Archive for the ‘Culture’ Tag

Boards need ability not diversity

Corporate governance thinking does not evolve: it skips from one topic to the next.  Ideas in corporate governance are like memes: they convey ideas just as genes convey physical characteristics, as I wrote on this blog some time ago.  These memes permeate thinking, and with today’s instant communication flash around the world, become the conventional wisdom.

A couple of years ago the theme was risk.  Cadbury and the early corporate governance codes had nothing to say about risk. Now boards needed to recognize their responsibility for identifying their company’s risk profile, assessing long-term strategic risk, and ensuring that appropriate risk policies were in place and working.  Risk had become a central issue in corporate governance.

More recently, it was culture- although commentators seemed unable to agree on what they meant by culture.  In March this year, I wrote in this blog that 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, regional, corporate cultures, and the culture of the board room.  Recent commentary about culture in corporate governance thinking has focused on board-level culture, which sets the tone throughout the organization and provides its moral compass.  Board-level culture reflects the experience, beliefs and expectations of the board members, particularly the leadership style of the board chairman and the effect of any dominant personalities on the board.

Introducing the concept of culture into corporate governance adds new dimensions, with behavioural, political, and psychological aspects that are difficult to identify, let alone quantify.  In February 2017, the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published a report on corporate governance reform that identified culture as ‘the central tenet of good corporate governance (which) should be embedded in the culture of all companies, so that it permeates activity at every level and in every sphere.’  Fine: but what does that actually mean?  What are boards expected to do to make the concept operational?

On board diversity

Now the focus has shifted again: board diversity has come into the spotlight. Again, however, ideas differ on what board diversity means.  The time has come for some clearer thinking.

It seems that most people, when talking about board diversity, mean gender diversity: the need to have more women directors.  That case seems clear and, around the world, efforts are being to increase the proportion of women on boards through mandatory quotas or voluntary targets. The challenge is to increase the pool of women with executive management experience. The BEIS report, mentioned above, recommends that ‘the UK Government should set a target that from 2020 at least half of all new appointments to senior and executive management level positions in all listed companies should be women’.

To others, however, board diversity means something quite different.

The UK’s Financial Reporting Council; welcoming the Hampton/Alexander report in November 2016, wrote that it:

‘looked forward to working with the review team to improve reporting on diversity. In light of the current public debate on corporate governance, we stand ready to revise the UK Corporate Governance Code following the Government consultation. Our work on succession planning this year suggested that nomination committees should take a more active interest in talent management, in particular that initiatives are in place to develop the talent pipeline and to promote diversity in board and executive appointments. To better inform boards about the link between diversity, strategy and developing the business, more consideration should be given to the nature, variety and frequency of interaction between the board and aspiring candidates at all levels.’
The BEIS report also refers explicitly to ‘ethnic diversity’ and recommends further measures ‘to ensure that diversity is promoted at all stages of careers to broaden the pool of talent at the executive level.’  The report further calls for ‘companies [to] recruit executive and non-executive directors from the widest possible base’. The report concludes with a rallying cry: ‘Overall, [our] recommendations are aimed at permanently ingraining the values and behaviours of excellent corporate governance into the culture of British business.’

Before we all rally to this banner, more clarity of thought is needed.

 

What is the purpose of the board of directors?

The role of the board of directors, indeed the role of the governing body of every organization, is to govern.  To put it in the vernacular, corporate governance means ensuring that the enterprise is being well run and that it is running in the right direction.  This is quite different from managing the business, as I have written many times in this blog. In essence, the governance of a company includes overseeing the formulation of its strategy and policy making, supervision of executive performance, and ensuring corporate accountability. Overall, the purpose of the board is to ensure that the company meets its objectives.

But that exposes a deeper question: what is the real purpose of a profit-orientated company?  The answer has not changed since the classical nineteenth century model of the joint-stock limited-liability company was invented: to create wealth, by providing employment, offering opportunities to suppliers, satisfying customers, and meeting shareholders’ expectations.

Companies meet their societal obligations by paying taxes, adopting socially responsible policies, and obeying the law of the lands in which they operate. Companies should not be seen as vehicles for social engineering.  The board does not need to reflect the structure of society.

Admittedly, the UK Companies’ Act does call for companies to recognize the interests of other stakeholders, including employees, suppliers and customers: though it is hard to see how a company could survive by ignoring them.   Stakeholder Senates, which I suggested in this blog preciously, could provide employee, market, and societal input to board deliberations, could include representatives of young and old, poor and rich, ethic and other minorities.

To fulfil the company’s primary purpose of creating wealth, a board does not need to reflect society. It needs people who can contribute effectively to its governance. In other words, the qualities needed to be a director are the experience, knowledge, and ability relevant to governing that company, backed up in a fast-moving business environment with the ability to continue to learn and adapt. Companies are often competing with other companies around the world, whose directors are experienced professionals, in China for example.

Attempts by the UK’s FRC to revise the corporate governance code needs to be clear on the proper role of the board of directors.  Ability at board level is vital for corporate success; social diversity has nothing to do with it.

Bob Tricker, October 2017

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Oxford University Press, or fellow blogger Professor Chris Mallin.

 

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On board culture and diversity

Corporate governance thinking and practice seems to evolve either as regulators respond to corporate failings or directors adopt the prevailing conventional wisdom.  A year or two ago, the call was for boards to recognize their responsibility for identifying their company’s risk profile, assessing long-term risk, and ensuring appropriate risk  strategies and policies were in place and working appropriately.   Cadbury and the other early corporate governance codes had nothing to say about risk: now it has become a central issue.

Today, the conventional wisdom is focusing on board culture and board diversity.  But commentators seem unable to agree on what is actually meant by culture or diversity.  The time has come for some clearer thinking.

In March this year, I wrote in this blog that 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.’  Much of the recent commentary about culture in corporate governance has focused on board level culture and its reflection on the culture of the company. so that it permeates activity at every level and in every sphere.

In its February 2017 report on corporate governance reform[1], the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy identified culture as ‘the central tenet of good corporate governance (which) should be embedded in the culture of all companies, so that it permeates activity at every level and in every sphere.’  Now what does that actually mean?  What do directors need to do to make it operational?

Board level culture depends on the experience, beliefs and expectations of those involved and, in particular on the leadership of the bard chairman and any other dominant personalities on the board.

Composition of boards

Companies should recruit executive and non-executive directors from the widest possible base.

The Report supports the recommendations of recent reviews on gender and ethnic diversity but recommends further measures ‘to ensure that diversity is promoted at all stages of careers to broaden the pool of talent at the executive level. To this end, the Government should set a target that from May 2020 at least half of all new appointments to senior and executive management level positions in the FTSE350 and all listed companies should be women.’ Overall, the Report’s recommendations are aimed at permanently ingraining ‘the values and behaviours of excellent corporate governance into the culture of British business.’

 

[1] For more information see the most recent blog from Professor Chris Mallin on this website.

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