Archive for the ‘Corporate culture’ Category

Culture and corporate governance [1]

 

Commentators frequently mention the importance of culture in corporate governance.  They recognize that the ‘comply or explain’ regime of adherence to corporate governance codes does not capture the reality of corporate behaviour,   But there seems to be some confusion about what is meant by culture  and why it is really relevant to corporate governance.

What is culture?

Culture can be thought of as the beliefs, expectations and values that people share.  Like the skins of an onion, culture has many layers – national cultures, regional cultures, the culture of a company, and the culture in a board room.

The culture of a country is influenced by its social, economic and political heritage, its geography, and its religion.  Culture is moulded by situations that affect relations between individuals, institutions, and states.   Culture is influenced by law, is reflected in the language, and is passed on by experience in families, schools, and organizations.  It is culture that determines what is thought of as acceptable, important, and right or wrong.  Culture affects how people think and act.  It is fundamental to understanding corporate governance.

In the late twentieth century, when ideas about corporate governance began to be discussed, much of the thinking and practice was influenced by countries that shared Anglo-American cultures – a belief in the rule of law; the importance of the rights of individuals to personal freedom and the ownership of property, in the context of accountable, democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary.

In the United States, corporate governance practices stemmed from the rule of company law laid down by state jurisdictions and at the Federal level by regulation from the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

In the UK, and subsequently in most Commonwealth countries associated with the UK, the governance of companies was determined by Companies Acts and, for listed companies, by corporate governance codes, reinforced by Stock Exchange rules, which required companies to report compliance with the code or explain why they had not.

The influence of religion on corporate governance 

Religious beliefs are part of the culture of every country and affect personal values, relationships, and attitudes to authority.  They influence morality, ethical standards, and what business behaviour is considered acceptable.  Under-pinning beliefs are reflected in the way business decisions are made, corporate entities operate, and corporate governance practices develop in different countries.

The United States was founded by Puritans seeking religious freedom.  The founding fathers, the majority of whom were lawyers, placed great emphasis on their constitution, the rule of law, and democratic rights.   Those same traits are reflected in the governance of American companies to this day.  Legal contracts, litigation, and shareholder rights are still at the forefront of business issues.

In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the approach to corporate governance was more flexible, less rule-based and litigious, reflecting the broader traditions of Britain’s religious inheritance.  The Church of England, rejecting control from Rome, established a freedom of expression and tolerated other non-conformist religious traditions, which became embedded in British culture. The voluntary approach to corporate governance – ‘conform or explain why not’ – reflects this more flexible, voluntary approach.

Other countries influenced by Britain during the days of the British Empire (including Australia, Canada, South Africa, other countries in Africa and the West Indies, as well as Hong Kong and Singapore, shared these corporate governance influences.

In Germany, the teachings of Martin Luther, 500 years ago, shaped the country’s language and changed its way of life.  Luther influenced belief in the moral imperative to seek principle and order, to be prudent with money, and to avoid debt.  Southern European nations, on the other hand, influenced by Roman Catholicism, took a less austere approach: a distinction that is still being played out among the nations that adopted the Euro as their national currency.

Northern European nations were also affected by the teaching of John Calvin, which emphasized the importance of working for the community, not just for their families and themselves.  Germany’s co-determination laws view companies as partnerships between labour and capital. In the two-tier board governance structure, the supervisory board contains representatives of workers as well as investors.

The influence of religion on corporate governance practices can be seen strikingly in Japan.  Buddhism and Shinto, the national religion, have been dominant religious influences.  Even though relatively few Japanese now identify with either religion, belief in spirits is widespread.  Shrines to spirit deities are commonplace.  Social cohesion is a dominant feature of Japanese business life, with high levels of unity throughout the organization, non-adversarial relationships, lifetime employment, enterprise unions, personnel policies emphasizing commitment, initiation into the corporate family, decision-making by consensus, cross- functional training, and with promotion based on loyalty and social compatibility as well as performance.

The Japanese Keiretsu networks connect groups of Japanese companies through cross-holdings and interlocking directorships, Chairmen and senior directors of companies in the keiretsu have close, informal relationships.   Although the paternalistic relationship between company and lifetime ‘salary-man’ is under economic pressure, boards still tend to be decision-ratifying bodies rather than Western style decision-making forums.

Although there have been recent efforts to require independent non-executive directors, as in the Western corporate governance model, Japanese top management remains rather sceptical.  Many Japanese do not see the need for such intervention ‘from the outside’.  Indeed, they have difficulty in understanding how outside directors function. ‘How can outsiders possibly know enough about the company to make a contribution,’ they wonder, when they themselves have spent their lives working for it?  How can an outsider be sensitive to the ingrained corporate culture?

Of course, the cultural significance of religion does not mean that religion or religious organizations played a part in the development of corporate governance norms.  Indeed in some countries, the UK, China, and Japan for example, many people no longer claim any religious affiliation.  But the religious culture provided the ethical context, the moral influence in creating law, running business, and influencing approaches to corporate governance.

Culture and the future of corporate governance

When corporate governance norms were first discussed in the 1980s, many thought that corporate governance in countries around the world would gradually converge with Western practices.  They believed that because these countries needed to raise capital, trade in securities, and do business globally they would adopt Western practices.   Institutions such as the World Bank and the OECD[2] put considerable effort into advising developing countries about modern corporate governance practice.

Globalization became a dominant feature in world trade because some countries offered significantly lower costs to developed markets.  Some thought that globalization of the movement of goods, services, money, people, ideas  and information, would inevitably lead to a convergence of intellectual insights, politics, and ideology.  Such arguments are seldom heard these days. Capital can be raised in the East as well as the West.   Securities can be traded on many stock exchanges.[3]   The notion, which might be termed ‘globalism,’ seems unlikely to survive.  Attempts by countries to protect their own industry and labour markets, control the flow of people, money, and information across their borders challenge the onrush of globalization.

Now, as the 21st century moves forward, discussion about corporate governance increasingly recognizes the significance of culture – national, regional, corporate, and board-level – to successful corporate governance.. The governance of companies within a country needs to be consistent with that country’s culture.

Bob Tricker

March 2017

[1]  The material in this blog has been adapted from:  Corporate Governance in Modern China – principles, practices, and challenges; Bob Tricker and Gregg Li, to be published next year

[2] the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

[3]  The stock exchanges of Singapore and Hong Kong now rank third and fourth in significance after London and New York

Worker directors – we’ve been here before

At the UK’s Conservative Party conference, in early October 2016, the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, raised some significant corporate governance issues:

‘So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats the tax laws as an optional extra…a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension scheme is about to go bust, I’m putting you on warning…’

Each of these issues has been discussed in recent blogs. But she also suggested that workers should be appointed to boards of directors. As could be predicted, this suggestion was welcomed by the Trades Union Council but raised alarm in some British boardrooms.

But we have been here before. Extracts from Corporate Governance: Principles, Policies, and Practices (3rd ed., 2015, pages 12 and 85) explain why:

 ‘In the 1970s, the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union, issued a series of draft directives on the harmonization of company law throughout the member states. The Draft Fifth Directive (1972) proposed that all large companies in the EEC should adopt the two-tier board form of governance, with both executive and supervisory boards. In other words, the two-tier board form of governance practised in Germany and Holland, would replace the British model of the unitary board, in which both executive and outside directors oversee management and are responsible for seeing that the business is being well run and run in the right direction.

In the two-tier form of governance, companies have two distinct boards, with no common membership. The upper, supervisory board monitors and oversees the work of the executive or management board, which runs the business. The supervisory board has the power to hire and fire the members of the executive board.

Moreover, in addition to the separation of powers, the draft directive included employee representatives on the supervisory board. In the German supervisory board, one half of the members represent the shareholders. The other half are chosen under the co-determination laws through the employees’ trades’ union processes. This reflects the German belief in co-determination, in which companies are seen as social partnerships between capital and labour.

The UK’s response was a Committee chaired by Sir Alan Bullock (later Lord Bullock), the renowned historian and Master of Saint Catherine’s College, Oxford. His report – Industrial Democracy (1977) – and its research papers (1976) were the first serious corporate governance study in Britain, although the phrase ‘corporate governance’ was not then in use. The Committee proposed that the British unitary board be maintained, but that some employee directors be added to the board to represent worker interests.

The Bullock proposals were not well received in Britain’s boardrooms. The unitary board was seen, at least by directors, as a viable system of corporate governance. Workers had no place in the boardroom, they felt. A gradual move towards industrial democracy through participation below board level was preferable.

Neither the EEC’s proposal for supervisory boards nor worker directors became law in the UK. Since then, the company law harmonization process in the EU has been overtaken by social legislation, including the requirement that all major firms should have a works council through which employees can participate in significant strategic developments and changes in corporate policy.’

Proponents of industrial democracy still argue that governing a major company requires an informal partnership between labour and capital, so employees should participate in corporate governance. Maybe an extension of the Shareholder Senate idea, suggested in a recent blog, called a Stakeholder Senate could provide another forum to inform, liaise with, and influence the board.

Bob Tricker October 2016

 

 

A new idea in corporate governance – Shareholder Senates

Around twenty years ago I wrote that while the twentieth century had been the era of management, with its new management schools, management consultants, and management gurus, the twenty-first century would be the era of corporate governance.   Corporate governance has certainly now moved centre stage. Google has 52 million references to the phrase.

Interest in corporate governance has flourished. The late Sir Adrian Cadbury wrote the first corporate governance code – the UK’s Financial Aspects of Corporate Governance (1992).  He always emphasized that his report was not a comprehensive approach to corporate governance, but focused on the financial aspects. Nevertheless, he made proposals that are still pertinent ̶ the creation of board level audit committees, remuneration committees, and nomination committees, with independent outside directors; the separation of the board chairman from the CEO; and public reporting that the company had complied with the code or explaining why it had not.

Since then, corporate governance codes, often as stock exchange requirements, cover almost all listed companies around the world. But despite countless amendments, revisions, and rewrites most corporate governance development has been piecemeal. There has been relatively little original thinking. Most codes still adopt Cadbury’s voluntary ‘comply or explain’ approach. The principle exception is in the United States, where regulation and legislation are used to oversee the governance of corporations.

The development of corporate governance practice has almost always been in response to corporate failure or economic malaise. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was set up in 1932–3, after the stock market crash of 1929 and the great depression that followed. The Cadbury report responded to concerns about corruption found in UK Government inspectors’ reports on failed companies including the collapse of Robert Maxwell’s’ corporate empire.

The US Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX 2002), was a response to the failure of Enron, Waste Management, and other companies, followed by the folding of the ‘Big Five’ accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, reducing the big five to the even bigger four. Unfortunately, SOX did not prevent the global financial crisis, starting around 2008, in which US companies such as Lehman Brothers failed and American International Group, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and others were bailed-out by the US government. The result was further federal legislation. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, called by some SOX 2, attempted to improve American financial regulation and the governance of the US financial services industry.

As yet, no over-arching theory of corporate governance has emerged. New thinking and new ideas are badly needed in the governance of organizations. A fundamental governance question for the modern public company, for example, is: What role should the shareholders play in corporate governance?

In the original mid-nineteenth model of the joint-stock limited liability company, the shareholders were mostly individuals–aristocrats and members of the newly forming affluent middle class. These shareholders appointed the directors who reported to them on their stewardship of the company. The directors may have known their shareholders personally. Shareholder meetings and votes were the way boards of directors were held to account. Indeed, in the original model accounts were audited by an audit committee, elected from among the shareholders themselves.

But today, individuals running their own portfolios form only a small part of the shareholder base. These ‘retail shareholders’ typically have relatively small holdings and little influence. They might also include directors, executives, and other employees of the company.

Significant shareholders are more likely to be:

  • active institutional investors, such as mutual funds, pension funds, and financial institutions, closely interested in the company’s affairs who may be actively involved in corporate governance matters; and
  • passive institutional investors, such as index-tracking funds required by their constitutions to invest in a given range of securities, using computer algorithms to make investment decisions, with little interest in corporate governance issues. The shareholder base could also include:
        • hedge funds gambling against the market and selling short, with real short-term interests in the business, but not in longer-term corporate governance;
        • private equity investors seeking short term strategic opportunities;
        • dominant investors, perhaps the company’s founders or their family trusts, who are closely interested in, and possibly actively involved in company affairs. Though they might hold only a minority of the voting equity, in some jurisdictions they can maintain ownership power through dual-class shares;
        • state-owned corporations, perhaps with a minority of their shares traded publically, and possibly influenced by state economic and political interests; and
        • sovereign funds, using state capital to invest, possibly with political or economic implications as well as financial interests.Concerns over corporate behaviour, such as allegedly excessive director remuneration, unclear or over-ambitious corporate strategies, or the lack of board diversity have led some politicians and other commentators to call for shareholders to exercise their duty to oversee board behaviour more fully. This has led to the emergence of proxy advisers; firms that study issues facing companies and advise institutional investors on voting decisions.

But votes in shareholder meetings are advisory; exhortatory at best. Shareholders’ votes do not bind the board. Directors do not have to follow them. Energetic efforts by some institutional investors, including grouping together, have not changed the underlying power structure.

Bob Monks, in his book Corpocracy (New York: Wiley, 2007), showed how power had moved over the years from owners to directors. Concerned by what he saw as an abuse of power, he co-founded Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) in 1985 to wage proxy warfare on companies. These proxy battles continue to this day. However, the fundamental question remains: In the modern public company what should the role of shareholders be?

Is it, on the one hand, to preserve the nineteenth-century legal concept of the corporation–that the shareholders own the company and are expected to play a basic role in its governance by electing the directors and holding them to account. Or is it, on the other hand, for the shareholders to accept a corporate stakeholder role providing finance, just as suppliers provide goods and services, customers produce sales revenues, and the employees provide the work force?

I have just completed a study on shareholder communication for the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries, which will be published shortly and duly noted in this blog. In a survey Hong Kong’s listed companies gave overwhelming support for the idea that shareholders should exercise a stewardship role in the governance of listed companies. In this they are in line with the opinions of many authorities around the world–regulators, legislators, and corporate governance commentators.

Had the alternative view been taken, that shareholders are just one of the various stakeholders in a corporation, appropriate governance models could be developed. The German supervisory level two-tier board could provide a start; members are nominated to represent both labour and capital (the employees and the investors). Representatives of other stakeholders could be added.

Such a development would reflect a change in the UK Companies’ law in 2006. Prior to that company law in the UK required directors to act in the best interests of the company, which effectively meant in the interest of the shareholders, in other words, by attempting to maximize shareholder value in the long term. But the Companies Act 2006 specifically spelled out a statutory duty to recognize the effect of board decisions on a wider public. For the first time in UK company law, corporate social responsibility (CSR) responsibilities were included among the formal duties of company directors:

‘A director of a company must act in the way he considers, in good faith, would be most likely to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole, and in doing so have regard to:

(a) the likely consequences of any decision in the long term

(b) the interests of the company’s employees

(c) the need to foster the company’s business relations with suppliers, customers, and others

(d) the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment

(e) the desirability of the company maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct, and

(f) the need to act fairly as between members of the company.’

Thus UK company law now requires companies to consider employees, suppliers, customers, and other business partners, as well as the community and the environment, in their decisions.

However, if shareholders are to continue to be a responsible part of the corporate governance mechanism, how might that be achieved? If shareholders are really to affect corporate governance in the companies in which they invest, they need more power. New corporate governance models will have to be devised. One idea might be a Shareholder Senate.

Shareholder Senates

A Shareholder Senate would be a new governance body set mid-way between the company and the body of shareholders. Members of the Senate would be nominated by long-term institutional investors and elected by all the shareholders.

The Senate would meet formally with the board’s remuneration committee, its nomination committee, and its audit committee with the auditors. Periodically, it would have discussions with the Chairman and the entire board. It would also meet independently to formulate reports and make recommendations to shareholders.

The overall responsibility for the company and its management would remain with the board of directors. The Senate would have the authority to question, to advise, and to influence the company on its strategies, operational performance, and financial matters. For example, a Senate could question and challenge levels and methods of executive remuneration, the adequacy of risk assessment systems, the balance of skills, experience, and adequacy of the directors, and confirm that succession plans existed for all senior executives.

The Senate would not have the power to block the board’s decisions, nor could it hire and fire directors (as the German supervisory board can). But it would have the responsibility to liaise with the shareholders, and the power to recommend how they vote on specific motions. It could also introduce motions for shareholder meetings. Over time, Shareholder Senates would supplement and probably replace the work of proxy advisers.

Shareholder Senates would become a fundamental component of companies’ corporate governance structures and processes. Accordingly, members of the Senate would have fees and expenses reimbursed by the company, just as non-executive, outside directors have. The company would be responsible for publishing Senate reports and other communications with investors, just as it publishes other corporate reports.

Concern might be expressed that members of Shareholder Senates would receive unfair insider information. But Senate members could be placed in a similar position to directors who may not trade shares prior to the announcement of results. In fact, Senate members would be in a less exposed position than a nominee director elected by a major shareholder, because they would not attend board deliberations.

In fact, it would not be difficult to introduce a requirement for shareholder senates into companies’ legislation or to include them in corporate governance codes, operating on the ‘comply or explain’ principle.

The proposal for Shareholder Senates will not be welcomed by most directors and their boards, because they would inevitably mean a shift of power away from the boardroom back to the owners. However, there was plenty of antagonism in British board rooms to the original Cadbury Report proposals: many thought independent outside directors were an unnecessary imposition and an infringement of executive directors’ right to run their own companies.

There is little doubt that Shareholder Senates will not be achieved without legislation and regulation. Such developments could be prompted by the ongoing dissatisfaction with the governance of the modern corporation. The newly appointed British prime minster, Theresa May, following the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, mentioned problems with the governance of British companies in her inaugural statement.

Corporate governance evolves. Dissatisfaction exists over the present corporate governance model. Some boards readily accept a responsibility to engage with their shareholders. Others do not. Some companies are run for the benefit of their owners. Others are not. Criticisms multiply of board-level excess, particularly over board-level remuneration. Shareholder Senates would provide an opportunity to re-establish owners’ rights. They would give investors a more effective say in the governance of their companies. Power would no longer be abdicated by the owners to the directors.

 

Bob Tricker
September 2016

The UK’s Financial Reporting Council (FRC) review of 2014

The UK’s Financial Reporting Council (FRC) review of 2014

  • on compliance with the UK Corporate Governance Code
  • a call for better commitment to the Stewardship Code
  • and focusing on corporate culture and board level behaviour

On 15th January 2015, in its annual review of developments in corporate governance and stewardship for 2014, the FRC reported that levels of compliance with the UK Corporate Governance Code had continued to increase. Reporting had become more transparent and informative, with audit committee reports much improved. Overall, levels of compliance with the UK Corporate Governance Code continued to improve, with full compliance by the FTSE 350 now at 61.2%, whilst 93.5% complied with all but 1 or 2 provisions. Reporting on board-diversity had also made good progress with a clear policy on diversity reported by 85% of FTSE 100 companies; although FTSE 250 companies have more to do, showing an improvement from only 20% to just 56%. The UK is on course, the FRC believes, to reach the Davies Report target of 25% female directors in FTSE 100 companies in 2015, with 22.8% of such directorships now held by women.

However, although the signatories to the UK Stewardship Code had increased to almost 300, with investment managers more engaged with large companies, the FRC felt that more needed to be done to ensure that action was taken on their commitment to the principles of the Code. Increasing levels of concern had also been expressed by companies and investors about the role of proxy advisors. In some cases a box-ticking approach seemed to be adopted by them and some investors, with a perceived lack of actual engagement with companies.

The report also highlighted the importance of appreciating the significance of culture and risk management in organisations, as the third edition of Corporate Governance – principles, policies and practices also emphasizes. The recent FRC guidance on risk management highlighted the need for boards to think hard about whether the culture practised within the company is the same as that which they espouse, particularly under pressure.

Commenting on board culture, FRC Chairman Sir Win Bischoff said:

‘The governance of individual companies depends crucially on the culture that is in place. The UK’s strong governance culture encourages companies to list in London and provides assurance to investors. Unfortunately, we still see examples of governance failings in this area. Boards have responsibility for shaping the culture, both within the boardroom and across the organisation as a whole.’

During 2015, the FRC plan to assess how effective boards are at establishing company culture and practices and embedding good corporate behaviour, and will consider whether there is a need for promoting best practice. The FRC will also be focusing on the application of the Stewardship Code and the role of proxy advisors.

Bob Tricker

20 January 2015