Category Archives: Organizations

Here you find our thoughts on the modern and emerging challenges of forging a career ladder in organizations beyond the start up in size.

It’s not how much you spend on university. It’s how wisely

between friends


Rise of the ‘precariat
,’
the global scourge of precarious jobs

Barely one in four of the global workforce has a stable job, UN reports
– CBC News, World, June 1, 2015

Contract work is here to stay, says Bank of England governor
UK job market has changed permanently due to financial crisis, Mark Carney tells Treasury select committee
– The Guardian, November 25, 2014


In his Nov. 1, 2015, editorial ‘The 21st-Century Club’, Fortune editor Alan Murray said of the 13th Fortune Global Forum:

“We are now in the early stages of the third Industrial Revolution. New corporate behemoths like Google, Facebook and Uber are reaching Fortune 500 size at unprecedented speed. The century will belong to those who master this new model. Economic dynamism will matter more than sheer scale. The invitation-only CEO gathering (Nov. 2-4) will include leaders of many of the largest companies in the world and focus on the challenge of ‘Winning in the Disruptive Century'”. (You can view the agenda of the recently concluded event by clicking here.)

One of the advantages of living in the early 21st century is that all it takes to see how some of the most powerful corporations in the world are going to change the way we live and work is a few keystrokes. What the Forum attendees heard and discussed wasn’t ‘if’: it was when—and when is now.

Those companies will need the help of well-educated young minds and they’re not alone. They’ve declared their intentions publicly which means that the word is out on what kinds of schooling they’ll be looking for. Parents and children who plan to attend university have to read that word, understand it and act on it. We know the names of the people who are shaping the future and the names of the companies they head. The information they’re making available about what they’re thinking is free.

It’s not how much parents are spending on higher education that matters; it’s how wisely they’re spending it. It’s a lot cheaper to avoid making a mistake than it is to correct it. The two articles at the top of this page speak to the consequences. So does this story about the precariat by Joe Fiorito in today’s Toronto Star. How is someone who is just starting out supposed to repay student loans on irregular or inconsistent income? At what point will the rising cost of tuition put post-secondary education out of reach? What will the impact be on the universities themselves?

There’s a glut of degrees on the street. Jobs that used to call for a high school diploma now call for a degree but pay high school wages. Graduates are accepting them even though they aren’t full-time and employers don’t look gift horses in the mouth. Had graduates taken the time to scrutinize the labour market before they put their money down, they might not have run out of options.

We can’t blame all of this on graduates any more than we can blame all of it on universities or governments. But we can blame it on a changing employer-employee social contract that has already cost many parents their job. Why weren’t they and others paying attention?

The environment in which today’s jobs exist is as important as the jobs themselves. Free trade agreements are part of that environment. Compromises were built into every one of them. To get, we gave. And what we gave was often measured in jobs lost. Canada has entered into 44 of those agreements so far and concerns are being expressed about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has yet to be ratified. Politicians and businesspeople love to boast about how many new jobs the agreements they ink will create. What kind of jobs are they? Will they be permanent or precarious? What qualifications will they call for? How much will they pay?

In its Oct. 24th – 30th issue, The Economist published ‘Reinventing the company’. In its Nov. 1st issue, FORTUNE published ‘The 21st Century Corporation: Every aspect of your business is about to change’. This is what Geoff Colvin said in his lead-in:

“Imagine an economy without friction—a new world in which labor, information, and money move easily, cheaply, and almost instantly. Psst—it’s here. Is your company ready?”

Please be sure to read FORTUNE editor Alan Murray’s editorial ‘The 21st-Century Club’. It’s what the C-Suite is reading and it’s already here.

By no means does this apply to all lines of work or to all degrees or all post-secondary diplomas and certificates. But where it does, and if precarious employment is the outcome, how do we calculate the value of higher education? Or the cost? Is it the education, the way it’s chosen, or both?

Even if parents are prepared to borrow money to put their kids through college, someone is going to have to pay it back. In the States, 7 million have defaulted on their loans. The US$1.2 trillion owing isn’t the figment of someone’s imagination: it’s real. In Canada, the number is between C$25 billion and C$50 billion, and one family in 8 is shouldering the burden.

To see the numbers for yourself, go to Google Alerts and set it to deliver links to articles with the words “student debt” in them to your e-mail inbox once a day. You’ll average 10 per day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. I have been since October 2012, and the problem isn’t confined to North America. To see what universities are doing to cope, research the Millennium Project at the University of Michigan.

The world isn’t going through a phase: it’s evolving. We’re experiencing an economic tectonic shift, a “third Industrial Revolution” as FORTUNE puts it. If you want to see what the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014 – 2015 says about how Canada is faring, click here.

The United Negro College Fund has been reminding us for years that: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. So is a university. If we continue to waste either or both, we’ll have no one to blame for the consequences but ourselves.

Customers First, Investors Last: What were they thinking?

For years now, my colleagues and I here at BoardBench, have been saying that Wall Street has it backwards.  In the boardroom, directors have been fed, with a very large spoon, the mantra that they are beholden to the shareholder, that their purpose is to “maximize shareholder value.”  If you asked a large group of directors if this is true, you’d see a lot of bobbleheads in the room.  Many believe this is a legal requirement and in line with good business sense and good corporate governance.  Unfortunately, the concept of “shareholder primacy” is a relatively recent phenomenon.  It is also simplistic (shareholders’ wants are not homogeneous), has no legal basis anywhere (go ahead, try to prove me wrong), and, as many are now pointing out, usually damaging to companies, and the economy as a whole.

What we believe is real, and will eventually be proven again as real to the Street, is that customers, and employees are the two key drivers of corporate success.  When I say “again” I’m referring to Peter Drucker’s famous quote from decades ago: “the purpose of a business is to create and keep customers.”  So many seem to have forgotten this, or have never even heard of it.

But the basic premise is this: if you take care of your customers, and have great employees who are well supported and appreciated for being curious and excited about what they do such that they will ensure that customers love the products and services that the company offers, the company and shareholders will reap the rewards, too.  Of course other things come into play, like managing R&D investments (with the customer in mind), operations, and supporting a corporate culture that has strong values and morals.  The basic premise may be slightly oversimplified, but it applies, and should resonate with the board.

It appears that I’m finally not standing alone on this either.  In a recent interview, Jack Ma, the world’s newest CEO darling, made two bold public statements.  He basically shunned the current thinking of the Street by stating, on national TV, that “our customers come first, ouJack.jpgr employees second, and our shareholders third.”   He continued: “We aim to be larger than Wal-Mart by 2016, or sooner.”  If – no, when – Jack succeeds, and executes flawlessly on his statement, that customers and employees take a front seat over shareholders/investors, then he’s got an excellent chance of passing Wal-Mart as the world’s largest retailer.  Note, Wal-Mart just slapped some of its employees, who have the most direct relationship with their customers, by cutting their insurance benefits. This was probably done to cut costs, but it will probably also have a long-term impact on their customer relationships, too. But, I digress.

It seems that too many directors, CEOs, and business leaders, have become obsessed with what Wall Street, its analysts, and shareholders think.  Many have learned to play these groups exceptionally well, too. Countless analysts and shareholders have been taken in by companies’ projections, quarterly earnings estimates, and highly creative financial management and reporting.  Don’t get me wrong, the importance of the exchanges and the markets cannot be downplayed, but a balance is needed.  Focusing on Main Street is just as important, if not more so.

If you follow Main Street, you know about big box discount stores. Costco Wholesale Club, founded by Jim Sinegal and Jeffrey Brotman, believe in serving the customer first, and that if employees are treated properly, they will work with, and treat the customer well too.  Jim, the public face, is a “hands on guy” who is known for visiting each individual Costco store.  Jim is also outspoken about his views on Wall Street.  He’s been known to say that he puts his customers and employee needs above “pleasing shareholders.”  This philosophy must be working: Costco’s five year return is +116.73%.  If you bought the stock earlier, your return would be closer to 354%.

American Express is another company known for taking good care of its customer/members.  Personally I’ve been a fan of the company’s customer service representatives over the years, and tell them that every time I’ve called for help.  Don’t get me wrong, working at this company must be tough: when I was younger, AmEx employees were nicknamed The Dragons.  Perhaps because they were seehat2.jpgn as willing to fight for the company and their customers nearly to the end.  By the way, if you invested in American Express five years ago, your return on investment would be up 149.46%.

If you’ve worked with the general retail public, as I did during my college years, then you know just how tough this can be.  Sadly, not everyone who enters a store, calls a helpline, or dines in a restaurant is a kind and thoughtful customer.  Amazon deals with all sorts of customers from nearly every continent in the world, and I’m sure they have some interesting stories to share.  However, the company is noted for being one of the best customer service organizations in the world.  Amazon has more than one customer base, as many do: retail members, and consumers.  Jeff Bezos clearly divided the customer’s connection to Amazon into two categories: the experience and the service.  At this level, he notes that customer service is part of the full customer experience.  If it’s unpleasant, it’s a negative customer experience.  He supports the idea that a positive customer experience creates greater loyalty with Amazon.  If you’ve ever dealt with an Amazon Customer Service rep, you know that they work quickly to resolve your issue, they get the job done for you, and you are nearly always satisfied and left feeling good about your relationship with Amazon.  And, if you invested in Amazon five year ago, your return on investment is now up 236.64%.

While it’s much more pleasant to focus on the “good guys,” there are dark clouds.  Some companies are noted for their poor customer service.  Some survive because there are few alternatives: think of phone companies and cable providers, and some you can name on your own (take a look at their five-year ROIs).  However, when it comes to poor customer experience these days, I think sadly of that American icon Sears.  Whenever I bring them up these days, all I hear is: “Oh my gosh, I could tell you about the time when…”  Sears is a sad story101.jpg about the decline of a once great and loved retail giant.  Many years ago, the Sears catalog used to be called a “wish book.”  Families would anxiously wait for it to arrive in the mail.  It was nearly 5 inches thick. Moms, dads, sisters, and brothers would argue over whose turn it was to browse through and select from among the items they wanted for birthdays, holidays, special occasions and more.  Some people even bought their homes out of the Sears catalog.  But, it has lost its way, and it’s touch with its customers and has already begun its drop down that magical slide once pictured in its own catalog.  The entire company and its hopes for the future look pretty dismal: sell off of units and real estate, store closings, etc.  Sadly, if you invested in Sear’s five years ago, your return on investment would be -58.50% and it’s still falling today.

To sum up and put things into even sharper perspective, I recently spoke with the General Counsel of one of the largest, most recognized corporations in the world.  He told me, succinctly, that the biggest problem with their board is that not one director had any understanding of who their customers were and are or what they want.  I can also assume that they don’t understand their employees either.  So I will watch how this company slides in the next few years (Note: their record has been negative for some time), and report back with an update, unless, that is, they somehow figure it out and turn it around.

Do you need to focus on board improvement: composition, strategy, direction, execution, oversight?  Boards are our specialty. Give us a call.

Nancy May

Corporate Advisory Boards: “Show Me the Money”

Tell me, simply: What’s the purpose of being in business? We shopped this question around to board members and executives, and heard many different (sometimes long-winded) answers. “Maximize value for stakeholders ― Have a flexible business strategy/model to stay relevant ― Make and sell goods or services ― Get and keep customers ― Derive monetary and psychic satisfaction, and a host of other interesting opinions. However, if you put all their responses into a big pot, lit a fire under it (one I like to call scrutiny), skimmed off all the fat, political correctness, esoteric ideals, and highfalutin’ thinking, you could boil it down to one simple, honest truth: “To make money!”

So what type of board can most directly make you more money? Traditional (governing) boards can, although not always directly, since their activities focus on many other things including compliance, fiduciary duties, long-term protection of stakeholder interests, etc. What about advisory boards? Companies have formed these kinds of board for lots of reasons. Often they do so to deal with  temporary issues like legal/compliance, getting closer to customers, bolstering management, etc.: issues that probably could be more efficiently addressed through consultants. But, for the most part, companies build and keep advisory boards with the long view in advisors.jpgmind, and to make even more money.

It’s common to see start-ups and high-growth firms use advisory boards to get them over the hurdles, so that they can start or continue to generate more revenues than expenses. But, what’s more intriguing is the number of large, global, and/or well-established corporations that are quietly trying to think like entrepreneurs so that they can “get their groove back.” In response to this challenge, they are building and using advisory boards to reinvigorate their processes, products, sources of capital, and new business opportunities, among other things. Ultimately, of course, to make even more money. But are advisory boards really worth it? After all, for young and well-established companies, it takes thoughtful planning, time, and considerable resources to build, maintain, exploit, and execute on what they can give you. Apparently, some are convinced.

Recently, International Flavors and Fragrances, a global corporation, built a Scientific Advisory Board. The reason: to enhance their research team’s abilities and expand their innovation pipeline. The Advisory Board’s internal leader, Senior Vice President of Research and Development, Ahmet Baydar, had the support and backing of the company’s CEO and the entire board. Focus, time, and the right resources, have delivered results. Ahmet shared: “This effort has significantly increased our innovation development thresholds. Our Advisory Board members have given us sound guidance, introduced issues, partners, and opportunities that have all brought relevant value to our business.

Mid-cap private companies use such boards to give them extra muscle, or in some cases, to tap the brakes a bit, when needed. Jim Taylor, CEO of Abarta Oil & Gas and Chairman of Abarta, Inc., a diversified family-owned holding company, told of his experience. Having built a board of independent advisors, Jim shared that these folks have “challenged us, made us accountable for our decisions and actions, and pushed us to articulate our objectives and vision more clearly. In addition, the board has helped us identify new lines of business, which equate to new revenues.” He added that “without our board I would move more quickly, but probably recklessly, with less measured perspective.” The board helped them divest itself of a business it had owned for 63 years (originally bought by Jim’s grandfather). “They helped us realize a better value on the business than we could have expected.”

Then there’s Deutsche Bank Americas: different scale, different industry. A few years back, they correctly decided that their senior team could benefit from having, on tap, a broad and diverse group of globally-renowned advisers. They took the time to focus, find the talent, and commit to building an impressive group. They also made sure that the respect and support went both ways — as it should with a good advisory board. Bill Woodley, Deputy CEO, who oversees the Advisory Board shared: “We’ve assembled a world-class group of independent advisers who offer a diverse and rich perspective to our senior management. The Advisory Board has helped us look at our current and prospective clients differently, resulting in more sustainable and balanced business prospects.”

Although many companies keep information about their advisory boards’ ROI private, our discussions with both large and smaller companies point to real and considerable financial returns. Larger corporations, with mature advisory groups, tell us that returns in the early stages range from $100 million to over $500 million.  For some smaller companies, advisory boards have accounted for higher valuations for spinoffs, avoiding poor decisions (unlike one company we know, without a board of advisers, that paid 60% more than it should have for an acquisition), and yes, many new clients, too.  Either way, when you add it all up, well-constituted and managed advisory boards can create significant returns.

Now, let’s say you wanted to acquire such a board.  How would you approach it? The process may seem simple, yet it’s anything but. As with any good business, clearly defined objectives are the keys to a successful advisory board and solid ROI. This includes identifying gaps in expertise, among many other things. Also, be bold: understand that those who you think are beyond your reach may be the best suited to test your capabilities and push you beyond your corporate comfort zone. You’ve also got to realize that greed is NOT good and that thinking only about your own bottom-line with your advisory board may make you very lonely and deeper in debt.fin.jpg

Recognizing what’s in it for your adviser prospects will be one of the golden keys to soliciting their help. Done properly, your newfound advisers can open a five-lane freeway of relationships, insights, resources, and client opportunities. However, remember that you get what you pay for. You have to carefully sort out how your advisers will perceive your valuation of their time and efforts. Some companies have been lucky enough to find highly experienced and skilled advisors who are no longer financially motivated. For the most part, I believe this species has been over-hunted to the brink of extinction. Other “free” advisers may be secretly hoping to gain some other advantage from you down the line. I believe that appealing to someone’s self-interest is a safer bet than relying on their generous nature. Either way, to align their interests more securely with your company’s, your advisers should be compensated for their efforts through annual retainers, meeting fees, marketable equity, bonuses, commissions, in-kind services, or other creative incentives. Your recruitment process should include compensation negotiations, to increase your odds of success. Otherwise, your interests will most likely take a backseat to those of others who, they believe, value them more.

Once built, understand that constructive tension can be your best friend. You stand to gain a lot of good advice from each director one-on-one. However, getting them together periodically, accelerates the brainstorming and one-upping process among them, boosting your take-away potential. Being open to a push or a hard kick in the seat (no, I’m not into pain) from your advisers should enable you, and your management team, to drive business beyond where it’s been. That’s held true for small, mid-cap, and large global companies. The tough part is learning how to let go. Listen and debate the issues with an open mind, but once consensus is achieved, act on what your advisors recommend. If you don’t, you’ll lose their trust and interest, and your investment will likely go south. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building, running, and extracting value from a well oiled advisory board.

So what are you going to ask of your hard-won and newly-acquired set of (what you hope will be), precious expert advisers, the moni.jpgfirst time you sit down with them? That will depend on how you’ve assessed their personalities and egos, and on your own comfort and ability to balance subtlety with candor in what you say and do. But, even if you don’t straight-out say it to them, then you should be thinking it – all the time: “show me the money!” A little jump up and down for emphasis (behind closed doors) won’t hurt, either.

Now, once more, from the top: What’s the purpose of a business and an advisory board?

Nancy May

Sustaining High Performing Boards

Let’s face it, it’s a tough job for any board to oversee and direct a company. To do so while staying highly functional, with continued relevance in a volatile global economy, can be daunting. Even one misplaced or dysfunctional director increases the risk of failure for the entire board. One such person can quickly take a toll on the company, CEO, senior management team (who can lose faith in and respect for the board), and the other directors’ abilities to execute. An under performing board winds up impacting the company’s credibility in the market: consider the examples set by HP, Hess, JC Penny, and BlackBerry.  In conversations with numerous CEOs, Chairmen, Lead Directors, and others, it’s still remarkable to see how often exceptional directors are willing to live with and cover for less effective directors.

Eventually, the pain of working with such a “professional” on the board leads even the most detached directors to consider the need for director succession, or removal of one of their peers. This is usually a painful and difficult process, which is why many prefer to brush this under the table versus dealing with it in the open. When it does happen, the process is compounded by a new “emergency” quest to find a replacement. This is not something most directors expect to sign up for.

In addition, some large, well-known companies that have been in the spotlight of  government investigation and litigation have been backed into a corner on director succession ― by mandate. The last thing any director wants is to stare across the table at government officials (or aggressive activist investors for that matter), who want to step into their boardroom and tell them who should be there, and how they could better manage the company.

So, what have boards done to mitigate such risks? Many boards now have a CEO succession plan or are putting one in place (hopefully), yet very few have built a sound succession process for themselves ― the board of directors. The fact is that many corporate directors find the succession process somewhat uncomfortable to deal with. After all, how many of us actually look forward to replacing ourselves?

Roger Kenny, a well known and respected governance advisor, says “I’ve seen this issue time and time again and it’s critical for boards today, more than ever, to have a succession plan for themselves and to review and renew that plan every year.  Frankly, many boards must start retiring their directors, as their lack of relevance becomes a liability to the company and shareholders. A good board assessment, applied together with a strategically built and managed bench of directors, can address and further help manage the assets and liabilities of the board. They must consider having the right skilled directors sitting in those seats. It’s important for directors to have more than one skill ― they must have breadth. Directors should not be recruited to solve a short-term problem.”

In these times, boards need to be more dynamic than they are today, if they want to continue to succeed. Life term directors and board “continuity” are no longer the prime means of keeping a board strong. Boards need to “refresh” and “rebalance” in response to changing business environments. In addition, we’ve seen boards presented with directors on a golden platter and “sold” on a few desirable-at-the-moment points promoted by external parties. When boards are looking for the looks good rather than what they really need, they can begin the (often unnoticed) slide downhill.

To combat these risks, boards need to have a strong, relevant, and dynamic resource from which to draw, and a significantly more robust process than a “guess who’s coming to dinner” evaluation of potential directors. Considering this, some boards have put in a revolving guest door for one or two individuals who might be perceived as potential prospects for board service. Others keep a running list of “who’s available” in the lineup of who they know, however, this is insufficient. In fact, that’s how many boards got into trouble in the first place. Some other boards are now starting to consider building a “bench” of potential directors to hedge against unexpected departures and to find new strength to address changes in markets and global economies.

Virginia Gambale, who has served on a number of high profile boards, agrees that a bench is an important and intelligent tool that public, and even private companies, need to keep up and remain strong. “In today’s dynamic and volatile environment, change occurs every day. Having a bench to draw from is critical.”

In speaking and working with Ron Geffner, a former SEC attorney and highly respected counsel who specializes in working with CEOs and boards on investor challenges, regulatory investigations, and actions, the discussions about the quality and value a good board brings to any given situation comes front and center. He states that “given the turbulent environment we live and work in today, having the ability to draw upon a trusted resource (bench) for experienced, diverse, prospects who can become exceptionally engaged directors, is not only critical to corporate leaders, it’s reassuring to shareholders. A board that’s strong, relevant, and committed also increases the opportunity for success and explains why some businesses not only survive during troubled times but rather excel.”

What could be considered a trusted resource of experienced, diverse, well-vetted prospects? Perhaps boards need to look at what teams, and more specifically sports teams, have done for decades: building and managing strong lineups of talent. After all, who goes into a season with only one quarterback or pitcher? Such talent takes time to find and cultivate to a point where they can come off the sideline and step up exactly when needed. Every team refers to such on-hand depth of talent as its bench.

Ideally, boards need such a dynamic and reliable tool. Whether you call it a bench or pipeline, it means having on-hand exceptional executives who have the right skills and are both capable and readily available to serve on your board and who can be trusted to add to the long-term health and value of your company. More importantly, having a bench of two or three prospects is not enough. There should be a full lineup that’s kept fresh and able to realistically address the complexity of the business should issues arise.

A number of Fortune 100 companies are already using some form of a bench today. A good number of them have been backed into doing so through government, legal, and regulatory intervention. There has even been some side discussion with insurers on innovative ways to use a bench to reduce the liability and risk on the part of the board and the D&O insurer.

Building and managing these types of “board benches” takes time and exceptional focus, generally much more than most boards can afford to do well on their own, especially as they face added compliance, regulations, economic shifts, and strategic and financial oversight concerns. Properly filling and maintaining such a bench usually requires a greater reach than the board’s connections alone to avoid settling for less than what’s needed. One director of a global company shared that they had tried to build their own type of bench, and found it nearly impossible due to time, inexperience, and thin networks.  He went on to say that: “We’ve been challenged with this issue in the past and have gotten stuck with two poor performing directors. One we learned, had conflicts of interest with our company, and he didn’t even understand why we confronted him with this. The other, we still have on the board, yet unfortunately, they adds little real value.”

Some other steps in the process include a deep, honest, and detailed review of the current board’s foundation, value provided, risks, and much more. Once set, a board’s bench also needs to be managed: continually tracked, evaluated, and monitored against the relevant direction and challenges of the company. That’s because a board’s Nominating/Governance Committee needs to stay current with their bench prospects, so that they can fill gaps without skipping a beat, feeling confident that the right people are there to fill those empty seats.

What’s the upside? When a new director is needed, final selection, election, and  “on-boarding” occurs with great speed and fluid integration, enabling a board to function without skipping a beat.

This leads to the question: how do we get this started and going? A simple question, that requires a more complex answer. The first step is to make the decision not to follow the “same old, same old” process, or do the same thing over and over expecting different results. This is a whole board commitment. The next is to solicit (or assign) board member responsibility to plan and pursue this effort. After that, a realistic budget, timeline, and goals are needed to execute and manage the “bench.” An honest appraisal is important to determine whether the board can tackle this complex process on its own, or if it needs experienced outside assistance. If there’s one message to remember, it is this: Your board should never rely just on a “who do we know” approach.

Connecting: Let’s Make it Real

While dining with colleagues recently, our discussion turned to how easy it is to connect with the entire world and yet still be isolated and alone.  As much as we’ve all become “interconnected,” many of us still lack the ability to “connect” with one another.  Sad, because so many miss out on the power of face-to-face connection.  In addition, by being electronically versus personally connected, we lose out on the subtle (and sometimes obvious) knowledge to be gained from those who have very different backgrounds, viewpoints, delivery styles, and experiences.  The challenge of truly connecting with people at all levels has grown across all generations now that we’re starting to talk more at one another than with each other.

Let me share a story:  A few weeks back, while at a local store, I overheard a young clerk who was SO excited about a story he was sharing with a colleague.  These two young men, apparently newly minted college graduates, seemed frustrated with trying to find permanent jobs (I see similar frustrations with professionals searching for their first or second board seat).  One seemed so animated and excited about a friend who, as he put it, “was set for life.”  With great exuberance he continued:  “It’s all about talking with people… you know that getting ahead is REALLY all about TALKING WITH AND GETTING TO KNOW PEOPLE!”  These words caught my interest.

He continued by saying his friend had gotten to know another friend’s mom who had started a business.  In speaking with her over time, he learned about her vision and plans.  Shortly thereafter, he was asked if he’d be interested in joining the young company.  Within two years, he was being sent out to help launch their West Coast operations. “See? That’s what I mean.  You have to speak with everyone, get to know them, learn how you can help them and then continue to talk with others, expand the connections, and build upon those relationships.”  Honestly, I was amazed at how his energy level and body posture changed while sharing this story.

Relationships and Communication – Top Level

Now you may wonder what this story has to do with CEOs, boards, or directors.  For most people, connecting with people they don’t know, and building or expanding upon relationships with others is not a natural skill.  Creativity and ease in doing so is a talent that’s quite often uncomfortable for many large companies’ leaders and directors to cultivate. In fact, I’ve noticed that those who parade the names of people they know can be the among the least broadminded or influentially connected people you could meet. Here’s an example: in conversation with a board member and former Fortune CEO, he explained his recent discovery about how important it was to get to know someone slowly before trying to ‘get them to do something that you needed’.  The comment I found to be fascinating, more so because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard such comments from a CEO or board member. What he didn’t know was that I knew the person he was trying to connect with and that my relationship could have catalyzed his building such a relationship, increasing the return for him and the other person, too.   

This experience is not unique. I’ve observed the communication and network path of numerous CEOs, directors, and senior executives who have made similar statements and who liberally drop the names of ‘who they know’ – over and over again – forgetting the complexity and depth of how long-standing, trusted network relationships work both ways, either to strengthen or degrade situations.  Beyond direct conversation, there’s much to be said for observing physical behavior and listening to the tone of voice.  If you’re a keen observer (a learned and practiced skill needing continual honing) you can see the body position change, the tone of voice adjust, and in time, determine how confident they are, and just how strong the network relationships really are.

Observations:  Benefits

The higher up the ladder you go, the more critical your communication and observation talents are needed to support  your relationships and networks.  The elegance with which you use these skills can help you gain easier access to key resources or influencers that will strengthen your position.  Just as important, you start to more easily grasp where you can provide value, too.   In reciprocating value or support, “actions do speak louder than words.”  Lack of reciprocity says much about your (and your networks’) real character.  To his dismay, a CEO ran headlong into this when he recently shared that, when he needed support, he saw which relationships were really strong and who his real friends were.  There’s no better way to learn the truth about someone than to call his or her character into question.

Another example for me of both positive and negative character, came up when I attended a network gathering last year.  During the cocktail reception, a corporate chairman and I had launched into an enjoyable and lively discussion.  Shortly thereafter, three other members joined our conversation.  One person later joined the group and seemed, almost desperately, to want to monopolize the conversation.  Slowly, but unmistakably, he began to literally elbow me out of the circle.  I was fascinated to be the focus of his behavior and watched for signs of how the other participants would react.  The chairman, with whom I’d originally been speaking, also noticed. He gently took my arm and brought me physically back into the conversation.  As I said, one’s good character, and the flawed character of the other were quietly revealed.  Needless to say, it’s an experience that will remain with me, and expanded my respect and relationship with another.

The Cloistered:  You’re probably one of them. 

I’m still floored at how often CEOs, board members, and senior executives don’t take the time, or place enough value and focus on strategically building, maintaining, and “vetting” their relationships and communications with their networks.  Time and again I’m asked to help executives, who are looking to serve on boards, to either network, learn how to network, or even help them find another CEO or board post.  But I’m rarely asked by these same people, “How can I help you?” It happens so seldom that, when it does  happen, the individual automatically rises in my estimation.

So let’s circle back to the conversation between the two store clerks.  How we manage our communications face-to-face and otherwise, support and diversify our relationships, and network  all strengthen our ability to serve the boards and companies we work with.  Continually working on nurturing and learning from our relationships also increases our own knowledge, competence, and ability to serve at a higher plain of professionalism.

The next time you tap someone in your network, be it face-to-face or some other way, I hope you’ll remember what I shared here and use it to your advantage. And to help those who’ve helped you, too.

Inspiration, Maestro, please.

So there I am reading Robyn Urbach’s excellent piece What do you mean I can’t get a job with my medieval feminist studies degree? in the National Post and playing “How many links can you follow in one story?” when I come across this CBCnews reference:

“Organizations like YES are pressing the government and the private sector to take more action by introducing more accessible co-op and professional job placements.”

I’d heard that song before: in 1968 during an interview with Honeywell in Montreal about entry-level computer sales positions. The nice man across the desk was telling me that Honeywell hired only experienced people. Mustering all of my just-graduated-and-looking-for-my-first-full-time-job composure I asked: If no one will hire you, where is that experience supposed to come from? The nice man smiled and said, “You have a very nice way of getting angry.”

Do the math and you’ll realize that one of the most blessed, fortunate, sophisticated, well-educated and advanced countries in the world is no closer to solving this problem today than it was 45 years ago. Now, I’m sure there are people out there who will insist that they’ve been “trying” very hard. Maybe. But they haven’t been succeeding, because if they had been, this wouldn’t be a story and you wouldn’t be reading this post.

Contrary to what certain other people in certain national capitals might think, this country’s most valuable natural resource isn’t in the ground. It’s walking on it. It’s called “people”. And those people are smart enough to know that “I AM CANADIAN” and “Own the Podium” aren’t cutting it.

When you try something for 45 years and it doesn’t work, it’s time to try something else. Like seeing and believing in ourselves the way Blake Irving does. His e-mail arrived in my inbox yesterday.

Dear Neil Morris,

It’s not often that a company such as GoDaddy, with our scale and steady growth, can pause to look critically at the market, the technology landscape, and the services we provide.

Today, GoDaddy is the world’s largest web host and domain provider — and sites registered or hosted with us make up a massive portion of what we know as the Internet today. That statement, however, says little about who you are, our customers, or how we can serve you best. So earlier this year we embarked on an effort to learn more about you, what makes you so incredibly unique, and the values you all have in common. In the process, we learned an equal amount about ourselves, and we’re making changes to reflect that new clarity.

One of the clearest lessons we’ve learned is that the one word to describe you best is ‘courageous.’ You go after what you really love, you chart your own course, and you create something (often from nothing) that usually makes the world a better place. Whether it’s a neighborhood pizza shop, an organization to help those in need, or a company poised to launch a new industry, you believe where others don’t. You have the guts to strike out on your own to make your dreams — however bold or humble — a reality. That’s courage, and it’s worth every ounce of support we can give.

We’ve always been there to help you succeed, and we’re making it even easier now with tools better sharpened to your needs. When you next visit us at GoDaddy.com you’ll notice that we’ve streamlined the site, making everything from domain search to checkout easier and more intuitive. We’ve also made improvements in our most popular products like Website Builder, Outright bookkeeping, and hosting services that will make it easier for you to polish your digital identity, connect with social media and even manage the paperwork for your venture.

We take great pride in our world-class customer care and, as we continue to refine our products, you’ll always be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone 24/7 right here in our office — just call 480-505-8821.

The improvements we made today are just a start — so come look around, use our new products, and then share your thoughts with me at blake.irving@godaddy.com. If you have a few moments to spare, your feedback is the best way I know to help us serve you better.

[Signed]

Blake Irving
CEO, GoDaddy

Bravissimo, Maestro! Bravissimo.

Neil Morris

PS: IBM hired me, believed in me, trained me. Of IBM and the Bunch (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell), only IBM remains.

Directorship: Handling the Risks in Serving

I continue to smile at the unbridled enthusiasm of professionals who jump to  say “Yes, I want to do that” when engaged in a conversation about board service.  It’s actually quite encouraging, considering the  personal, professional, financial, and reputational liabilities these people may have to put on the line.  Although the topic has been bantered around by current and prospective directors, there is a certain lack of depth in discussions about the exposures from joining a board that I find simply fascinating. Some directors have told me that, with the combination of the law of averages, consistently favorable Delaware Chancery rulings, and existing company indemnification policies and Directors’ & Officer’s Liability Insurance, a director has virtually all the protection anyone needs these days.  Generally, these do work in one’s favor,  except when they don’t.  In fact, understanding your potential risks/liabilities, whether it be  litigation, bankruptcy, permanent damage to your reputation, even criminal prosecution, and the  full extent of your coverage should be more important to you than the nuances of your board compensation.  Fortunately, with more issues arising to impact the health and well being of companies (i.e. cyber infiltration, social media, new sustainability issues, to name a few), more directors now appear to be focusing on the gap. But not enough.

Consider these cases:

A director of a foreign company board retired from his post.  Within two years of leaving, the company became embroiled in a heated legal battle in which the all the board members were also named.  The departed director signed in relief stating “I’m glad this is not my issue anymore.”  A few short weeks pass before he received notice he was also named in the suit.  What’s worse, he also learned he was liable for his own costs of representation. Concerned, he called the GC to ask why this was an issue for him and why he was being invoiced for legal services.  As it turned out, the annual D&O no longer covered him, leaving him fully exposed upon his retirement  Four years into the battle he was still trying to get coverage on the company’s policy – after paying out several hundred thousand dollars of his own money.

Another intelligent director we know served on a large public company board that has been the front and center of several cases.  When the first exposure hit the press, she counted back the date from her retirement.  She exhaled in relief to learn any personal responsibility she may have had (and yes, she checked her coverage years after departing to confirm that her protection was still in force), was well past the statute requirements.  Still another director we know shared that she has been named in litigation cases at least 17 times.

One director we know of has also suffered permanent reputational risk.  He has worked hard to recoup from the stigma of being on a board when the company collapsed due to fraud, He has served since on not-for-profit boards and donated large amounts of time and funds to good causes, as well as other types of “give backs”.  Still, the community and industry holds him, and all other board and senior management fully responsible, to this day.  When his name comes up in the course of conversation, board members bluntly shy away.

Another director on a public company board,  served for successfully for years with his fellow board members until faced with an unexpected legal challenge.  Addressing the issue, the directors went to work and brought in their own counsel.  Shortly after starting on the case they reviewed the D&O coverage and learned that existing policies did not cover the entire extent of their legal costs.  They eventually found out (and still bitterly complain) that they were personally out of pocket nearly $800,000.

The risks associated with board service will always be present (in addition to the rewards), and, in general you should look at these “risks” as typically having two components: likelihood (of occurrence), and impact (usually monetary).   In dealing with both aspects you (first) want to understand the risks you might be/are facing; (second) work to reduce their likelihood of occurrence through certain actions (control those risks); and (third) get help from others to soften the impact (insure yourself against the impact should they occur).

Understand your risks:

You need to assume that, as a board member of a public company (and many private ones) that the company’s risks are now YOUR risks too.  Any failure, and those affected will turn their eyes right to you and maybe your bank account.  Before, during, and after joining a board, understand the environment in which you’re working.  Do you have a pretty sound grasp of the company’s business, industry, and general operational/industry exposure? Does the company have large investors, or many small investors who could be easily hurt by a misstep? How volatile is the industry and the company’s business? How well do you know your board members (before, during, and after service)?    Is the top management team up to snuff?  Where does management need to be shored up or supported?  Are you able to clearly follow all discussions among your peers, and presentations given by management and outside consultants?  If so, great.  If not, you’d better be a quick learner.

Control risks (than you can) through your own actions:

To reduce the likelihood of getting into a lawsuit, always try to do the right thing as a director.

Your role as a director should be oversight, not management. If you find that you are giving specific directives in how to conduct the company’s affairs, something is wrong. 

Get the best information you can (inside and outside of management, as a reality check) so you can grasp the risks and upsides in the business. Use consultants as you need, to understand complex business issues, proposals, innovations, and opportunities, among other things.  You should be comfortable discussing all points during board meetings.

Understand those around you so that you can have a positive and productive influence:

Don’t worry as to whether management likes you.  Ask them the tough questions, have a healthy level of  skepticism (without being abusive or negative — but don’t wimp out either). Your trust, and theirs is to be earned and built upon.

Does management have the right programs in place to deal with risks? Are there strong internal systems and controls? Has management identified compliance issues and risks such as, money laundering, bribery, data protection, security, crisis management, record retention, etc.

Does the board have the right programs in place? Does the board have a good system in place for addressing complaints – example:  if there are material weaknesses in the company’s financial structure, is there a system in place for  employees, vendors, or others report them directly to the Audit Committee?   How trusted is our whistle-blower program? Are whistle blowers protecting with anonymity from retaliation?

How well do you know those around you? What’s the CEO’s risk appetite? Do you have detailed understanding of each of the senior management team’s capabilities? How are they executing board directives? Are each of your fellow directors well-qualified?  Do they display integrity, good judgment, and are they engaged at all meetings? Do they welcome and openly engage in periodic self-assessment and evaluation?

Insure the risks you can’t anticipate.

Reducing the likelihood of things going wrong, doesn’t mean something won’t happen.  Board work and responsibilities are growing ever more intricate, in line with the increased complexity of running any business these days. What’s key is how to protect yourself against those who want to punish you for not doing your job the way they think it should have been done. Right or wrong can often become a matter of great, lengthy, and expensive legal debate.

You need to fully understand  your coverage and review it annually – at least. It’s important to understand what layers of protection have been put in place for you as a director of the company, so that you can focus your attention on doing what’s right for the company and stakeholders.  You should understand the company’s indemnification policy for directors, when it was last reviewed and updated, and by whom.  You need to understand the D&O policies in place, (in particular, Side A coverage).  For example: what are the individual and aggregate limits, how exclusions work, layering, whether advance payments are available for legal costs (lawyers like to get paid timely if you want to continue to be defended), and the effects of settlements on additional coverage,  just to name a few.

You also need to know how long you are covered for after service.  New regulations can extend your liabilities five years out.  Many companies don’t cover directors once they leave.  If necessary, supplemental individual policies should be discussed and considered.  In any case, getting legal and financial advice should always be sought, unless you’re already an expert in this area. Another tactic to consider with your advisors is the wisdom and prudence of sheltering your personal assets.  As the saying goes: “hey, you never know.”

Many directors face legal liabilities during and after their board service.  If it’s any comfort, the law of averages and your odds are still pretty good: most directors don’t get sued, and for those who do, most times their defenses prevail.   In closing, my best wishes and, as the saying goes: ” may the odds be ever in your favor.”