March 8, 2024

Report Provides Recommendations on How to Achieve Enduring Board Effectiveness

While drafting a post on this forum about a report published by EY that provides recommendations on how boards of American companies can confront crisis and embrace opportunity, I found another report produced by the consultancy that provides "a comprehensive approach and framework for understanding and enhancing board effectiveness."

Authored by Kris Pederson, EY Americas Center for Board Matters Leader, this report presents a framework comprised of "a series of elements that must be intact for board performance to flourish. Two of these are foundational 'effectiveness' pillars that guide the work to be done by the board. These flow through five 'systemic' layering elements that embody the board's operating environment." She adds that "With a strong mission and engagement model supported by effective information practices, boards have a solid foundation for effective performance. The systemic board governance elements encompass the operating model and principles of an effective board."

According to Ms. Pederson, the first pillar of board effectiveness, board mission and engagement model, "The board's fundamental mandate is to provide insight, foresight and oversight on mission-critical issues that drive the company's governance as it advances its strategy, operations, financial performance, and stakeholder engagement to drive long-term corporate value. Guiding this mission are the board's own values.

Evidence of an effective board mission and engagement model includes:
  • The board's corporate governance guidelines articulate the board's purpose, values and core engagement strategy and practices.
  • Every board member can consistently state the board's mission and the company’s purpose, strategy and long‑term value proposition.
  • Board members and management are in clear agreement about the mission‑critical company issues that demand board oversight. Each board member individually embodies core traditional leadership values and skills, including ethics and integrity, diligence and conscientiousness, executive‑level communication skills, and a commitment to progress.
  • There is clarity as to the company's core policies, strategies and risk management approaches, and when and how the board engages to oversee them.

Regarding the second pillar of board effectiveness, information infrastructure, Ms. Pederson explains that "Effective boards are rooted in the diligent design and maintenance of reliable and efficient information practices that provide timely access to the highest-quality information and people (e.g., advisors, stakeholders, customers) needed to identify, illuminate and address evolving mission-critical issues." Moreover, "Boards should be specific with management about their information needs so that management is not overburdened with immaterial questions and potentially driven to expand board materials to include tangential information or excessive detail."

Evidence of effective board information infrastructures include:
  • Board meeting materials include a cover memorandum that succinctly describes in a clear narrative form all items on the board agenda.
  • Technical documents, such as financial reporting, equity compensation plans, merger agreements or other material contracts, are fronted with a one- or two-page (max) executive summary of material terms.
  • All board materials are presented with draft resolutions clearly specifying the matters the board or its committees are being asked to act on.
  • Boards and management are diligent about how they engage with each other to share information, respecting established communications channels and security issues.
  • Neither the board nor management feels unduly overburdened with information overload or requests for information, respectively.
  • The board regularly hears perspectives from third parties on critical issues and complex matters.

With respect to "Board composition, structure and leadership," the report notes that "Making effective determinations about the competencies, backgrounds and experiences needed on the board is key to building a strong board, keeping in mind that diversity across multiple dimensions is essential to board effectiveness."

Moreover, "Based on an understanding of the companies' strategies and emerging mission-critical issues, key stakeholder demands, and increasing regulatory scrutiny of board effectiveness, boards
should develop and maintain, in collaboration with senior management, a competency map (or board skills matrix) that identifies and scopes the skills and type of experience needed on the board. This analysis, which should have a forward-looking orientation, enables a more accurate and objective determination of effective board composition, size and committee structure."

Evidence of effective board composition, structure and leadership include:
  • The board maintains, in collaboration with management, a detailed board skills matrix in assessing board size and composition.
  • The board's corporate governance guidelines and committee charters clearly allocate roles and responsibilities between the board and its committees, including mission-critical issues such as strategy, risk, culture, compliance, technology, cybersecurity, and climate change.
  • Board members periodically move across different committees, and committee structure and composition are reasonably fluid based on the company's needs.
  • Committee chairs regularly collaborate on the most effective ways to govern overarching board responsibilities relating to strategy, risk and long-term value.
  • Board and committee oversight responsibilities are periodically revisited as business environments and priorities shift.
  • Committee chairs report to the board when they need additional resources, refreshed competencies or workload reallocation.

Regarding board dynamics, Ms. Pederson explains that "A positive board dynamic is one of the most critical elements in achieving board effectiveness. Many also believe that consistently maintaining a positive board dynamic can be challenging. For this reason, all board members, especially board leadership, need to work to nurture and consistently demonstrate respect and trust for each other." She adds that "Without a culture of respect and trust, boards cannot engage in constructive debate and instead devolve quickly into dysfunction. In their discussions and deliberations with each other, at meetings and informally, all board members should show evidence of their commitment to the board's mission, values and engagement model through active, informed and productive engagement."

Evidence of effective board dynamics include:
  • Director participation at meetings is balanced: No single director or group of directors dominates agenda formulation, discussions or deliberations, and no single director or group of directors is passive or disengaged.
  • If interviewed, each director would state that he or she felt included, heard and respected, and that all members demonstrate respect and trust.
  • There are no "camps" or "factions" among board members or among board members and management.
  • Directors say something when they see something, and the board takes appropriate action.
  • The board engages in informal ways between meetings to enhance trust and build personal connections.
On the topic of board decision-making, the report says "Boards should be highly conscientious and intentional about when and how they make decisions. Leading boards develop a process to support effective decision-making, based on applicable state and relevant laws and the board's mission and engagement model.

Ms. Pederson adds that "For every matter before them, boards should question and assess how well the decisions they may make align with the company's purpose, culture, strategy, risk tolerance profile, and sustainability goals. Boards need to spend the time, access appropriate resources and consider alternative scenarios and outcomes before making final decisions."

Evidence of effective board decision-making include:
  • The board and management maintain a delegated authority matrix, specifying corporate business matters that require board decisions.
  • The board maintains a checklist of approval requirements in its organizational documents and under relevant law.
  • The board chair establishes appropriate transparency around director voting by discouraging informal decision-making discussions and overseeing that the board's books and records are in order.
  • The board does not make decisions without sufficient considerations about the quality of the information, timing, and risks and rewards.

As for the final element on systemic board governance, "Board outcomes and evaluation," Ms. Pederson points out "The ultimate outcome of a high-performing board is reflected in the success and prosperity of the business itself. A board should see the evidence of its efforts manifest in company financial performance, including growth through the innovation it fosters and cost reduction from the risks it helps the company avoid."

She importantly adds that "Indeed, investors, regulators and other stakeholders are seeking greater board effectiveness and are increasingly interested in board evaluation processes and results. The final component in the pyramid," according to Ms. Pederson, "includes a board evaluation process that not only results in a more effective board, but also leads to investor trust."

Evidence of effective board outcomes and evaluation include:
  • The board, its committees and each director conducts a self-evaluation annually, enhanced by third-party facilitation when needed.
  • The evaluation process results in the identification of concrete actions the board agrees to take within a specified period to enhance effectiveness through the achievement of specific milestones.
  • The board's collective competencies map to the company's strategic and technical needs.
  • The company's disclosures around the board evaluation process enhance trust in the board.

Ms. Pederson's report concludes with the following:
A highly effective board of directors is a great asset to a management team and a critical component of company success. Our experience finds that boards must deliberately manage the board effectiveness pillars to be certain they are working on mission-critical elements of the business and procuring the right information to drive decisions. Also, high-performing boards carefully address each element of the systemic governance framework to establish the use of an optimized approach that directly drives board value.

Questions for the board to consider:
  • How does the board evaluate whether management is "living" the company's purpose and values as described in the company's code of business conduct and ethics?
  • How does the board engage with management in rigorous ongoing analyses of material and mission-critical growth drivers, risks and opportunities?
  • How can board materials evolve to include narrative stories that explain matters being presented to the board as well as practical dashboards, graphics, data, and key performance indicators?
  • On mission-critical issues, how does the board diversify its information sources beyond management by engaging with independent advisors to broaden its perspective?
  • Do the board's corporate governance guidelines provide clear standards for director qualifications, continued service, tenure, and removal?
  • Has the board discussed using additional committees to address expanding board or committee roles and oversight responsibilities, particularly around risk, technology, cybersecurity, climate change, human capital management, and material ESG matters?
  • Does the board calendar make sufficient time for board engagement with management, key investors and other stakeholders, and independent advisors?
  • Is every director consistently prepared for board and committee meetings, as demonstrated by his or her engagement and contribution? And if not, how is that feedback provided?
  • Is the board effectively managing and leveraging diversity in backgrounds and perspectives? Is there sufficient diversity in views to promote progress in the board's mission?

What are your recommendations for how to achieve enduring board effectiveness?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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