Effective board governance: the healthy tension between management and the board
April 2016 | SPECIAL REPORT: MANAGING RISK
Financier Worldwide Magazine
In this age of heightened risk, the need for effective governance has caused a dynamic shift in the role of the board of directors. Cyber security, rapid technological growth and a number of corporate scandals resulting from the financial crisis of 2008, all underscore the necessity of boards working constructively with management to ensure efficient oversight, rather than simply providing strategic direction. This is, perhaps, no more critical than in the middle market, where many companies often don’t have the resources larger organisations have to attract board members, but yet their size requires more structure and governance than smaller companies might need.
Following the best practices of high-performing boards can help lead to healthy tension between management and directors for improved results and better risk management. We all know conflict in the boardroom might sometimes be unavoidable, as the interests of directors and management don’t necessarily always align. Add various personalities and management styles to the mix, and discussions can sometimes get heated. It’s important to deal with situations when they occur in order to constructively manage potential differences of opinion to create a healthy tension that makes the entire organisation stronger.
Various conflict management styles can be employed to ensure that any potential boardroom tension within your organisation is healthy. If an issue seems minor to one person but vital to the rest of the group, accommodation can be an effective way to handle tension. If minor issues arise, it might be best to simply avoid those issues, whereas collaboration should be used with important matters. Arguably, this is the best solution for most situations and it allows the board to effectively address varying opinions. If consensus can’t be reached, however, it might become necessary for the chairman or the lead director to use authoritarian style to manage tension and make decisions. Compromise might be the best approach when the board is pressed for time and needs to take immediate action.
The board chairperson can be integral to the resolution process, helping monitor and manage boardroom conflict. With this in mind, boards should elect chairs with the proven ability to manage all personality types. The chairperson might also be the one to initiate difficult conversations on topics requiring deeper scrutiny. That said, the chairperson cannot be the only enforcer; directors need to assist in conflict resolution to maintain a proper level of trust throughout the group. And the CEO should be proactive in raising difficult issues as well, and boards are typically most effective when the CEO is confident, takes the initiative in learning board best practices and works collaboratively.
Gone are the days of the charismatic, autocratic CEO. Many organisations have separated the role of CEO and chairperson, and have introduced vice chairs and lead directors to achieve a better balance of power. Another way to ensure a proper distribution of authority is for the board to pay attention to any red flags that might be raised by the CEO’s behaviour. For example, if a CEO feels they have all the answers, doesn’t respect the oversight of the board, or attempts to manage or marginalise the board, the chairperson and board members will likely need to be assertive, rather than simply following the CEO’s lead. Initially this might seem counterintuitive, however, in the long-run, this approach will likely create a healthier tension than if they simply ‘followed the leader’.
Everyone in the boardroom needs to understand their basic functions for an effective relationship -executives should manage, while the board oversees. In overseeing, the board’s major responsibilities include approving strategic plans and goals, selecting a CEO, determining a mission or purpose, identifying key risks, and providing oversight of the compliance of corporate policies and regulations. Clearly understanding the line between operations and strategy is also important.
Organisations with the highest performing boards are clear on the appropriate level of engagement for the companies they represent – and that varies from one organisation to the next. Determining how involved the board will be and what type of model the board will follow is key to effective governance and a good relationship with management. For example, an entity that is struggling financially might require a more engaged board to help put it back on track.
Many elements, such as tension, trust, diversity of thought, gender, culture and expertise can impact the delicate relationship between the board and management. Good communication is vital to healthy tension. Following best practices for interaction before, during and after board meetings can enhance conflict resolution and board success.
Before each board meeting, management should prepare themselves and board members by distributing materials and the board package in a timely manner. These materials should be reviewed by each member, with errors or concerns forwarded to the appropriate member of management, and areas of discussion highlighted for the chair. An agenda focused on strategic issues and prioritised by importance of matters can also increase productivity.
During the meeting, board members should treat one another with courtesy and respect, holding questions held until after presentations (or as the presenter directs). Board-level matters should be discussed and debated if necessary, and a consensus reached. Time spent on less strategic or pressing topics should be limited to ensure effective meetings. If appropriate, non-board-level matters might be handed to management for follow-up.
Open communication should also continue after board meetings. Sometimes topics discussed during board meetings take time to digest. When this happens, board members should connect with appropriate management team members to further discuss or clarify. There are also various board committee meetings that need to occur between board meetings. Board committees should be doing the ‘heavy lifting’ for the full board, making the larger group more efficient and effective. Other more informal interactions can further strengthen the relationship between directors and management.
Throughout the year, the board’s engagement with management can be broadened to include discussions with more key players. Gaining multiple perspectives by interacting with other areas of the organisation, such as general counsels, external and internal auditors, public relations and human resources, can help the board identify and address key risks. By participating in internal and external company events, board members get to know management and the company’s customers on a first-hand basis.
Of course, a strategy is necessary for the board as well, as regulatory requirements have increased, leading to greater pressure for high-quality performance. Effective boards maintain a plan for development and succession. They also implement CEO and board evaluation processes to ensure goals are being met and board members are performing optimally. In addition to the evaluation process, however, board members must hold themselves totally accountable for instilling trust in the boardroom.
Competition in today’s increasingly global and complex business environment is fierce, and calls for new approaches for success. Today’s boards need to build on established best practices and create good relationships with management to outperform competitors. The highest performing boards are clear on their functions, and understand the level of engagement appropriate for the companies they support. They are accountable and set the right tone, while being able to discern true goals and aspirations from trendiness. They are capable of understanding and dealing with the ‘big issues’ and are strategic in their planning and implementation of approaches that work for the companies they serve. With the ever-changing risk universe, the ability to work with the right amount of healthy tension is essential to effective governance.
Hussain T. Hasan is on the Consulting Leadership team as well as a board member at RSM US LLP. He can be contacted on +1 (312) 634 3700 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr Hasan currently serves as the risk advisory services leader for the Great Lakes Region at RSM US' global headquarters in Chicago, IL and is a member of the board of directors. He specialises in enterprise risk management (ERM), Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), strategic planning and information technology (IT) security. Mr Hasan has over 20 years of experience in various capacities and industries, especially in specialised audit and consulting experience in both the internal audit and public accounting settings.
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