Brave boards in a new world: What can gender diversity contribute

OECD-CFA Institute Webinar in collaboration with INSEAD IWIB Club

By Marina Niforos, IDN Ambassador France and Non-Executive Director

On 29 June 2020, the CFA Institute and OECD co-organized a discussion on the challenges that boards are facing in the aftermath of this unprecedented crisis we are going through and on the lessons that can be learned for ‘building back better”. IDN Ambassador France, Marina Niforos participated in the discussion that aimed to address the role corporate governance can play in navigating the “new normal” and how board diversity can contribute to the reconstruction phase.

Josina Kamerling (Head of Regulatory Outreach, CFA Institute) opened the panel, stressing the following: Despite codes metrics and consistent efforts to increase gender diversity at Boards over many decades, change remains slow and does not always trickle down to action. Will this crisis present an opportunity for Women in Leadership? Uncertainty is the new normal: A Threat or an Opportunity?

While the participants came from different board backgrounds (regional, supervisory board, corporates, funds, insurance, infrastructure, sovereign funds) there seemed to be consensus on the nature of the crisis and the impact:

  • The nature of the COVID19 crisis is unprecedented, of a much larger magnitude that the 2008 financial crisis. People are questioning the fundamentals on both a professional and personal basis, as they are confronted with a threat on their own wellbeing and of the things they value most. A ‘grey swan’ or a ‘black swan’, the recent crisis has ‘put in question many past orthodoxies and shown boards that we cannot solve unpredictable challenges without increased diversity of thinking at board level.  As Georges Desvaux (Axa, Chief Strategy Officer) noted:

”Boards will require a new skillset, that goes beyond from the typical profile of a another CEO that was the preferred candidate of choice for board seats”.

  • In practice, according to Marina Niforos (NED, HCAP), corporate governance is facing opposing forces: on the one side, boards are thrown by circumstance into a crisis management mode, firefighting role that pushes the perception that ESG and general sustainability considerations are a luxury for “when times get better”. On the other hand, there is increasing pressures from stakeholders (customers, employees, investors, regulators and citizens at larger) that are stressing the need to address these issues as strategic in establishing trust and ensuring that economic recovery is perceived as possible and equitable by all. Boards and companies who are unprepared to provide credible answers and scenarios will be subjected to public scrutiny and reputational risk. McKinsey’s report Diversity Still Matters makes the compelling business case that companies with more gender diversity and ethnic diversity outperform their peers, contributing to the resilience and long-term performance of the organization.
  • Franca Ruhwedel (Professor and NED) stressed that, despite the focus on short-term risks, a positive development has been the change of tone and new culture of ‘discussion’ in Supervisory Boards in two tier systems, allowing SBs to move beyond a compliance, tick the box modus operandi to a more hands on, strategic approach and has fostered stronger ties between supervisory and management boards.
  • This crisis can be an opportunity to advance in the diversity and sustainability of boards and the companies they serve. Whether NEDs or executives, Boards need to seize the opportunity as to address these issues as a strategic medium-and long-term objective that will define their competitive advantage. The complexity of the new challenges, ESR ones at the front, and the agility required to adapt now call for new profiles, more connected to the market reality, the ones that will be able to figure out resilient scenarios and better solutions for long term sustainability.
  • This need for a diverse skills set on the Board, a greater stakeholder management experience and empathetic leadership presents an opportunity to go beyond the traditional profiles and closed network where board members were co-opted and allow more professional women to enter the pipeline. According to Marina Niforos, this will require professionalization of board searches and a move from credentials of that “make the board look good to criteria that make the board do good”. “Strategical broader vision expected from board members requires not only technical or industry specifics competencies but also a more global mindset and open-minded collaborative attitude that let opportunities for more diverse talents” said Nicole Gesret (CEO, SITG).

The Link between Diversity and Sustainability: How to measure Impact?

“Boards are accountable to contribute to truly to their shareholders but also to the overall ecosystem of stakeholders and to the next generation: how can we use experience to measure board diversity on corporate sustainability?” (Josina Kamerling)

There is a lot of discussion since the COVID19 breakout on the need to put sustainability squarely on the agenda of companies. In the past, many companies made bold statements about the importance of sustainability but few addressed it as part of business strategy, relegating it to the realm of CSR policy. The crisis has made people realize the fragility of our ecosystems and the vulnerability this implies for us and our societies. There is increasing grass roots momentum as citizens are very concerned about the future and potential threats and are pressuring their own political representatives to take sustainability considerations and climate more seriously and customers are challenging companies on the origin and quality of the products they buy. In turn, governments are mobilizing to ensure that climate becomes a policy priority with specific conditionality for companies, as for example in the case of granting EU state aid for the post-COVID recovery, eg. Air France.

Additionally, mainstream investment funds and asset managers are clamoring to claim the space of ‘green investments’, to discredit perceptions of ‘green washing’, creating new funds and making capital commitments for green investments (Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan) Yet, in order to take advantage of this wave of good will and translate pressure from stakeholders into lasting results, certain critical success factors need to be at play:

  1. Metrics are key: “what get’s measured, get’s done”.
  2. Convergence around a common methodology that allows for progress checking and benchmarking is important to provide transparency across industries and sectors. Initiatives such as the Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance at EU level is intended as an effort to provide a market standard. However, if tools are too complex to apply, SMEs who do not have same resources as large companies may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
  3. At the same time, pressure for compliance to these demanding standards will push boards to search for the requisite skillset, opening up more board seats for women and men.
  4. Training and corporate culture change is a continuous process and needs to have investment by the board: The skillset regarding Diversity and inclusion culture, same as ethics, is something that should form part of the continuing education of Directors, so that their more openness of spirit at board discussions, tolerance for dissension and move beyond just the simple ticking the box.
  5. Accountability for results: Boards need to hold management accountable for diversity and ESG objectives. In an environment of post crisis pressure management will be risk averse and unwilling to take on less conventional profiles on their boards. The board a s collective should ensure that management stays on track and does not lose its focus. The example of a ‘living cv’ that is a public registry tracing the past performance of Board Directors was held as a practical example of an accountability mechanism accessible to all.
  6. Board self-assessments: Beyond management, boards should exercise their own self evaluation at board and/or committee levels, with external evaluators when possible, to encourage introspection and have specific action plans when weaknesses are identified. Those can be publicly disclosed on company websites for full transparency.
  7. Diversity is not just a Board issue: diversity is not just a question of board composition but of the company talent management strategy as a whole, a strategic objective squarely under the Board’s oversight. It is important to ensure that a culture of inclusion is reflected is senior management and the different management levels of the company to ensure a robust pipeline.

Key Recommendations for policymakers and companies

  • Boards “Need to walk the talk”, to show demonstrable and measurable results not just paper. Demonstrate by example, as we have seen Danone in changing their legal status to a ‘purpose-driven company’. This type of public commitment then becomes a process for delivering results.
  • Policymakers should actively engage with private companies to encourage positive outcomes through the right incentives. This exercise should not be about format, but about a continuous dialogue and will require flexibility and persistence
  • Companies should not wait for the regulator to impose quotas or similar measures but should actively have develop their own self-governance initiatives to encourage diversity. • Setting quotas might work for some countries and cultures while others will be more resistant to top down approach.
  • Go beyond the compliance approach. You can comply with the law and still not do a good job. The important thing is to ensure transparency, report on what you are doing on diversity, have it on the board agenda, report on how do you do the selection and then let the market do its work.
  • Regulators should ensure, where they can, that boards have sufficiently trained and certified board directors and ask that it becomes the standard, thereby creating a market for these skills.

OECD Representative, Mathilde Mesnard (Deputy Director, Financial and Enterprise Affairs) closed the conference stressing that the crisis is perhaps creating a paradox. Women at the bottom of the pyramid are disproportionately impacted and data indicates that violence against women is on the rise since the outbreak, but on the other hand, we might have an opportunity to make a a difference for women in leadership and women on boards, if we manage to maintain momentum and put in practice some of the lessons learned.

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).

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