By Didier Duret IDP-C, Non-Executive Director and Independent Adviser
Change is risky for firms and boards of directors must see beyond talk of disruption and innovation to ensure companies focus on their essential qualities and a handful of best practices
The current global lockdown, enforced by governments to minimise the Covid-19-led public health emergency, has led to the shelving of many firms’ multi-decade strategies to correctly allocate resources across different regions.
Boards of directors must now re-focus on their organisations’ long-term resilience. This must not be confused with short-term crisis management, which demands quick reactions, analysed relentlessly across digital media.
Prudence and strength
Resilience is a mixture of prudence and strength before a crisis and should be ingrained in firms. It is defined as “the degree of freedom we can deploy to act on events we cannot control”, by Boris Cyrulnik, French psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor. For most firms, it derives from a mix of efficient risk management and organisational flexibility. In order to boost resilience, boards must question assumptions, nail down governance principles and adopt sound stewardship.
The idea of resilience in business was popularised by Nassim Taleb in his 2012 best-seller Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, which argued that both humans and organisations are poorly equipped to cope with shocks that accelerate change and have cascading consequences. While hardwiring to think in categories has helped our species survive, most phenomena in nature and society follow non-linear patterns with little respect for categories. Although we can model risk from yesterday’s data, we cannot apply it confidently to tomorrow’s uncertainties.
In modern corporate life, despite a professional culture that has elevated disruption to a virtue, change remains risky and unpredictable. Many start-ups do not survive, and large firms struggle to adapt. Disruptive ideas facilitated by ‘agile management’ have limited impact once they encounter bureaucratic inertia. The board is in a key position to see beyond management techniques and reflect on the essential qualities of a resilient firm.
Focus on what works
Rather than being hypnotised into a reverie of ‘innovation’, it makes sense to focus on a handful of best practices. Of these, financial resilience and access to cash is the most important. Heavy debt and weak solvency ratios undermine resilience. Boards have explicit responsibility for their firm’s capital structure and access to finance, plus oversight of remuneration and dividend and share buyback policies. In a crisis, when survival is at stake, board members may seek access to new capital, renegotiate bank loans or seek being bought out by a larger firm. Board oversight is crucial for the firm to exit a crisis with resilient, if battered, financials.
Diversification of activities, markets, products and suppliers makes good business practice. Diversity of opinions, talents and skills among management, staff and board members also contributes to strategic resilience. A mix of genders, races, cultures, languages and expertise strengthens reliability of operations and leadership competencies. External advisers and independent board members can help identify new trends signifying a paradigm shift. They reduce groupthink and corporate bias, constructing a vision differing from the past. External think-tanks or business school experts can be valuable resources for the board to refocus long-term strategy based on short-term crisis-induced changes.
Discernment through judgemental resilience is a major governance skill exercised by the board. It can be reinforced to balance quantitative resource optimisation versus qualitative operational resilience. Better data-driven “dashboards” do not mean better resilience, just as last week’s stock price does not tell us what next week’s will be. The board can ask the CEO to review crisis planning and solidity of the strategy though a qualitative-scenario lens differing from traditional quantitative-scenario planning. which, most of the time, is consensual to the industry or macro environment.
ESG goes mainstream
Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies have become mainstream, reinforcing resilience by reducing financial, operational, and reputational risks through selecting reputable commodity providers or avoiding financing controversial industries. But ESG-driven governance does not guarantee resilience. Recent 20-year-low oil prices are just as disruptive for power producers using wind farms and solar panels in the transition to renewable energy as for shale oil firms, radically transforming capital spending plans. But today’s unprecedented economic crisis is impacting global social and political dynamics as well as consumers’ visions of the world and leadership expectations. Authentic ESG culture may yet prove a competitive advantage in the post-Covid-19 ‘new normal’.
Humility offers a hidden dimension to resilience, counterbalancing the excessive risk-taking and corporate hubris associated with charismatic CEOs. Would WorldCom have survived with board members questioning its overmighty CEO Bernard Ebbers more explicitly? Good practice involves yearly independent assessment of performance and behaviour of the board chairman, members, CEO and executive committee. Humility does not mean timidity, as it can be courageous. An advisory board I sat on during the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis pursued investment in strategic areas that had suffered from heavy losses through massive disruptions, but gave the CEO wide latitude to implement high-level decisions.
I believe boards of directors, by focusing more on conditions for resilience, can help firms achieve better financial, ethical and environmental results. Resilience in all its aspects, has become a strategic requirement and unless boards take a more socially-oriented and strategic outlook for their organisations, billions of people will suffer, to the ultimate detriment of these firms.
This article was first published in the Private Wealth Management Magazine from the Financial Times on 23 May 2020, and can be found at https://www.pwmnet.com/Wealth-Management/Business-Models/Private-View-Blog-Why-boards-have-a-duty-to-reinforce-resilience