ESG x Governance (2): Board Level ESG Readiness

This is the second of a series of interviews intended to help our IDN members grapple with the ESG topic.
In this episode, the we look at ‘ESG Readiness’ at non-exec board level, skill gaps, and how to close them.

Federik Otto, Sustainability Boards

Frederik Otto is the founding Executive Director of The Sustainability Board (TSB), an independent think tank that aims to advance sustainable leadership and governance. He has been a leader in consulting multinational companies on organisation and human capital strategy for over 15 years, with a more recent focus on sustainability and ESG. Frederik hosts the ‘Leadership Conversations by TSB’ podcast and further is a member of the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, and a fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar. Frederik has published multiple articles on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, and regularly writes for various other resources.

What is the importance of ESG considerations for a company’s governance and success?

While acknowledging ESG’s importance in corporate success and governance, I believe it doesn’t capture the entire narrative. To make it more tangible let’s capture sustainability by the acronym CHANGE:

  • C = Climate change;
  • H = Human rights;
  • A = AI and emerging technology;
  • N = Nature and biodiversity;
  • G = Geopolitics and conflict;
  • E – Equity, diversity, and inclusion.

All these issues illustrate that we have to go beyond ESG, and it is urgent to consider global impacts beyond our company’s sphere. Even if a business has a small environmental footprint, awareness of climate change and broader factors is crucial.
ESG, viewed as an organisational framework, is valuable for this purpose. It serves as a reporting tool, ensuring accountability and establishing a stakeholder governance framework. ESG criteria should be embraced for technical understanding, as they are essential tools to keep us on track. However, we must also remain mindful of the broader societal factors and dependencies that impact the business.

What is the main takeaway or key learning from this year’s findings in the recently published 2023 Annual ESG Preparedness Report?

Every year we evaluate whether boards have formalised an ESG policy, established a sustainability committee or delegated ESG matters to another committee. We also look at the materiality and quality of their charters, and we analyse board diversity and individual ESG engagement of directors of large, publicly listed entities.
This year our ongoing reporting initiative, in its 5th edition since 2019, reveals both familiar trends and new insights. Positive aspects include a rise in sustainability governance, though the messaging from boards in their disclosures is misaligned. Despite a gradual increase over the years, director engagement on ESG matters seems to be plateauing. The percentage of directors tasked with ESG oversight who are also engaged on the topic has risen from 16% in 2019 to 45% in 2022, and fallen to 43% in 2023 – a worrying trend.
Consistently, women directors play a pivotal role in driving sustainability governance, showing over 60% more engagement than male counterparts. A trend consistent since our first report, and a clear case for more gender equal boards.
We also found that management experience is as a key driver for ESG engagement, with directors leveraging their expertise implementing sustainability strategies in executive roles.
Another trend is the adoption of the increasing articulation of ESG in board policies, particularly among American boards, despite the current political polarisation on the ESG moniker.
In summary, awareness of the need to improve sustainability governance is rising, but engagement is fragmented, and skewed towards women.

What is the key gap in aligning boards with ESG standards, and how can Boards of Directors efficiently enhance their skills in this area? What are the key priorities for Board Chairs in this context?

Indeed parts of our research focus on assessing individual board member engagement on ESG. Using a simple checklist across all of the past five years, we find three key criteria for ESG engagement.

  1. Firstly, business experience, like executive or non-executive involvement in sustainability strategies or governance.
  2. The second criterion is personal or non-business experience, such as engagement with relevant non-profits.
  3. The third point is formal education or certification in sustainability, or being a thought leader on the topic.

No hierarchy exists among these criteria, and in our opinion experience can be gained through various avenues. ESG engagement signifies personal commitment, either visible through public engagements like conference and round table attendance, thought leadership on social media, or communicating the business strategy actively in board disclosures or on capital markets days. The level of formal education required depends on the board’s complexity.
As for the role of the chair leading on ESG engagement, jurisdiction surely matters, with American chairs still often doubling as CEOs. Here the role of the Lead Independent Director is just as important. This said, assigning too much accountability on one person should be avoided. The chair, especially if independent, is vital in holding the board as a system together, facilitating resource allocation, enabling committee formation, and overall governance of sustainability. The key is ensuring cohesive board operations with checks and balances for effective sustainability governance.

How do sustainability practices of privately owned or family companies compare to large publicly traded companies, considering the report’s emphasis on the latter?

I’m also an investor in a fast-growing, private UK startup in the food industry, and can see the different governance dynamics very closely in comparison to large public enterprises. For a start, private entities, unlike public companies, have fewer and more personalized interactions with stakeholders, especially investors. The accountability is simply to less people and entities, with private companies generally smaller and less rigorously regulated. That also makes gathering data on sustainability more manageable. Structurally, most private companies aren’t burdened with the same disclosure and reporting requirements as public counterparts. However, they can learn from ongoing standardization efforts and voluntary adopting sustainability governance practices.
Family businesses have a unique opportunity to drive sustainability, especially during generational succession. Newer generations are attuned to sustainability concerns and aim to build a positive legacy. Family businesses can leverage their organization’s might beyond philanthropy, acknowledging and reconciling with, say, environmental impacts caused in the past. Decision dynamics within family businesses, public or private, allow faster implementation of sustainability initiatives compared to non-family controlled companies.


The interviewer: 

Dr. Pamela Ravasio, Shirahime

Dr. Pamela Ravasio is the founder and managing director of Shirahime Advisory, a Corporate Responsibility Governance boutique consultancy. She serves as fractional Chief Sustainability Officer for companies and advises boards on ESG and governance. With a background in roles like Global Stakeholder Manager, she played a key role in making the European outdoor industry a leader in future-proofing.
She currently sits on the boards of Polygiene AB and INSEAD’s International Directors Network.

ESG x Governance (1): The Pulse of EU Regulation

This is the first of a series of interviews intended to help our IDN members grapple with the ESG topic. Given the recent  importance of EU regulation in the area of ESG, and reporting specifically, we chose to conduct the first such interview with a truly long-standing expert in the matter.

Pascale Moreau, Ohana Public Advisory

Pascale Moreau is a seasoned professional with over 15 years in public affairs across diverse industries including textiles, ICT, and healthcare.
As an active citizen and nature enthusiast, she specializes in sustainable development strategies and adeptly navigates complex legal landscapes. Throughout her career, Pascale has excelled in facilitating discussions, bridging differences, and guiding stakeholders toward common goals, driving positive changes. In 2019, she founded Ohana to help companies formulate sustainable development strategies tailored to their markets’ challenges and opportunities.

In your view, drawing on your experience, what is the essential role of a board of directors in public affairs and policy engagement?

In the realm of public affairs, the pivotal role of shaping strategy is essential for aligning agendas with business needs, extending its impact to associations and multi-stakeholder initiatives. The Board of Directors plays a crucial role in navigating this landscape, bridging internal workings with external dynamics. Larger organizations in familiar sectors often designate roles within the Board for public affairs, while in newer sectors, its introduction is met with urgency and the need for preparedness.
In my experience, organizations attuned to public affairs quickly respond to its nuances, ensuring the Board is well-versed. During the 2017-2019 transition, this was evident in the textile industry. In multi-stakeholder initiatives, boards may appoint a specific individual for public affairs, but their effectiveness relies on influence and the ability to drive recommendations, contributing substantively to boardroom decision-making.

You mentioned the unique default structures in different industries, particularly noting the relatively recent engagement of the textile industry. From a European standpoint, which industries have historically been firmly established in public affairs, and, in broad terms (excluding specific businesses), which ones generally demonstrate a greater inclination for such engagement?

In sectors like ICT and electronic equipment, a sustainability lens is integral, driven by long-standing regulation. Leadership in these industries comprehends the importance of sustainability investments. Similarly, food, beverages, and agriculture, well-represented in Brussels, showcase heightened awareness and robust organizational structures. Operational roles handle day-to-day tasks, but top executives from these sectors take the lead in significant events like COP 28, indicating maturity in global sustainability engagement.
Conversely, some sectors, like textiles, historically lagged in sustainability but are now catching up. This observation highlights a proactive stance in regulated industries, contrasting with a slower initial embrace in sectors like textiles.

How can boards of directors augment their capabilities, particularly in the context of public affairs and policy development, building upon our recent discussion?

In organizations with dedicated public affairs teams, fostering collaboration is crucial. Spending quality time with the head of public affairs and national teams in key markets ensures a nuanced understanding of legislative landscapes, focusing on areas like sustainability, trade, and digital domains. Regional nuances in public affairs, whether in the US, EU, or Asia, underscore the importance of engaging with governments, even where public affairs practices may be less prevalent, as such engagements yield tangible business impacts.
Promoting dialogue between business and public affairs professionals, especially in the same room, facilitates mutual education on legislative changes’ financial and strategic implications. For organizations without a dedicated public affairs team, integrating this perspective into MBA programs ensures early recognition of the broader business advantages of engaging with stakeholders. Seeking insights from organizations with established public affairs functions or hiring specialized consultants becomes invaluable in navigating an evolving landscape, emphasizing collaborative stakeholder engagement for a sustainable future.

What are your anticipations for policy trends in the mid and long term, both globally and within Europe? How do these expectations influence the role of a board of directors?

Navigating policy expectations, especially in the realms of digital and sustainability, proves challenging, signaling heightened regulations for industries like textiles. In the mid-term, the EU Green Deal holds significance, serving as a foundational benchmark. For businesses, compliance with voluntary legislation becomes a pivotal board-level decision, prompting a comprehensive reevaluation of processes and external communication to shareholders about the nuanced balance between profitability and compliance.
In the long term, the momentum for sustainability initiatives persists, albeit with a potential EU-level slowdown for implementation focus post-2024 elections. Businesses seek guidance for compliance, placing the Board of Directors in a central role to identify hotspots and manage risks during implementation. Globally, Europe’s lead in sustainability trends, such as extended producer responsibility, might influence global replication. The Board’s responsibility extends to understanding and supporting the entire supply chain, allocating funds for implementation, and advocating for a smooth transition, emphasizing a holistic, 360-degree perspective for a sustainable future.

In your view, what are the primary priorities for boards of directors in the short term, specifically in 2024? Given the ongoing developments within the EU and globally, what aspects should boards emphasize?

Key directives, namely the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and the European Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), are currently at the forefront, emphasizing due diligence. Despite potential reductions in board liability in the CSDDD, companies must exhibit due diligence for responsible business recognition. The Board of Directors holds a pivotal role in shaping policies and driving transformative change in response to these directives.
The Taxonomy Regulation, initially perceived as relevant mainly to investors, extends its reach to companies, notably impacting the Board of Directors engaged with investors. Mandating reporting on investments, it requires the Board to establish proper reinvestment processes, accentuating its role in driving impactful change.
In 2024, a crucial year of transition in the EU, marked by elections and industry reevaluation, significant legislative changes are anticipated. The Board must proactively address this, allocating resources and initiating comprehensive compliance projects for short-term action. Obtaining insights from public affairs or legal teams is crucial for informed business decisions, not only within the EU but also globally, emphasizing the paramount role of the Board in navigating evolving regulations.

Concerning directors’ liability, particularly amid the ongoing deliberations on the European Due Diligence Directive, where does this aspect align within the broader European legislative framework you are navigating?

The Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) represents a significant move by the EU to hold businesses accountable for their social and environmental impacts. While the official text is pending, a crucial political agreement was reached in December 2023, with finalization expected in Q1 2024. The scope of the directive includes companies with 500+ employees or a global annual turnover of 150+ million and those with 250+ employees and a turnover of 40+ million in high-risk sectors like textiles, food, and minerals. The construction sector is also under consideration for inclusion. Parent companies of large groups and non-EU companies meeting turnover thresholds in the EU are encompassed, while the financial sector is partially included, focusing on “upstream” due diligence and climate-related obligations.

A key feature is the requirement for companies to adopt a climate plan aligned with the Paris Agreement. Compliance with the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is linked to the adoption of CS3D climate plans. Larger companies, with over 1000 employees, can tie additional financial incentives, such as variable remuneration, to plan fulfilment. The directive introduces civil liability for damages caused by a company through intent or negligence, with a minimum 5-year limitation period. Notably, director duties have been deleted from the provisions. While these provisional agreements provide a framework, the final text is pending, and technical meetings are scheduled to address open questions, with the European Parliament voting in plenary in April and Council approval anticipated in April/May. The financial sector’s extent of inclusion and additional details may be refined in the final legislation.

You noted an anticipated release of a substantial volume of legislation at the end of Q1 or the beginning of Q2 2024. Could you offer an overview, at least by name, of the key legislations you expect to be significant?

In 2023, notable sustainability regulations reached finalization, including the Deforestation Regulation, EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), and Empowering Consumer Directive. While the Empowering Consumer Directive’s final text is pending, an agreement outlines a framework for sustainability communication. Anticipated finalizations in Q1-Q2 before the EU elections include the Packaging Regulation, Forced Labour measures at the EU level, Eco-design Legislation, and the Right to Repair. However, advanced regulations like Green Claims Directive and the Waste Framework Directive are unlikely to be finalized.
The urgency to avoid disruptions before the elections is evident, even if subsequent guidelines and secondary legislation are needed for clarity and refinement.

How should the Board of Directors respond when companies see impending policy and legislative changes, particularly related to ESG, solely as compliance requirements rather than strategic opportunities?

The establishment of common rules marks a satisfying moment, potentially mitigating free rider issues. Anticipating stress among companies, a crucial response involves creating a compliance team and undertaking a comprehensive compliance project. This intricate exercise requires mapping sustainability, digital, and trade considerations, necessitating a dedicated individual reporting directly to the Board of Directors. The seriousness of compliance is underscored by its potential impact on the business’s existence, demanding a proactive stance and ongoing commitment, especially in allocating resources and enhancing IT infrastructure. Ensuring the board’s dedicated focus is crucial, with potential reconsideration of its composition if necessary, reflecting a commitment to evolving landscape expectations until 2028-2030.


The interviewer: 

Dr. Pamela Ravasio, Shirahime

Dr. Pamela Ravasio is the founder and managing director of Shirahime Advisory, a Corporate Responsibility Governance boutique consultancy. She serves as fractional Chief Sustainability Officer for companies and advises boards on ESG and governance. With a background in roles like Global Stakeholder Manager, she played a key role in making the European outdoor industry a leader in future-proofing.
She currently sits on the boards of Polygiene AB and INSEAD’s International Directors Network.

The top must-read IDN blogs of 2021

Over the holiday season, many of us are relaxing, resting and reflecting on 2021 and what 2022 may bring for us, including in our board roles.

Here are six of our top must-read IDN blogs of 2021 that may be useful for you and your colleagues.

Sustainability

1. Governance of Corporate Renewal and Sustainability

Sustainability is increasingly moving to the top of many company agendas. What are the better practices that are emerging? Learn more from Ludo Van der Heyden, Emeritus Professor of Technology and Operations Management, and the INSEAD Chaired Professor of Corporate Governance at INSEAD, and Mats Magnusson, Professor in Product Innovation Engineering of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Positive board dynamics

2. Positive Board Dynamics and Coaching: Key to Superior Performance

Given that the impact of a board’s functioning as a team is a more significant predictor of corporate performance than individual directors’ backgrounds, skills and experience, it’s time for boards to spend more time focusing on their group dynamics and for boards and directors to dedicate time for coaching and mentoring.

Vincent H. Dominé, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD and IDN Board Member and NED Helen Wiseman IDP-C share their perspectives.

3. Best practices of independent directors in family owned-firms

Leading independent directors understand family board dynamics, build relationships with all board directors, and build a coalition of independent directors. Learn more from Martin Roll, Distinguished Fellow (Family Business) and Entrepreneur in Residence, INSEAD and Xavier Bedoret IDP-C,  IDN Belgium Ambassador, NED and Advisor.

Best practices for boards in a hybrid world

4. Chair Best Practice Exchange

In an inspiring webinar session, Professor Stanislav Shekshnia, Affiliate Professor INSEAD presented the findings of his latest research around Chair best practices, with comments by IDN President, Helen Pitcher OBE

5. 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? Over 100 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.

Improving your board effectiveness – Get a mentor

6. Why every aspiring director should consider a mentor

IDN’s INsights Director Mentoring Programme pairs aspiring INSEAD alumni directors who are early in their board careers with some of INSEAD’s most senior alumni and influential business leaders. Here they share the lessons that go both ways. IDN members, Sreekumar Puthen Thermedam and Naji Majdalani share what they have learned from each other.

Happy Holidays and we look forward to seeing you in 2022!

Governance of Corporate Renewal and Sustainability

Sustainability is increasingly moving to the top of many company agendas. As a result, investors increasingly require reporting on their ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) agenda with concrete actions to follow. What is the board’s role in guiding companies on this new path? What are the better practices that are emerging?

By Karen Loon IDP-C and IDN Board Member

In an increasingly fractured world, many of the significant global risks which the world faces relate to sustainability risks. These risks include climate action failure, human environmental damage, biodiversity loss and extreme weather. These risks, in addition to other challenges arising from the increasing adoption of technology, the pandemic and geopolitical risks are having a significant impact on companies and their boards.

What is the role of company boards to guide their companies on this new path? Further, what are some of the better practices which are emerging?

In a session facilitated by Liselotte Engstam IDP-C and IDN Board Member, INSEAD Directors Network (IDN) members, together with members of the INSEAD alumni Community Impact Challenge recently learnt more about these areas from Mats Magnusson, Professor in Product Innovation Engineering of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Ludo Van der Heyden, Emeritus Professor of Technology and Operations Management, and the INSEAD Chaired Professor of Corporate Governance at INSEAD.

Increasing pressures require boards to better guide companies to renewal

Companies need to renew themselves more and faster than ever before.

“This renewal [is not] actually about becoming slightly better at things – it’s about changing things quite radically,” noted Mats Magnusson.

These changes are not only due to digital – organisations also need to address new values, with sustainability being one of them.

Mats added that various studies by academics and consultants have shown that companies have reacted differently to these challenges, with some trying to innovate, and others struggling because of the present pandemic. However, what is common to most of them is that companies realise that if they just continue the way they have been doing things the last few years, they will not be successful in the future. As a result, there is a huge need for innovation.

“Actually, a large part of that innovation has to address sustainability”, he added, something which is not new to boards.

Sustainability and climate change require all companies to revisit their purpose, strategy and business model.

Based on research, most board members and directors agree that they spend a lot of time discussing governance about risk, regulation, and reporting, which is necessary.

However, there are several aspects that boards are not discussing enough. These includes sustainability, as well as culture and new technologies. Finally, boards need to spend more time on their strategy, value creation disruption, innovation.

These are not new findings; however, boards do need to improve their level of discussion on these areas to ensure that they are addressing them.

 

The importance of sensing, pivoting and aligning by boards

Three dynamic capabilities that boards can adopt are sensing, pivoting and aligning. Both sensing and pivoting have a positive correlation with innovation performance. Further, aligning positively impacts firm performance. However, pivoting can also harm firm performance.

Areas which boards can work on:

  • Sensing – Look at the external world and understand what is changing and impacting us, whether technology, business, customers or the environment. Become better at scanning the horizon for changes with an open mind. Observe changes in the broader environment, not only in your own industry but adjacent and completely different industries. For example, technology-wise, this may mean that companies need to consider completely new technologies that they have not considered before. However, Mats notes that “what we should not address is to focus on our purpose. If we focus on our purpose, then we’ll have some kind of limitation once we are actually looking.”
  • Pivoting – is about taking the right opportunities, taking action and daring to make strategic changes that include some form of innovation. Develop your company’s risk and opportunity profile by looking into the things disrupting your companies – perhaps new technologies, the new business models, or new companies. This information should be used to inform the company’s strategy.
  •  Aligning – This is about combining the new and the existing capabilities and business models. Find a good balance between the short-term value pressure – companies do need cash as well as longer-term value creation. It is essential to ensure that the innovation strategy is a key part of the business strategy.

 

Boards need to discuss their approach and capability to guide their company’s ESG agenda

Mats shared that more can be done by companies to integrate sustainability into their strategies. Of companies recently surveyed by SISU Boards:

  • Lack of integration of sustainability into strategy – Almost 45% actually do not yet integrate sustainability into their strategy. Companies need to become more granular – set goals for the sustainability action and find ways of evaluating if the things they are doing are the right ones.
  • Lack of board accountability for sustainability – As many as 60% of boards have not yet discussed how to engage and consider sustainability. For instance, should they have a committee focusing on this or several committees, and in what areas?

Boards can improve their sensing, pivoting and aligning capabilities

Boards can do more work to improve their capabilities when it comes to sustainability.

  • Sensing – 46% don’t have good processes to foresee changes and impacts on sustainability and business. Additionally, 48% don’t actively monitor new solutions that expedite their business sustainability towards their purpose.
  • Pivoting – 49% aren’t good at taking balanced risks towards ensuring corporate renewal. Further, 56% do not ensure that their strategy harnesses and reshapes the ecosystem for better sustainability and differentiation.
  • Aligning – 51% are not yet good at balancing short- and long-term value creation. In addition, 61% have not yet implemented a clear and effective innovation system, monitoring innovation activities and culture.

Board best practices to experiment with

Ludo Van der Heyden suggested some case studies and best practices for board renewal on sustainability around sensing, pivoting and aligning.

He also noted that it is important to select a modern, ambitious and humble chair, and board members. Boards should also rethink their role and focus, using Fair Process Leadership as support.

It is critical to structure the board and the organisation for sensing, developing the capability of timely pivoting, and continuously aligning and re-aligning.

Finally, it is vital to have collective leadership at the board level, and that it is proactive and engaged.

 

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 with 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

 

The Unintended Consequences of Corporate Governance

The ethical and legal drivers of stakeholder primacy

As an independent director, to whom are you accountable? Should law or ethics be defining your decision-making position at the board?

By Karen Loon IDP-C and IDN Board Member

Over the past 18 months, the debate between shareholder versus stakeholder primacy has come under the spotlight.

With a heightened emphasis on the collective well-being of stakeholder communities worldwide, corporate boards are under intense scrutiny to find a delicate balance between maximising shareholder and stakeholder value.

The COVID crisis has revealed that focusing on shareholder value alone is no longer a viable option. Business leaders and corporate boards have a critical role in creating sustainable value for economic performance and societal progress. While stakeholder capitalism is the key to unlock inclusive sustainable growth, corporate boards must not overlook the associated risks involved in stakeholder governance.

Why is this important to independent directors?

Directors who operate in common law countries would be fully aware of their “fiduciary responsibility,” and use it broadly when discussing their responsibilities as independent directors.

However, not all countries have principle-based laws, which impacts the role of independent directors.

With the rising need for companies to focus on sustainability and digital resilience, board members need to consider whether their companies can afford to wait for regulatory and legal frameworks to be implemented (reactive). Alternatively, should market-driven strategies be based on stakeholder expectations and ethical considerations driving decision making (proactive)?

IDN members recently discussed these critical topics in a session led by Helen Pitcher OBE, IDP-C and IDN President, and Cleopatra Kitti IDP-C and IDN Cyprus Ambassador held on 8 September 2021.

New realities for businesses, governments and societies

Climate change, the pandemic, social inequality and digitalisation have ushered new realities for businesses, governments and societies.

Helen Pitcher OBE noted that in the past 15 months, there has been increasing and wide-ranging debate about the unintended consequences of corporate governance.

“Up until, maybe five or six years ago, the view was boards were there, basically to look at, and ensure that the investors were being appropriately safeguarded … It [was] very much [focused on] fiduciary duty,” Helen noted. This is the reason why, in the past, there were more former CEOs and accountants joining boards.

“Now days, it’s a much broader agenda,” she highlighted.

The pandemic has now accelerated all of this, with the need for companies and their directors to address all of the environmental, social, and governance issues, as well as fiduciary issues.

Helen mentioned that some have debated whether boards could say that they are only there to look after shareholders.

There has been a change in views towards companies thinking much more broadly about their culture and values and doing the right thing for the environment, society, etc, within an appropriate governance framework.

Further boards have a fundamental role in overseeing the sustainability of their organisations instead of just the here and now.

Adding to this, she said, “the executive is there for the here and now, within the context of the longer term. But typically, board directors serve for longer than the average CEO or CFO, so they are custodians of the future.”

“There was a recognition that there needs to be a change in how we link remuneration to these goals, to make sure that attention is being paid to them because we know what gets measured gets done usually. [A question is] how we still take account of the fiduciary responsibilities within the broader context of all stakeholders, and not just investors.” (Helen Pitcher OBE)

Areas for boards to consider

  • Sustainability is no longer a choice – it is an imperative.
  • Shareholder and stakeholder interests are not an “either, or” option. It is an imperative.
  • The Business Roundtable has set its mission towards the welfare of all stakeholders (not just shareholders). How is that welfare defined? How is long term value defined?
  • How do boards reframe the agenda for executives in order to ensure “sustainability and stakeholder welfare?
  • Should regulation drive the agenda, or should leaders lead by values that frame strategic decision making in doing what is right for business and society?
  • What is the methodology for making trade-offs (decisions that serve the interests of shareholders vs stakeholders?).
  • Are some stakeholders more important than others? Who decides and by what criteria?
  • How does the board ensure the dividend and the long-term value for sustainable societies?
  • How does the board align executives’ compensations/incentives and interests towards what determines “sustainability”?
  • How do accounting rules adapt towards sustainability, and how does the regulator enforce disclosure on ESG rules?
  • Who does the board owe fiduciary responsibility to? Does “fiduciary responsibility” apply to all countries in all legal systems?

 

Increasing focus by larger investors, and other stakeholders on ESG and longer-term sustainability rather than shorter-term returns mean that boards need to openly and frequently discuss what this means for them.

Cleopatra Kitti added that boards also need to consider that stakeholders have increasing expectations of transparency. So, an important question for directors is how their companies track what they define are the right things to do, considering, for instance, the tensions between shareholder value and stakeholder value, sustainability and profitability, or cashflow preservation and sustainability.

She also noted that the upcoming COP26 (UN Climate Change) Conference in November 2021 is likely to increase investors’ focus on transparency and robust accounting mechanisms, leading to more clarity on how companies explore these areas. Further, the expected European Central Bank taxonomy on banks’ risk of capital may increase the cost of capital for certain types of industries.

Not every legal system recognises fiduciary responsibility as a board obligation or responsibility. So, it brings us back to the point that this is about ethics and culture, and setting the tone at the top, more than a compliance or regulatory, for a regulated decision-making process. So, it’s up to the board to define in practice values of what is sustainable and the right thing to do.” (Cleopatra Kitti)

Areas which IDN members discussed included:

  • Companies should do the right thing – pursuing sustainability and profitability and support shareholders and stakeholders need not necessarily be a trade-off.
  • It is crucial to get ESG into the mainstream board agenda. Responsibility for this rests with both the board and management.
  • Set the right KPIs as the wrong ones could lead to unintentional consequences. Some leading organisations now have integrated their ESG ambitions into their company ambitions and aligned this to the bonus system of executive committees.
  • Reset remuneration levels for non-executives, given the increasing levels of responsibility and accountability they hold.
  • Stakeholders will likely ask many more questions including on ESG at AGMs in 2022. Again, these are more likely to be in person rather than virtual.

In conclusion, as Helen Pitcher OBE summed up, “it is a hard topic but it’s not a topic that boards can avoid. It should be part of the strategic imperatives of the organisation.” It is a constantly evolving journey instead of a static situation on which boards need to go on.

Cleopatra Kitti added, “it’s an innovation journey. There is not a one size fits all and there are not prescriptive indicators or decision-making processes.”

 

Recommended reading and viewing

So Long to Shareholder Primacy

https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2019/08/22/so-long-to-shareholder-primacy/

Directors’ Oversight Role Today: Increased Expectations, Responsibility and Accountability—A Macro View

https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2021/05/10/directors-oversight-role-today-increased-expectations-responsibility-and-accountability-a-macro-view/

The Future of the Corporation: Moving from balance sheet to value sheet

http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_of_the_Corporation_2021.pdf

Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism: Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Value Creation

http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_IBC_Measuring_Stakeholder_Capitalism_Report_2020.pdf

Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism: Full List of Revised Core and Expanded Metrics

https://weforum.ent.box.com/s/ieauc14olfozu1k8d4i6qovscu42a4dz

Webinar – “The End of Shareholder Primacy?”

https://video.insead.edu/playlist/dedicated/122053032/1_l1rr6r52/1_utyenvtn

 

 

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 with 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

Best practices of independent directors in family owned-firms

Leading independent directors understand family board dynamics, build relationships with all board directors, and build a coalition of independent directors.

By Karen Loon IDP-C and IDN Board Member

Whilst family-owned firms are critical drivers of global business and growth, the role of their independent board directors is complex given the overlapping roles between family, ownership and business.

As a follow up to the session, Fit for Generations: How to Create & Lead a Family Business Board held in March 2021, on 26 April 2021, over 50 INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) members shared their international experiences of best practices in governance of successful family boards, focusing on their perspectives as independent board members.

The discussions were led by Martin Roll, Distinguished Fellow (Family Business) and Entrepreneur in Residence, INSEAD and Xavier Bedoret IDP-C,  IDN Belgium Ambassador, NED and Advisor.

Liselotte Engstam IDP-C facilitated the event with support from Hagen Schweinitz IDP-C, both IDN board members.

 

The role and challenges of independent board members

Martin Roll set the scene, sharing his views on family-owned companies, highlighting their global power and influence.

“They’re interesting, because first of all, there are a lot of them. They’re very significant in terms of the global economy. They’re very significant in terms of entrepreneurship, and they also have a very big heart when it comes to impact. But at times they do need help, and this is where the family board members coming in” – Martin Roll.

After noting some of the challenges of wealth preservation of family-owned firms, Martin emphasised that that family business strategy depends on clear roles, responsibilities and guardrails between family, ownership and business.

The roles and responsibilities of their external directors are not easy, Martin said.

“We are external – we’re bringing a different point of view. We sit in the business. You are going to work with people in the families that you have around you, and you are also going to work with some of the key owners, and some of them being the business.  You are in this triangle of a lot of different types of interests. As board members, we need to navigate that” – Martin Roll. 

In addition to family, ownership and business, other areas which independent family board members may support with include family office and impact (which relates to sustainability and aligns to the higher purpose for the firm). Martin presented his Family Business Strategy model to help guide this process (Figure 1).

Resistance to changes in the investment strategy and impact investing often arise as new generations come into the business.

Figure 1: Family Business Strategy (Copyright Martin Roll Company 2021)

Independent board members need to work with family firms to assist them in dealing with the dilemma of balancing the growth of their businesses with a long-term perspective and yet ensure family harmony and welfare. A key question is, how do they do that? Martin provided an overview – see Figure 2.

Figure 2: Traits of effective board members (Copyright Martin Roll Company 2021)

Martin reminded members that sustainability is deeply embedded in many firms, which makes family firms interesting.

He highlighted a quote by André Hoffmann – “That’s what separates us from non-family-owned businesses. It’s the concept of sustainability which (I’m glad to say) is much in favour at the moment.  And this sustainability is lived by the family.“

In order to be successful in their roles, Martin encouraged family board members to think of the following:

  1. Bring passion to family firms and build personal connections with key stakeholders across the business family system.
  2. Integrity is your key currency and never dilute its value. In the end, competence and experiences are the assets you contribute.
  3. Dare to renew! Renewal is the most important factor for business family success over the long term, so don’t hesitate to disrupt (with love)

Xavier Bedoret highlighted four challenges of independent directors:  These are:

1. Combine the best of both worlds

Finding the right balance between the paradoxical tensions of tradition and modernity; family values and financial logics; stability and transformation is not easy. These can both be combined at the board or executive committee level.

2. Help develop the family spirit

A director needs to decide at what level they should be active – whether it is the family association, shareholder, director or manager level.

“Family spirit is the glue that prevents frustration and dissent”Xavier Bedoret

3. Take the heat out of the decision process

The duality of “family” and “enterprise” can increase anxieties. Independent directors have a role to play to support family firms in this area.

“Emotions are a bias in relationships, and in family decision making” – Xavier Bedoret.

4. Engage young family members

Independent directors can play a role to support younger family members in their transition into more senior roles, given the family challenges of maintaining family values and managing power.

 

Three best practices of independent board directors of family-owned firms

For independent directors, working with family businesses is exceptionally complex but extremely rewarding. They often play a critical role in:

  • Helping with communication (as often family members may not be on the same page);
  • Supporting the transition of roles between senior generations and the next generation; and
  • Assisting in managing conflicts such as finding a middle ground in situations of risk aversion.

Three best practices shared by IDN members included:

1. Understand dynamics of the family

The role of an independent director on a family-owned company can be much more complex than on a public listed board, given the chemistry.

Board members should understand why they were brought onto the board.

They also may need to prove themselves first as an expert to the board and the family to show what they can do before being trusted to assist them more broadly.

Board members may be expected to commit more time and be available much more than on other types of boards.

One suggestion was to “rush slowly” – understand time horizons, priorities, and the pace of change of the family shareholders. Family boards need to take their time to make the right discussions and decisions.

2. Build a coalition of independent directors

All independent directors should bring their own unique experience to the board. It is essential to ensure that independent directors are aligned and a force within the board.

3. Build relationships with all board members

This includes on a one-on-one basis. As not all board members may have the same knowledge of governance, help new board members succeed by arranging onboarding and an ongoing training programme to ensure they all have the necessary expertise to participate actively in board discussions.

 

To view Martin Roll’s slides, visit here.

IDN’s next webinar on Governance of Social Impact Ventures will be held on 11 June 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 with 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

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

 

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.

Holding the moral compass – Boards social responsibility

By Florence Kaminska, IDP-C and Non-Executive Director

The COVID19 crisis led to the abrupt halt of an economic model, increasingly challenged in the past decade with climate and social warnings. Faced with such unprecedented situation, in varying degrees, consensus around the world was to choose health over economy, humanity over profit. The speed of reaction and solidarity – displayed by individual actions, state intervention to protect employment, companies adapting their production to produce masks, gel, ventilators … gave us a glimpse of what ‘the world of tomorrow’ could look like, demonstrating the impact of citizenship and value driven decisions.

It also raised expectations on the way companies create value in future and address the social impact of the decisions they make.

The pandemic broke out in a period of great existing instability and unrest resonating across the world through social media. Citizenship pressure is likely to increase and have a louder voice, as the economic consequences of COVID19 crisis massively impact employment. It will present great risk for society and business, but equally a great opportunity for companies that are delivering value for both shareholders and stakeholders (1). In this context, the Board’s role in keeping a moral compass whilst ethically charged, short and long-term, decisions are made and their consequences managed, is key.

What value does the Company create and for whom?

Beyond their responsibility to the long-term sustainability of the company, the current context is a compelling call for boards to drive, as part of their duty of care, the value the company is creating to society at large. Such commitment will increasingly determine the company’s ability to access market capital, attracting and retaining talents and ultimately impacting brand reputation and Investors Relations. Private investors increasingly want to see their savings and investments to produce as much good as dividend and are becoming more demanding. Equally, many people not just millennials, want to work for an organisation whose philosophies and actions resonate with them intellectually and emotionally. As the debate on shareholder Vs. stakeholder primacy is gaining momentum, the ‘S’ in ESG is gaining a new prominence in the Boardroom, accelerated by the COVID19 humanitarian and economic impact on businesses, communities and people’s lives. The way boards chose to approach cash and liquidity will have both social and governance implications and, as such imposing social responsibility at the highest strategic level. (2)

Are we moving towards new dimensions of leadership?

Much publicised heads of state, New Zealand, Germany,  as well as CEOs from Danone, Unilever, AirBnb, to name a few, have demonstrated, beyond they undoubted ‘technical’ talent and experience, a form of moral authority and leadership attributes already emerging as differentiators such as accountability, humility, transparency, proximity as well as empathy and compassion. These new leadership attributes will equally impact the board profiles and composition, as such public examples raised the level of awareness on ‘purpose leadership’. (3)

How does it impact the Board?

The social impact of decisions made by companies, imposing a form of moral compass to navigate these complex times, is likely to determine the levels of trust from stakeholders, and ultimately impact the bottom line and the shareholders.  Holding the moral compass is not about holding management accountable for vague, all being righteous principles. It is about maintaining a dialogue with shareholders whilst collaborating with executives to manage the complexity and conflicting needs of the multiple stakeholders, assessing risks, opportunities and trade-offs, setting priorities and measuring purpose-based decisions.

Holding the moral compass is not about holding management accountable for vague, all being righteous principles. It is about maintaining a dialogue with shareholders whilst collaborating with executives to manage the complexity and conflicting needs of the multiple stakeholders, assessing risks, opportunities and trade-offs, setting priorities and measuring purpose-based decisions.

To do so, some fundamentals will require attention, such as:

  • Defining or revisiting the corporate social purpose – 2008 Financial crisis led to new governance framework and enhanced regulations but did not address social unbalances. COVID19 crisis is accelerating societal impact in governance through by-laws and legislations. Proactively embracing the trend and using existing best in class examples will determine the sustainability of a business starting with access to capital and talents (4). The ability to measure the authenticity and results of their actions will impact the reaction of both stakeholders and shareholders, as will the Board ability to drive an ESG culture.
  • Aligning scorecards and KPIs – Driving an ESG culture implies revisiting governance, scorecards and KPIs. Finance may have neglected qualitative and quantitative assessment of management in the past. As the concept of the Triple bottom line expands (5), there is likely to be more effort from the investors side in understanding how to manage companies well in future and pushing their goals under the OECD agenda or reference the UN’s SDG agenda (6). Remuneration committees will consequently need to reflect these new imperatives in the Executives compensation & incentives, including those of the Board.
  • Enriching the composition of the Board – The Chair brief is expanding as his/her effectiveness will be determined by the ability to interpret complex ESG landscape and implications of shifting social, political and regulatory expectations and their associated risks. The pandemic situation has also revealed new skillsets required among the non-executive board members, such as technology, HR, alternative financing, restructuring, and critical leadership attributes such as collaboration, agility, humility and courage. Leading by example will become an integral part of the role of the Board, promoting agility to adapt fast to new challenges whilst never conceding on the violation of core ethical principles related to the corporate social purpose. The Nomination Committees are likely to revisit the needs, profiles as well as the selection criteria, methods and breadth of candidate pipeline.

An opportunity to shape the ‘world of tomorrow’

Company boards will play a key role in creating the ‘world of tomorrow’ as they guide and hold management accountable to rethinking the company social purpose, embedding it in their decision making as they navigate the complex post COVID19 economic landscape.

The writer George Sanders used the following analogy for the current COVID19 moment, ‘we’ve slipped on ice but haven’t hit the pavement yet. We are caught in a suspended state between losing control and feeling the full impact’.

Companies will be faced with tough dilemma. Cost savings and profit motives, which may have served them well in the past are likely to backfire (7).  Without a moral compass in making tough decisions and building a more sustainable model, in the way wealth is created and redistributed, the prophecy of the French writer, Michel Houellebecq , ‘the world after will be the same…in worse’ may well materialise. Yet, ESG has raised in awareness and reaching an inflection point. The priorities Boards drive, the courage to do ‘the right thing’, the moral authority they hold and their leadership in shaping sustainable and equitable long-term corporate strategies will define the, much hoped for, ‘World of tomorrow’.

References
(1) https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/finance/stakeholder/
(2) Fidelio partners. Cash is King! ESG? May, 10 2020
(3) https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-time-to-lead-with-purpose-and-humanity
(4) Examples such as B Corp certified companies, https://bcorporation.eu/ 

(5) https://www.business.com/articles/triple-bottom-line-defined/
(6) http://www.oecd.org/dac/sustainable-development-goals.htm  https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/
(7) When Crisis strikes lead with Humanity. Harvard Business Review April 23 2020, Doug Sundheim