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