At a time of political upheaval in many large economies, corporate boards worry about the effects of a trade war between the US and China, the UK leaving the EU, and what resurgent protectionist policies might do to taxes.
Although those concerns are significant, potential impacts tend to be short term or medium term. Over the long term, four key concerns keep public company directors worldwide under constant pressure to adapt, evolve, and innovate: cybersecurity, corporate culture, and the makeup and refreshment of the board, as suggested by two surveys involving a total of nearly 1,800 directors in more than 50 countries.
In response, board members are open to new viewpoints, want to learn more about disruptive technologies, and plan to focus more on customers, according to a US survey by PwC and a global survey by InterSearch, a worldwide organisation of executive search firms, and the Danish Professional Directors Association. Both surveys were conducted in 2018 and asked board members about challenges they face.
The topics directors are tackling are increasingly complex and may also be controversial but are essential to the health of the company, said Christy Pickering, CPA, a director and audit chair for Hancock Whitney Bank in the US.
Some are more regional than others.
In Australia, for example, where parts of the Great Barrier Reef are dying, climate change is top of mind for many directors, said Imran Furkan, FCMA, CGMA, a Melbourne consultant who works with boards on business strategy and who sits on three boards himself. Also, many Australian companies are behind in assessing how new technologies are affecting their business models, Furkan said. Those that aren’t doing anything about it, he added, “they’re going to be massacred in the next year”. In Europe, boards are very focused on data privacy, said Carolyn Rand, FCMA, CGMA, who oversees financial management at Bango, a UK-based fintech company, and serves on several boards.
“These are the kinds of things that make companies better, asking the hard questions,” Pickering said, adding that her comments here are her personal opinions and observations and that she is not speaking on behalf of Hancock Whitney or its board.
Top concerns and how boards can address them
Concerns on board members’ minds are similar across the globe, the surveys suggest. Here are the top four:
Managing cybersecurity. “In my opinion, and as reflected in the two surveys referenced, cybersecurity is an area of focus for most boards,” Pickering said.
New digital technologies and cybercrime were two of the three top concerns amongst respondents in the InterSearch survey. The PwC survey found that cybersecurity is top of mind for US directors, with 95% of respondents saying their board is preparing for cybersecurity incidents and two-thirds (67%) saying their board is receiving more reports on cybersecurity metrics. Among the tactics boards are using to address gaps are increasing cybersecurity budgets (57%), engaging third-party consultants or advisers (56%), and providing directors with additional education opportunities on cybersecurity (66%).
The PwC survey suggests that increasingly, directors want the entire board to oversee cybersecurity instead of allocating the responsibility to a smaller group, such as the audit committee. In 2017, half of directors said the audit committee was responsible for overseeing cybersecurity, but in 2018, that number fell to 43%. In 2018, more than a third (36%) said the full board has taken responsibility for cybersecurity, up from 30% last year.
According to the survey, just 34% of directors said their companies had staged crisis management drills or simulations.
Refreshing the board. Serving as a director is more demanding than ever, said Pickering, who was appointed to her first board two decades ago. “It takes a lot of time. You have to stay informed, read the journals, and make sure you are on the leading edge of what’s coming down the pipe. I believe every director needs to be fully engaged.”
But not all directors are as engaged as colleagues expect, both surveys found. Just 10% of the respondents in the InterSearch survey thought the competencies of current board members matched the competencies needed for the future, and 32% suggested their boards needed alterations. Competencies respondents felt were needed more on the board were digitalisation and new technologies (24.3%), innovation (12.2%), and customer orientation (9.3%).
In the PwC survey, 45% of respondents said at least one board member should be replaced. Directors age 60 or under were also more likely to say a fellow director should be replaced (52%) compared with those age 61 or older (43%) who wanted to replace a colleague. Among their chief complaints about colleagues were directors overstepping their roles (18%), being reluctant to challenge management (16%), negatively impacting board dynamics with their interaction style (14%), and lacking the appropriate skills or expertise for their role (12%). At the bottom of the list, 10% of respondents said they thought advanced age had diminished a colleague’s performance, which ties into long-standing debates about mandatory retirement ages and director term limits.
According to the PwC survey, directors think both mandatory retirement ages (73%) and term limits (64%) are effective strategies for refreshing boards, but less effective than a leadership focus on board refreshment, as well as assessments of the board, committees, and individuals.
PwC recommends annual assessments to identify directors whose expertise no longer aligns with the company’s needs. Less than one-third of respondents (31%) said their boards already use director assessments, but another 46% said they thought the board would be willing to adopt their use.
Avoiding corporate culture crises. Corporate culture is often thought of as the “tone at the top”, but according to the PwC survey, most directors think cultural problems can start both at the executive level (87%) and in middle management (79%). That’s why it’s important to offer employees at all levels opportunities to offer feedback, such as with an anonymous survey, Pickering said.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to ask your employees these questions,” Pickering said. “You need to know if there’s a potential issue. It’s good for culture and the health of the company.”
More than 80% of respondents in the PwC survey said their companies have taken action to address culture concerns, many by enhancing employee training (60%) or improving whistle-blower programmes (42%). But some organisations still are missing the mark by using ineffective tools.
According to the PwC survey, 64% of directors said they evaluated company culture using their intuition or “gut feelings”, even though just 32% said this was a useful approach. Another 63% said they looked to employee turnover to get a read on work culture.
PwC recommends that boards review the quantitative and qualitative metrics the company may already measure to identify gaps and ensure organisational culture is a regular topic on the full board’s agenda. Even if elements that contribute to organisational culture, such as ethics or compensation, are broken off and discussed in committees, the full board should discuss concerns that arise as part of their broader oversight of culture.
Determining the value of diversity. “Gender diversity on boards is still not where it needs to be,” Rand said. “Increased diversity on boards should not be the result of a box ticking or a public relations exercise.”
Almost all directors (94%) in the PwC survey agreed that board diversity brings unique perspectives into their discussions, and 91% said their boards are taking steps to increase diversity on the board, which is a slight increase from last year. However, about half the directors surveyed also said they thought efforts to increase diversity on boards are driven by a desire for political correctness (52%) and that shareholders were too preoccupied with this issue (48%). About a third (30%) said diversity efforts result in boards nominating extraneous candidates, and 26% said diversity results in unqualified candidates being nominated.
In the InterSearch survey, 43% of respondents reported changes in board membership that had already taken place to make the boards more diverse — 67% were driven by the wish for greater gender diversity, 46% to promote greater diversity in competencies, and 25% to provide greater diversity in nationality.
“Being a female, I understand and appreciate diversity,” said Pickering, who was the sole woman on the board for Hancock Whitney Bank for years. “You want to have a diverse board; I believe it makes a huge difference in how boards operate.”
Among attributes, respondents in the PwC survey placed the most importance on gender diversity (46%) compared with racial and ethnic diversity (34%) and age diversity (21%).
PwC recommends that boards consider diversity whilst developing strategies for board refreshment. Boards often recruit new directors by relying on recommendations from current ones, which limits results. The firm encourages boards to look more broadly and consider recommendations from investors rather than board members, and find candidates outside of the corporate world, such as those who have served in the military or worked in academia or at a not-for-profit.
To her board’s credit, Pickering said, it has added two female directors in the last two to three years, including one who was featured in Savoy magazine as one of the “2017 Power 300: Most Influential Black Corporate Directors”. “We partnered with a search firm and found great talent,” Pickering said.
— Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.