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In 2022 the world is more certain about the challenges it faces and more aware of its vulnerability and interdependence. The future is always uncertain, but today’s doubts are less about what and more about how, who and until when. The problem is not one of diagnosis. Data and conclusions abound about the importance of the present moment and the major transitions underway in the digital, green and labor fields. But the failure to carry them out collectively and inclusively leaves us in a fractured landscape. Key to the debate are the questions around where the point of no return lies, what kind of leadership is best equipped or has most legitimacy to pilot these transformations and how the process should be handled to ensure the social costs are as low as possible. Below are the issues that affect the world in this area:
Regulation and Corporate Adaptation
Genuine trust is underpinned by personal integrity, and by putting the interests of the organization (and of society) above those of individuals. Responsible corporate governance can create a culture of mutual trust.
Trust is crucial for the long-term success of companies - especially at the board level. Boards need to be able to trust that management will bring full transparency into the boardroom, and that will only happen thanks to shared integrity.
According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2019 only about one-third of adult Americans had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in elected officials to act in the public's best interests, and less than half said the same about business leaders (attitudes were far more positive when it came to the medical professionals now grappling with COVID-19). In addition to the general public, employees increasingly expect their employers to do the right thing and take action on issues related to inequality, the environment, and climate change.
There is a strong sense of pessimism about leadership in both the private and public sectors, and anxiety related to job security is high - due to a general lack of training and increasing automation, and not least due to the global pandemic. This threatens to fuel the growth of nationalist and protectionist movements.
While organizations must comply with legislation and regulation on everything from taxes to consumer protection, competition, corruption, and environmental protection, they can also be positively influenced in terms of corporate governance and trust by industry self-regulation and voluntary practices - such as a code of conduct.
Most cases of fraud and breach of trust among stakeholders can be traced to corporate governance failures, and so corporate leaders have the ultimate responsibility for creating an organizational culture that supports trust - and ensures that management and employees embody and act on the stated values and mission of their organization.
As people lose faith in their political leaders, it appears that they have higher expectations for CEOs. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, more than three-quarters of the general population, or 76%, want CEOs to take the lead on necessary social and economic change rather than waiting for governments to act.
Particular areas of increased social expectations that require the attention of boards of directors include diversity (including gender diversity), transparency, equal opportunity, and eliminating all forms of harassment.
Shifts in regulation can have profound corporate governance implications. A wide variety of legal and regulatory environments have been constructed around the world; the OECD Corporate Governance Factbook contains information about nearly 50 different national institutional, legal, and regulatory frameworks. Some institutional and legal settings have proven to be more conducive to effective corporate governance than others.
Enhancing governance reform in the many places where it is lacking is a potential source of value creation both for individual companies and broader economies. One example of legal governance reform is 2002’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the US, which expanded disclosure and auditing requirements and the responsibilities of the boards at all publicly-traded companies. Sarbanes-Oxley triggered similar reforms around the world: Australia in 2004, India in 2005, and Japan in 2006. Since then, other important reforms have been put in place - such as the Dodd-Frank Act enacted in 2010, in response to the banking industry excesses that resulted in the financial crisis, and the Jumpstart Our Business Startups, or JOBS Act, which was designed to facilitate the funding of small businesses in the US by exempting them from certain regulatory requirements.
Technological progress has created situations where regulatory needs are not necessarily black and white. Services like Uber and Lyft, for example, have made it unclear if drivers should be treated like regular employees or contractors under the law. Legislation passed in California in 2019 requires these ride-sharing platforms to treat drivers in that state as employees when it comes to wage and benefit protections, creating uncertainty about the financial prospects of the broader “gig economy” amid the possibility that other states and countries might follow suit.
This shift could impact many boards and the ways they approach compliance, risk management and corporate strategy. Other areas of technological development with significant corporate governance implications include artificial intelligence, blockchain, the Internet of Things, and biotechnology - all of which are likely to trigger new regulations and corporate governance needs.
The right mix of legislation, regulation, and self-regulation depend on a country’s specific circumstances, history, and culture. The corporate governance structures developed in response typically cover the ownership of publicly-listed companies and stock exchanges, shareholder rights and responsibilities, takeover rules, board structures and composition, and information disclosure.
Corporate Risk Management
First, risks must be prioritized, and here the board of directors can play a key role by deciding in what priority they should be addressed, what is to be deemed simply unacceptable, and how they should be addressed from a structural perspective. For example, evidence gathered from the 2007 global financial meltdown indicates that banks with boards that had identified a need to establish a separate risk management committee managed the crisis better than those with integrated committees. For boards, the volatility of risk scenarios is only increasing.
Every organization is confronted with some type of risk - operational, financial, technological, environmental, regulatory - which can have devastating consequences. Effective corporate governance requires continuous and systematic management of all types of risk, both current and anticipated.
The benefits of this type of separation have become only more evident as fiduciary duties have come to include oversight of a broad range of matters, including compliance with international accounting rules and stability measures that require banks to set aside capital in case of potential losses. Implementing a robust risk management system requires the integration of different parts of an organization, including the board’s risk committee, internal auditing, finance, legal, and operations.
Determining an appropriate board structure and approach to risk management will depend upon both a company’s industry and stage of its life cycle; risk exposure is very different for financial institutions than it is for petrochemical firms. Even within the financial sector, different approaches are required - from insurers exposed to extreme weather events related to climate change, to retail banks making loans to small businesses during volatile periods.
Organizations are dealing with complexity and litigiousness like never before, forcing their boards to assess current and past organizational exposure. Still, there are some strategic advantages to taking risks; after all, achieving sustained growth requires some degree of risk-taking. Incorporating risk management into corporate strategy is therefore crucial.
Increasingly complex and rapidly changing economic, environmental, social, and technological conditions have multiplied potential risk scenarios. Worsening climate change, geopolitical tensions, trade wars, and social upheaval like the protests that spread in Hong Kong in 2019 require corporate governance that is proactive when it comes to identifying risks and addressing them.
Technological innovation at the core of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another - and forcing the decision-makers guiding organizations to rethink how they can create value and reinvent the ways they function. Organizations must be able to evolve and adapt, as the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated.
A board of directors has the responsibility to drive the continuous reinvention of an organization - in a way that ensures it is fit for purpose relative to shifting customer demands, social expectations, and unexpected calamities.
As the global economy weathers the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many organizations that had previously focused on maximizing resilience through technologies like cloud computing may find themselves in better shape than others.
Innovation impacts many of a board’s core responsibilities, including long-term planning, fostering a corporate culture, executive compensation, setting strategy, and making investments and acquisitions. While established incumbents are at risk of lacking sensitivity to evolving technology needs and responsibilities, younger players need the financial resources and data enjoyed by their older counterparts - and each can gear their corporate governance efforts towards sharing resources in a way that creates value.
New collaborative models may require entirely new corporate governance approaches that are much less based on traditional vertical control and siloed mechanisms - while still maintaining accountability to shareholders.
The United Nations has emphasized the critical potential for breakthrough innovation to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, which are designed to enable a more sustainable global economy by 2030.
It is a matter of corporate governance to consider how this innovation can both enable sustainable economic growth and help fulfil a specific organization’s purpose. In terms of investor stewardship, for example, shareholders must be engaged on the topic of innovation in order to better understand long-term prospects both for the business and for society as a whole.
Boards at the most forward-looking companies consider the long-term prospects of a business alongside its internal capabilities - essentially looking into the future in order to assess whether a company might be impacted by a paradigm shift in technology and business models, or a global crisis, and whether there are related opportunities and risks.
Some organizations have specific board committees dedicated to technology and innovation, while others bring on consultants or other external advisors.
Corporate governance relies on a handful of mechanisms to align executives with owners and other stakeholders.
One of the main mechanisms is the board of directors. It plays a vital role in keeping the executive team both accountable, and on track relative to its stated purpose and long-term goals. There has been a lot of discussion about the most effective structure for a board - which tends to depend on the nature of the organization, its market, and its regulatory environment.
Corporate governance involves establishing mechanisms to align the goals of a company’s executive team with those of owners and other stakeholders (customers, local communities) in the interest of fostering sustainable and long-term development. For a board to be truly effective it must decide on its optimal size, the independence of its members, the means to assess potential risks, and the renewal process necessary to maintain effectiveness.
There has been heated debate about how to add diversity (in terms of both skills and backgrounds) to boards, in the interest of enhancing strategic guidance. Another high-profile topic is incentives, or setting the right type of compensation for top executives in order to encourage long-term decision making that is in line with the organization’s purpose.
One key mechanism is the ability of shareholders to engage with management and discuss material matters, and to (most importantly) vote on proposals at annual meetings. Shareholders can include anyone from founding families to institutional investors like pension funds, and a significant share will likely be participating via retirement plans.
Shareholder engagement keeps managers on their toes - and while not every form of activism genuinely adds value, making managers respond to shareholder pressure helps them to avoid becoming entrenched and insulated. There has been a marked increase in corporate responsiveness to shareholder pressure related to climate and gender equality issues in recent years, as well as a greater emphasis on long-term strategic plans - reflecting the fact that many shareholders now have longer-term investment horizons.
The compensation debate revolves around not only pay levels but also structure: short-term vs long-term, preferred stock vs. options, performance vesting options as well as discretionary bonuses. Research has shown that setting variable incentives tied to long-term horizons is conducive to long-term profitability, an increase in innovation, and increases in employee and client satisfaction.
Long-Term Vision, Short-Term Needs
Balancing short- and long-term pressures is one of the most difficult business leadership challenges. When firms focus on the short term, it often translates into lower investment in the long-term sustainability of a company at the expense of other stakeholders. Management has to be able to both articulate a long-term strategy and deliver sufficient short-term returns in order to ensure support and continued investment.
There is a commonly-held view that investors pursue short-term profit at the expense of long-term value. According to the results of a survey published by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University in 2019, 70% of CEOs and CFOs at S&P 1500 Index companies were facing pressure to maximize short-term returns at the expense of long-term growth.
Leaders of global companies have been signing a WEF compact for responsive and responsible leadership, committing them to ensure that their boards oversee the definition and implementation of corporate strategies that pursue sustainable long-term value creation, to encourage the periodic review of corporate governance, long-term objectives and strategies at the board level, to promote meaningful engagement between the board, investors, and other stakeholders that builds mutual trust and promotes the highest possible standards of corporate conduct, and to implement policies, practices, and long-term strategies aimed at cultivating sustainable growth for the benefit of all stakeholders.
Consistent metrics for measuring the success of long-term strategies are important. Corporate governance can play an important role in this regard by implementing incentives and pay aligned with these long-term metrics. Another means to tilt the balance towards a longer-term approach has been the increased adoption of Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria in corporate strategies and investment decisions - which can draw the attention of shareholders zeroing in on firms with a longer-term, socially-conscious approach.
According to a white paper published by the World Economic Forum in 2019, quarterly reporting requirements are not the sole reason for short-termism - though corporate leaders describe them as a “necessary evil.” According to the white paper, these leaders must become better storytellers about their companies, by framing each quarter as a step in a longer-term story.
Management and their boards must engage in constant conversation about how the company will grow, and the risks it will take to get there.
Defining Corporate Purpose
In 2019, the organization declared that companies should benefit all stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, and communities - in addition to shareholders. This strongly reinforced the idea that profits are not the sole purpose of a business, and that corporations should exist to solve problems and provide services. If they are successful at doing this, long-term shareholder returns can increase, as society in general is better served. An organization’s reasons for being should extend well beyond financial gains.
Establishing purpose is not an abstract exercise; it has proven to be essential for guiding decision making and for establishing priorities. London Business School Professor Alex Edmans has noted that as virtually all of the major decisions a company makes involve trade-offs, one of the main benefits of having a strong purpose is to guide these trade-offs. Purpose must not only be explicitly defined, however - it must also be implemented.
The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of the largest American companies, has departed from a longstanding view that corporations exist solely to serve their shareholders.Shareholders must understand the organization’s purpose, and be able to identify the metrics (both quantitative and qualitative) related to delivering on it. Some of these metrics incorporate the traditional concepts behind corporate social responsibility (CSR), such as maintaining positive working conditions and employee satisfaction, cultivating workforce diversity, and focusing on client satisfaction and product quality. But purpose can go well beyond CSR - one example is the clothing company Patagonia, which states that its reason for being is to help protect life on Earth.
Survey results published by researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2018 showed that 65% of Americans believe CEOs at large companies should use their positions to address broad social, political, and environmental issues. That is to say, most Americans realize that corporations need to be committed to providing solutions and value to everyone - and that businesses have a responsibility to society.
This is (presumably) understood by its investors, and implemented by designing, producing and selling products in the most environmentally sustainable way possible, and by building its supply chains and customer service around the circular economy ideas of repairing, reusing, and recycling. Responsible corporations create value for society and are motivated by the desire to do so.
Good governance relies on internal mechanisms like the structure of a board and incentives for management, and on external mechanisms such as institutions that demand accountability. All of these mechanisms are important, as they form the core of how (and for whom) corporations generate value. Ultimately, corporate governance can help deliver both economic gains and more inclusive societies.
Corporate governance should ensure decision-making in the best interests of all stakeholders - including customers, employees, regulators, local communities, and shareholders. This applies both during periods of relative stability, and during crises - when many organizations will be forced to confront how well they have or have not prepared from a corporate governance standpoint.