October 30, 2014

Board Leadership Debate

Stephen Bainbridge recently shared his comments opposing ISS’s proposed revised policy on independent board chair shareholder proposals. The proposal (issued in connection with draft policy changes) adds new factors that ISS would consider in determining whether to support an independent chair proposal and – unlike the current policy – provides that ISS would consider all of the factors holistically, rather than require that each factor be satisfied for ISS to recommend against a proposal.

Although this holistic evaluation would afford companies greater flexibility in that a failure to satisfy any particular factor wouldn’t necessarily be determinative, the proposed new policy inherently contains additional judgments about what constitutes good or subpar governance. Additional factors ISS would consider include the absence/presence of an executive chair, recent board & executive leadership transitions, and director/CEO tenure – governance practices that vary widely among companies. Also, as noted in this Weil Gotshal article, it’s not clear how these new factors would play into ISS’s analysis. For example, what about director/CEO tenure – i.e., what precisely would ISS take into account, and how will that be weighted relative to the other criteria? And how does that factor relate to the effectiveness of any particular form of independent board leadership?

In support of his position, Bainbridge identifies studies and other information that demonstrate the absence of a link between an independent chair structure and company performance. In addition to those cited in his blog, this 2013 study is relevant and noteworthy. After evaluating all germane (almost 50) studies on “CEO duality” (i.e., combined CEO/chair vs. alternative structures) over the past 20 years and discussing relevant findings, the authors conclude as follows:

More than at any other time since Finkelstein and D’Aveni (1994) published their foundational study on CEO duality, board leadership is in flux. Large firms are increasingly opting for a separate and independent chairman of the board (Lublin, 2012). This shift has garnered praise from governance advisors and institutional investors (Monks & Minow, 2008), but has also introduced new problems, such as the very public disagreement between the CEO and the independent chairman at insurer AIG (Lublin & Ng, 2010). That conflict ultimately ended with the chairman resigning, raising questions about the integrity of CEO non-duality. At the same time, policy makers are weighing whether to mandate a separate chairman at all U.S. firms. We believe such action would be misguided, not because the issue of CEO duality is praise unimportant, but because it is too important and too idiosyncratic for all firms to adopt the same structure under the guise of “best practice.” The most consistent finding in the CEO duality literature is that separating the CEO and board chair positions does not, on its own, improve firm performance. Given that the performance implications of CEO duality are contingent on an array of factors (Boyd, 1995; Krause & Semadeni, 2013), only some of which are known, boards should be left free to adopt the structure they deem to be strategically beneficial for their firms.

I’m not advocating any particular form of board leadership; as GC, I experienced both independent chair and independent lead director structures, and each was suitable under the circumstances. Rather, particularly in view of the absence of a link between a particular structure and company performance, I’m advocating tolerance of multiple views and alternative structures based on what the board believes to be optimal under the circumstances.

See also my previous blog noting declining or flattening shareholder support for independent chair proposals over the past four years – as various forms of independent board leadership have trended up.

Survey: Investors Weigh In on Boards

Not surprisingly perhaps, most investors want boards to consider/discuss all of their governance policies that PwC identified in its new investor survey; However, policies on majority voting, board diversity, and overboarding clearly stand out – each garnishing 94% of investor support. In contrast, less than 65% of investors thought that the board should be revisiting their policies on separating the CEO/chair, director term limits and mandatory retirement.

On diversity, 85% of investors believe that the board will need to address these impediments to increased diversity in connection with revisiting their policy:

Q: What impedes increasing gender or other aspects of diversity on US corporate boards (gender %/other aspects %)?

  • Directors don’t want to change their current board composition – 55%/52%
  • Board leadership is not invested in recruiting diverse directors – 52%52%
  • Directors don’t know many qualified diverse candidates – 52%/55%
  • Directors don’t view adding diversity as important – 52%48%
  • No perceived impediments – 15%/15%
  • Insufficient numbers of qualified diverse candidates – 3%/3%

Note that only 3% of investors cite an insufficient number of qualified diverse candidates as an impediment to increasing board diversity; however, 55% of investors believe that directors’ lack of awareness of many qualified diverse candidates is an impediment. Consistently, of those directors responding to PwC’s recent director survey who believe there are impediments to increased diversity, the top factor cited was a lack of awareness of qualified diverse candidates.

“Board Risk Score” Gauges Risk of Activist Attack

In this podcast, Waheed Hassan discusses Alliance Advisors’ launch of its new “Board Risk Score” product, including:

– What is the purpose of the Board Risk Score?
– What factors does the score take into account, and why did Alliance Advisors select those factors?
– Which companies are scored? And how often or when are companies scored?
– What information does a company’s score reveal?
– What should a company do with the information?
– How does a company get its score?


– by Randi Val Morrison