Boardroom 101: What, exactly, do directors do?

When my son was around 5 years old, I was preparing for a board meeting and he asked what that was and what I was going to do there.

That’s a question many adults have, too. What, exactly, is a board and what does a board director do?

Searching for an explanation, I finally went with this: “You know about King Arthur and the Round Table? Well, like King Arthur and the Round Table, a group of wise people gather together every month or so. We sit around a table and talk about what the people we are helping have been doing and what they are planning to do next. We try to make sure they are acting honourably and following the law and doing what is best for everyone.”

He seemed fairly satisfied with that answer, but it got me thinking — was the metaphor apt? Is that really what directors are doing in practice?

It does seem sometimes like the board is an arcane and distant body. A caricature would be one where the doors open with a whoosh to reveal suited people sitting around a table in an oak panelled room, having confidential discussions in hushed tones, drawing on deep expertise and thinking big thoughts. And of course, those discussions would be spoken in a special “thee and thou” language.

There are parts of that caricature which do ring true. We board directors generally do sit around a table, and I’d like to think we generally have robust discussions. Strangely, we do often speak in formal ways, referring to “Mr Chairman” and the like. As for the “deep expertise” and “big thoughts” part, I’m not sure we are always well equipped with enough information to make decisions.

Changes afoot
The boardroom is changing at a fast pace. The agenda items we discuss, the expectations of board directors and the responsibility we hold are all areas that are going through a much needed, and, in my experience, a very welcome, transition.

Board agendas used to be rigid and mostly focused on traditional oversight topics such as compensation and compliance. That mandate has grown to include a great deal more.

To better understand the changes and how they affect our job as directors, it is useful to think of the tasks and the agenda items of the board as being broadly divided into a balance of what I call “grounding” and “stargazing”.

The “grounding” side consists of what you might think of as the tick-boxing items: questions around the structure and performance of the organisation in the “here and now”. Is it behaving legally and responsibly? Is it following the rules and regulations? Are its financial accounts in good order? Does it meet to the expectations not just of its shareholders but also of other stakeholders in the broader ecosystem in which it operates?

The “stargazing” side is about strategy. This is the essence of what and where the organisation wants to be in the future. It is about asking questions about how the sector is changing and how the organisation plans to grow. It is also about challenging it to make the necessary changes as the world around it changes too, and to be a driver of positive change. It is about building innovation and a sense of excitement about the future into the DNA.

The old agendas were heavily weighted towards the “grounding” side of the equation, but today, a good balance of “grounding” and “stargazing” is vital to preparing the organisation for the future. The board must look closely at the here and now, making sure everything is working correctly; otherwise we run the risk of missing signs of everything from neglect to malfeasance. We must also look into the next 10 to 15 years to make sure that the organisation has a robust future to look forward to.

Responsibilities increase
The world around us has changed at an exponential pace. Companies are seen as having a greater responsibility for the role they play in the health and well-being of society. They also bear some responsibility for the individuals that they touch, be it employees, partners, or people who live in the community. At the same time, social media and niche publications amplify the voices of shareholders, communities and consumers. Also, boards and companies no longer operate in a black box — with the advent of everything from Twitter to Google Earth, there is more transparency than ever before.

Partly as a consequence of these changes in the boardroom and beyond, the responsibilities and expectations of directors, particularly independent directors, have increased exponentially. It is not sufficient to skim the board papers, ask a couple of superficial questions, eat the lovely meal, and be on your merry way home.

Board directors are now, rightly, expected to read the papers, come prepared, and ask the tough questions. Though the boardroom has traditionally been a black box room, much has changed. Individual directors will increasingly find themselves being held to account for the choices that they have made in the boardroom in many areas, be it around executive compensation or “innovative” tax strategies.

It means that we as directors must be more diligent and make sure we are only voting ‘yes’ for things when we have a thorough understanding of what the implications of the ‘yes’ is — both now and in the longer term. We must take into account those whose lives are impacted directly, such as people who work for the company and those who live in the area where the company sits, as well as the people who use the company’s products and services. It also about those who are impacted indirectly, such as shareholders whose life savings may be at stake. Those are all positives, in my view.

In the end, if we are to live up to the ideal of King Arthur and the Round Table, chivalrous knights who are guided by the ideals of courtesy, courage, and honour, we must ask ourselves every time we gather, “Why are we here and who do we serve?” so that the decisions we take are made wisely and judiciously, not only to serve the needs of the few, but to ensure that we help the organisation to live up to its potential, and do so in an honourable way.

This column is from Above Board with Lucy Marcus, which illuminates how boards work, the consequences when they don’t work, and how they can succeed. To receive alerts from the BBC about new Above Board with Lucy Marcus columns, please subscribe here


12 August 2014

Boardroom 101: What, exactly, do directors do?

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