run a business to become more familiar with dealing with complexity.

Mary Francia also recommended that aspiring directors gain experience early in their careers in more than one functional area, and “be brave enough to try something different”.

Dimitri Chichlo shared that “…if you work in operations, you will always touch technology, and you will learn on the spot.  Whilst books are great, learning with… IT people on the spot gives you an incredible amount of knowledge”.  He also mentioned that there are many shorter online programmes available which board and aspiring board members can do to help them keep up to speed with emerging trends and developments in technology.

When considering board roles, panellists however cautioned aspiring directors to ask specific questions to assess whether they are really comfortable with the risk of the organisation and how that organisation does things when things go wrong.

Final advice to board members

In their concluding remarks, the panellists highlighted that the rapid pace of change with technology, what organisations are doing now will not be what they are doing in another five or ten years.  Boards need to anticipate the technological changes and keep up with them.  Board members should also ask good questions about whether the organisation is innovative, sustainable, able to adapt to technological changes in the future, accountable and inclusive.

As Helen Gillies concluded, “…the current pandemic has challenged all of us thinking about everything…  How do we do things better? How do we challenge our thinking?  Because what was normal yesterday is not going to be normal tomorrow”.

A replay of this webinar will be available to INSEAD alumni shortly.  IDN’s next webinar for members will be on 16 October 2020, as part of the INSEAD Directors’ Forum.

The evolving role of the board in a COVID-19 environment

Boards are spending more time on people matters, as stakeholder expectations change, according to IDN members

By Karen Loon IDP-C, IDN Board Member and Non-Executive Director

IDN members had the opportunity to share their recent experiences in the board room, including on sustainability in an IDN digital dialogue held on 30 June 2020.  The session, which was attended by 65 international board members from 26 countries, was facilitated by Liselotte Hägertz Engstam, IDP-C and IDN Board Member with opening remarks provided by IDN President, Helen Pitcher OBE, IDP-C.

COVID-19 has generally accelerated the change taking place in companies, however, it has refocused good companies of the importance of their people and the environment they operate in.  Members shared that, despite some focus on short term objectives, there was a sense that sustainability will become central to how things are done.

“The question which all boards need to ask themselves is, when times get tough, do you abandon good principles for short term gain, or double down for the long-term benefit of all?”– Jeff Scott, IDP-C, IDN Board Member.

Three key themes emerged from the breakout room discussions facilitated by IDN Board Members and ambassadors.

Increased people centricity

IDN members have been very busy in the past six months, given the rapid changes in some of their companies, yet recognise that there is a need to balance their oversight roles, and provide unconditional support to management, without getting in the way. Many boards were focused on supporting the physical and mental well-being of their people, particularly as working remotely becomes more customary.

For board members, having agility at the right time, empathy to thank management and staff for their responses to the crisis, and re-connecting with management through the purpose of the company was viewed as essential.

Continue to focus on the long term

Whilst the risks which companies need to manage have changed as a result of the crisis, many board members are increasingly focused on long term perspectives as executives are overwhelmed with shorter term priorities and challenges. This includes reflecting on the company’s purpose as stakeholder expectations change (especially people, customers and regulators, as differences arise between jurisdictions); ensuring there is more proactive communication between the board, management and stakeholders; and focusing on how companies can maintain a healthy corporate culture.

Keep sustainability on the board agenda

The views of IDN members on whether boards are focused on sustainability were mixed. A number of members were concerned that sustainability is being perceived by some boards as a luxury/nice to have, and it is dropping off the board agenda as boards focus on the survival of their companies.  Others felt that if it was not already engrained in the DNA of the company, it has crumbled during the crisis.

There was a general sense that it is important that sustainability is put back on the board agenda, given the increasing reputational risk and brand perception if nothing happens, increasing pressure from investors who are pushing for more “green performance” and new regulations which require ESG disclosure and reporting.  Others cited that customers increasingly are expecting that companies are sustainable.  Some believe that sustainability starts with us as directors and what we do at a personal and work level; we have a role to demonstrate commitment and should take the opportunity to “bake in” sustainability into the fabric of the companies we work with, so it is embedded in the culture and behaviours of the business.

 

Other discussion areas included the challenges for the remuneration committee given financial and regulatory pressures, and ensuring that companies learn from other countries and companies to enable a rapid response, for example China.

In her session recap, Helen Pitcher OBE said:

“The time flew by, the sessions were energetic and insightful demonstrating both the calibre and deep knowledge of the Directors present, as well as the excellent way they have risen to support their many and varied Boards through the pandemic. All Directors had maintained a focus on the long term, whilst responding to the immediacy of the challenges”.

She concluded that it is important for non-executive directors to maintain a balance when supporting their companies through a crisis.  This includes supporting long term performance (agility, results, and liquidity) of their companies, people (through empathy), and sustainability (transparency, purpose and ESG).

Why boards have a duty to reinforce resilience

By Didier Duret IDP-C, Non-Executive Director and Independent Adviser

Change is risky for firms and boards of directors must see beyond talk of disruption and innovation to ensure companies focus on their essential qualities and a handful of best practices

The current global lockdown, enforced by governments to minimise the Covid-19-led public health emergency, has led to the shelving of many firms’ multi-decade strategies to correctly allocate resources across different regions.

Boards of directors must now re-focus on their organisations’ long-term resilience. This must not be confused with short-term crisis management, which demands quick reactions, analysed relentlessly across digital media.

Prudence and strength

Resilience is a mixture of prudence and strength before a crisis and should be ingrained in firms. It is defined as “the degree of freedom we can deploy to act on events we cannot control”, by Boris Cyrulnik, French psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor. For most firms, it derives from a mix of efficient risk management and organisational flexibility. In order to boost resilience, boards must question assumptions, nail down governance principles and adopt sound stewardship.

The idea of resilience in business was popularised by Nassim Taleb in his 2012 best-seller Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, which argued that both humans and organisations are poorly equipped to cope with shocks that accelerate change and have cascading consequences. While hardwiring to think in categories has helped our species survive, most phenomena in nature and society follow non-linear patterns with little respect for categories. Although we can model risk from yesterday’s data, we cannot apply it confidently to tomorrow’s uncertainties.

In modern corporate life, despite a professional culture that has elevated disruption to a virtue, change remains risky and unpredictable. Many start-ups do not survive, and large firms struggle to adapt. Disruptive ideas facilitated by ‘agile management’ have limited impact once they encounter bureaucratic inertia. The board is in a key position to see beyond management techniques and reflect on the essential qualities of a resilient firm.

Focus on what works

Rather than being hypnotised into a reverie of ‘innovation’, it makes sense to focus on a handful of best practices. Of these, financial resilience and access to cash is the most important. Heavy debt and weak solvency ratios undermine resilience. Boards have explicit responsibility for their firm’s capital structure and access to finance, plus oversight of remuneration and dividend and share buyback policies. In a crisis, when survival is at stake, board members may seek access to new capital, renegotiate bank loans or seek being bought out by a larger firm. Board oversight is crucial for the firm to exit a crisis with resilient, if battered, financials.

Diversification of activities, markets, products and suppliers makes good business practice. Diversity of opinions, talents and skills among management, staff and board members also contributes to strategic resilience. A mix of genders, races, cultures, languages and expertise strengthens reliability of operations and leadership competencies. External advisers and independent board members can help identify new trends signifying a paradigm shift. They reduce groupthink and corporate bias, constructing a vision differing from the past. External think-tanks or business school experts can be valuable resources for the board to refocus long-term strategy based on short-term crisis-induced changes.

Discernment through judgemental resilience is a major governance skill exercised by the board. It can be reinforced to balance quantitative resource optimisation versus qualitative operational resilience. Better data-driven “dashboards” do not mean better resilience, just as last week’s stock price does not tell us what next week’s will be. The board can ask the CEO to review crisis planning and solidity of the strategy though a qualitative-scenario lens differing from traditional quantitative-scenario planning. which, most of the time, is consensual to the industry or macro environment.

ESG goes mainstream

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies have become mainstream, reinforcing resilience by reducing financial, operational, and reputational risks through selecting reputable commodity providers or avoiding financing controversial industries. But ESG-driven governance does not guarantee resilience. Recent 20-year-low oil prices are just as disruptive for power producers using wind farms and solar panels in the transition to renewable energy as for shale oil firms, radically transforming capital spending plans. But today’s unprecedented economic crisis is impacting global social and political dynamics as well as consumers’ visions of the world and leadership expectations. Authentic ESG culture may yet prove a competitive advantage in the post-Covid-19 ‘new normal’.

Humility offers a hidden dimension to resilience, counterbalancing the excessive risk-taking and corporate hubris associated with charismatic CEOs. Would WorldCom have survived with board members questioning its overmighty CEO Bernard Ebbers more explicitly? Good practice involves yearly independent assessment of performance and behaviour of the board chairman, members, CEO and executive committee. Humility does not mean timidity, as it can be courageous. An advisory board I sat on during the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis pursued investment in strategic areas that had suffered from heavy losses through massive disruptions, but gave the CEO wide latitude to implement high-level decisions.

I believe boards of directors, by focusing more on conditions for resilience, can help firms achieve better financial, ethical and environmental results. Resilience in all its aspects, has become a strategic requirement and unless boards take a more socially-oriented and strategic outlook for their organisations, billions of people will suffer, to the ultimate detriment of these firms.

Didier Duret IDP- C is a non-executive director, an investment committee member, and independent adviser to several private family offices and foundations. 

This article was first published in the Private Wealth Management Magazine from the Financial Times on 23 May 2020, and can be found at https://www.pwmnet.com/Wealth-Management/Business-Models/Private-View-Blog-Why-boards-have-a-duty-to-reinforce-resilience

The Evolution of Trust in the Era of Stakeholder Capitalism

By Beatriz Pessoa de Araujo and Julia Hayhoe

Enduring and sustainable corporate success hinges on trust. But trust is hard won and easily lost. This series of articles will explore the evolving “Trust Continuum” and how organizations can meet new expectations in the era of stakeholder capitalism [1]—not only of their shareholders and investors but all stakeholders—and build long-term trust based on purposeful, transparent and consistent actions and interactions.

We will examine global governance and the rule of law, the changing face of leadership, ethical technology and more in this series—uncovering the strategies that will enable corporations to become and remain trusted organizations. The purpose of business in society has not changed—the creation of wealth and job opportunities and making things or providing services people need. What is changing is the “how”.

In this post, we explore the evolution of trust in the seven years since Baker McKenzie’s last report on the state of trust in business. We find that efforts to build trust have continued, but the challenge today is greater and more complex as companies try to respond to the new demands of a complex ecosystem of customers, employees, shareholders, regulators and society at large, as well as externalities such as climate change and the ever changing political landscape.

In an environment where activism comes from all stakeholders, each with high expectations from boards and leadership, not only is trust a timeless concept, it is a continuum—where constant adaptation is a must for a corporation to build and retain its trust coefficient.

In Brief Way Forward
Trust will determine long-term sustainable commercial success. There are established links between trust, business performance and customer and employee loyalty. If trust is not already on your board agenda, ensure that it is now.
We are operating in the era of stakeholder capitalism in which society demands more from corporations and awards valuable trust based on actions and promises met. Whether your corporation is appropriately balancing the needs for a broader set of its stakeholders will determine the strength of its license to operate. Understanding your stakeholder ecosystem and meeting their expectations is critical.
Acting in accordance with business values and reporting transparently on performance underpins trust. Values are not a static set of promises. Ensuring they are aligned to organizational purpose, integrated into decision-making, reflected in compatible actions and that performance is transparently reported are the most effective ways for corporations to build trust.
Corporations need new strategies and systems to embed values, measure and report on matters of trust. Leaders need to look beyond the balance sheet and demonstrate a good governance framework, effective decision-making in the boardroom and across the organization and progress in their stakeholder engagement and action.

Why trust will determine success

Trust matters today more than ever before. In the era of fake news, online animus and political polarization, trust is the lens through which people make decisions about what they believe in and value. Research has also proven the connection between trust and commercial success—the most trusted organizations experience better financial performance [2] and build particularly loyal customer bases [3] and workforces. [4] Trust is currency—valuable, measurable and actionable.

In this environment, society is demanding more from corporations, leaders and investors on critical issues such as the climate emergency and rising global inequality, and its members award their trust based on whether companies are “doing the right” thing at this critical moment. This is the new contract of trust with business—its license to operate—and has given rise to the notion of stakeholder capitalism, in which organizational purpose balances the interests of customers, employees and communities with those of investors and shareholders. As people are using their voices, capital and the law to advocate for more ethical and inclusive business practices, they are pushing corporations to be more transparent as to how they honor their commitments. We have clearly moved from an era of words to one in which supporting actions are essential.

From implementing environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes and bringing clean energy to communities in need, [5] to creating inclusive workplaces and helping people to overcome barriers to economic opportunity, [6] corporations are seeking to deliver for a broader set of stakeholders. Similarly, the world’s largest corporations have rallied around a shared responsibility to people and planet as well as profit in the Davos manifesto and Business Round Table. [7] At the same time, guidance is shifting to legislation on issues including sustainability, pay, diversity and climate risk and opportunity reporting, as can be seen for example in the form of a “Green New Deal”. Yet indicators show that trust in business remains elusive. [8]

Turning values into trust

Business decisions and actions are increasingly visible through reporting obligations and via social media, making it easy to be called out for inconsistency and thereby eroding valuable trust. Society now demands that corporations play a positive leading role in addressing critical issues. The significant task for businesses in the coming decades will be to employ new strategies to embed values, measure and report on matters of trust. With trust and a strong supporting corporate culture, businesses can better balance the demands of all relevant stakeholders, including shareholders and investors.

An essential step for demonstrating consistency and transparency will be developing robust internal and external “logic”—a way of demonstrating how decisions are taken and clear lines of responsibility that aligns governance, employees, customers, technology and regulation. This is where corporate values become cultural and systematic norms—where consistent action and transparent reporting will be key to retaining and building trust. Leaders will need to look beyond the balance sheet to measure and demonstrate how they are progressing in their stakeholder engagement and action. This means deciding how to measure, collect and understand key nonfinancial data. Values-driven assets can include corporate culture, D&I measures, executive pay, and environment, social and governance (ESG) indicators. These and others are all potentially valuable assets that should be considered for inclusion in corporate reporting. Encouraging statements have also been issued by investors, indicating that these items will also be valued by them when they consider which companies to invest in and exit.

The way corporations are currently structured and organized can make this difficult to achieve. Ensuring corporate purpose, values and standards are integrated across large multi-national workforces, complex supply chains, vast networks of subsidiaries and outsourced interests—and that these are reflected in compatible actions, interactions and decisions—is perhaps the greatest challenge businesses face in relation to trust. While accomplishing this may create legal and reputational vulnerability for corporations, today’s radically transparent and rapid social media world mean that simply complying is not enough—how compliance is achieved is equally important. With aligned and effective governance, leadership, employee engagement and ethical sourcing alongside “green” investment decisions and responsible tax policy, business purpose will become an applied enterprise, not a static set of promises.

What’s next for trust?

Trust is no longer static or singular and there remain real challenges and practical considerations to retaining and building trust. Among the important questions we will explore in this series are:

How can non-listed companies build a higher governance standard for themselves to support values-driven action—in the absence of the strict frameworks that govern listed organizations?

As workforces, processes and interactions are increasingly augmented by technology, can they assure its ethical code? What is the changing face of leadership needed for the future success of the corporation?

Do incentives align with expected behaviors?

How can businesses effectively assess what if any risks and opportunities climate change brings for their organization?

As organizations balance shifts in globalization and protectionist trends with the rise of stakeholder capitalism, how can they establish practical global corporate governance frameworks which allow them to become more responsible and at the same time more nimble and efficient?

The organizations that survive and thrive sustainably in the long-term will be those that tackle these complex questions head on and seek to understand and operationalize trust: The Trust Continuum.

The financial imperative to do so is clear—trust translates into long term sustainable financial performance. But the societal imperative is also strong—companies’ license to operate is contingent on securing the trust of all their stakeholders, both internal and external.

Beatriz Pessoa de Araujo IDP-C is a partner and Julia Hayhoe is Chief Strategy Officer at Baker McKenzie. This post is based on their Baker McKenzie memorandum which can be found here, and has also been published by The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance.

Endnotes

1 Davos Manifesto, 2020 (go back)

2 Harvard Business Review, 2016 (go back)

3 Edelman Trust Barometer, 2019 (go back)

4 Edelman Trust Barometer, 2019 (go back)

5 Ikea Foundation, 2018 (go back)

6 LinkedIn, 2019 (go back)

7 World Economic Forum, 2020 (go back)

8 Edelman Trust Barometer, 2019 (go back)

Ensuring ESG Effectiveness on Boards

Blogpost by IDN US Ambassador Mary Francia

Though environmental, social, and corporate governance has seen increased attention over recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has put ESG in the spotlight. With stakeholders measuring businesses based on their perceived preparedness—for the pandemic, for the recession, for a post-COVID rebound—it’s never been clearer that boards play a crucial role in helping their executive teams with both long-term strategic planning and short-term crisis management.

Businesses, employees, shareholders, communities, and customers are all dealing with unprecedented levels of financial and emotional stress, and this is drawing attention to how companies compare to their peers in terms of ESG performance. Stakeholders have elevated their expectations for transparency around corporate ESG efforts, pressuring leaders to (a) think deeply about the social, environmental, and moral implications of business decisions, (b) communicate their company’s specific ESG responsibilities, and (c) recognize the need for ESG expertise at the board level.

Here are nine tips to maximizing the effectiveness of your board’s ESG oversight.

  • Define what ESG means for your organization. ESG is a framework for analyzing companies and assessing their environment, social, and governance performance. But every organization has a unique exposure to these factors. A paper company, for example, has different environmental responsibilities than a fintech company. So boards must understand their company’s specific relationship to this general framework.
  • Communicate. To build this understanding, it’s essential to have constant discussions between board members, boards and executive teams, and boards and other stakeholders. Directors need to know what peoples’ expectations are around ESG and align those expectations with each other. Pick up the phone, have the conversations.
  • Evaluate for ESG competency. Just as you review your company portfolio, ESG should factor in the director review process. Evaluate skills and educate board members to fill any gaps.
  • Convert ESG into the strategy. In working to foresee, identify, and capitalize on ecosystem changes, boards need to imbed ESG into their company’s strategy; and to achieve this, they need to make ESG considerations part of the agenda in every committee meeting.
  • Know how to measure ESG. Whether it’s evaluated using an external advisory or with internal teams, it’s important for boards to measure their environmental, social, and governance proposition, know-how ESG interacts with company value in the present, and be prepared to steer that interaction in the future. Not only do board members need to be familiar with the way their organization measures and the external disclosures it makes, but they also need to be confident that these measurements and disclosures are accurate and complete.
  • Create your dashboard and accountability. Run a session with your board, define what is essential for your company, and then ask management to react to these findings. Build a dashboard using metrics that represent your business context and then assign ownership—at both the board and management level—over the process. To ensure management’s priorities remain aligned with the board’s, link ESG performance to executive compensation.
  • Understand how your stakeholders measure sustainability. To see the impact of ESG on the value of a company, some investors will conduct a scenario analysis, calculate an ESG valuation, and compare it to a baseline valuation. The difference between the two scenarios reveals the type and magnitude of ESG factors affecting a company. Directors need to know what scores apply in their industry and what indices their investors use to measure their value.
  • ESG is not just about risk; it’s about building value. Risk and opportunity often come hand in hand. Boards who consider ESG as purely a risk-prevention measure often fail to acknowledge that ESG considerations can, when capitalized on, drive long-term performance gains.
  • Refresh and Educate. It has never been so crucial for companies to have best-in-class ESG performance. To achieve that and fully inject ESG considerations into the company’s everyday functioning, it’s necessary to have expertise on the board, and to task those experts with infusing ESG considerations into short- and long-term company strategy.

There could not be a better time, give the current volatility, to bring ESG competency to the board.

 

by IDN US Ambassador Mary Francia, also Partner at Board Practice Odgers Berndtson

This blogpost was originally shared at

https://www.odgersberndtson.com/en-us/insights/ensuring-environmental-social-governance-effectiveness-on-boards