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Boards are being urged to play a more active role in strategy formulation. If evaluating the quality of management’s strategic and business plans, including the likelihood of realizing the intended results, is a key board responsibility, so the argument goes, should it not determine for itself whether the company has the capacity to implement and deliver? It is a good but tricky question. How might a board do this? What, for example, should a board do if management presents a bold plan for spinning off or acquiring strategic assets worldwide? Assume that the logic is consistent, that the plan makes sense, that the numbers look good, and that management has a convincing answer for every tough question asked by the board. Has the board met its fiduciary responsibility or should it seek an independent opinion to “audit” the strategic assumptions made by management and its consultants? After all, directors do not have the equivalent time and resources to review the details of strategies presented to them.
A strong argument can be made that if the board feels compelled to retain outside experts to review corporate strategy, it probably has lost confidence in the CEO and should simply fire him or her. Conversely, one can argue that hiring outside consultants is the most cost-effective way for the board to prove its independence and positively challenge top management. Which is it?
In attempts to provide guidance on this issue, numerous “codes of best practice” have been proposed in recent years urging boards to define their responsibilities with respect to strategy development as
As the simple example above demonstrates, however, reality is considerably more complex. Traditionally, boards have become involved in strategy mainly when there were specific reasons for them to do so. The most common are the retirement of an incumbent CEO, a major investment decision or acquisition proposal, a sudden decline in sales or profits, or an unsolicited takeover bid. In recent years, however, as regulatory and other pressures increased, many boards have sought to become more deeply involved and create an ongoing strategic role, for example, by participating in annual strategy retreats or through the CEO performance evaluation process. Still, in most companies even today boards limit their involvement to approving strategy proposals and to monitoring progress toward strategic goals; very few participate in shaping and developing the company’s strategic direction.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, there is a longstanding concern on the part of both executives and directors regarding where to draw the line between having directors involved through contributing ideas about the company’s strategic direction and having directors who try to manage the company.Lorsch (1995, January–February). Specifically, there is a widely shared belief that strategy formulation is fundamentally a management responsibility and that the role of the board should be confined to making sure that an appropriate strategic planning process is in place and the actual development—and approval—of strategy is left to the CEO. Even those who do favor greater director involvement in strategy say that the degree of involvement should depend on the specific circumstances at hand. A significant acquisition proposal or a new CEO, for example, may indicate the needs for greater board involvement.
Second, in the aftermath of the Enron and other governance scandals, many boards had to focus on internal issues and on digesting the new accounting compliance rules of the landmark Sarbanes-Oxley Act. In a number of companies, this turning inward has had the undesirable side effect that the board’s decision making has become so focused on compliance issues that strategic considerations have taken a backseat.
Third, some CEOs simply do not want their boards involved in strategy discussions; they view the board’s engagement in developing strategy as interference into their managerial responsibilities and a threat to their sense of personal power. Of course, the downside of this posture is that the board may not fully understand or buy into the organization’s strategy and that board talent is underutilized. Taking this approach sometimes backfires on CEOs when formerly disengaged boards become overengaged and then make their CEOs “walk through fire” on tactics.
Fourth, there is the delicate question of how knowledgeable even the most capable directors are to assist with strategy development. Most are quite effective in dealing with short-term financial data. Strategy development, however, also demands a detailed understanding of more future- and long-term oriented issues, such as changing customer preferences, competitive trends, technological developments, and the firm’s core competencies. A typical board of directors is poorly designed and ill-equipped for this task. According to a recent McKinsey survey, more than a quarter of directors have, at best, a limited understanding of the current strategy of their companies. Only 11% claim to have a complete understanding. More than half say that they have a limited or no clear sense of their companies’ prospects 5 to 10 years down the road. Only 4% say that they fully understand their companies’ long-term position. More than half indicate that they have little or no understanding of the 5 to 10 key initiatives that their companies need in order to secure the long-term future.Felton and Fritz (2005).
Finally, while board meetings are conducive to questioning specific strategic assumptions and monitoring progress toward strategic goals, they are not a good forum for the more creative, elaborate, and nonlinear process of crafting strategy. Board discussions tend to focus on the implementation and tactics of an ongoing strategic direction. Revealing serious reservations about the underlying strategic assumptions sometimes not only is seen as distracting and inappropriate but also may be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the current management.
The bottom line is that carving out a significant role for the board in strategy formulation is extremely difficult. First, as we have seen, there is the nature of the strategy development process itself. Characterizing a board’s involvement in strategy on a continuum from “passive” to “active” is a dangerous oversimplification. A passive posture assumes that strategic decisions are both separate and sequential, that managers generate options that boards choose from, and that managers then implement the chosen option and boards evaluate the outcomes. An active conception assumes that boards and management formulate strategy in a partnership approach, that management then implements and both groups evaluate. In reality, strategic decisions often evolve through complex, nonlinear, and fragmented processes. What is more, a board can be actively involved in strategy without being involved in its formulation. For example, a board can “shape” strategy through a process of influence over management in which it guides strategic thinking but never actually participates in the development of the strategies themselves.de Kluyver and Pearce (2009), chap. 1.
Second, as noted, certain situations dictate a more influential strategy role for the board than others. For example, at times of crisis, such as a sudden decline in performance, a new CEO, or some other major organizational change, boards tend to become more actively involved in strategy. Other determinants of the degree of board engagement in strategy issues include firm size; the nature of the core business; directors’ skills and experience; board size; occupational diversity; board tenure and board member age; board attention to strategic issues; and board processes, such as the use of strategy retreats, prior firm performance, and the relative power between the board and the chief executive officer, particularly in terms of board involvement in monitoring and evaluating this position. External factors include the concentration and level of engagement of the firm’s ownership and the degree of environmental uncertainty.Bart (2004).
Third, as a consequence of recent governance reforms that focused on making boards more independent, many now lack directors with relevant industry expertise to participate effectively in shaping strategy—much less to reshape it in an increasingly fast-paced business climate. In the current post-scandal governance climate, even as the business landscape is becoming more complex, many boards continue to give priority to compliance-oriented appointments rather than visionary ones.Carey and Patsalos-Fox (2006).
Finally, there are the ever-present constraints on time and knowledge. To become meaningfully engaged in strategy formulation, boards must become much more efficient, particularly since their time has already been stretched in recent years: The average commitment of a director of a U.S.-listed company increased from 13 hours a month in 2001 to more than twice that today, according to Korn/Ferry.Korn/Ferry (2007). Directors also need to become far more knowledgeable and proactive about grasping the company’s current strategic position and challenges more clearly. To understand the long-term health of a company, directors must pay attention not only to its current financials but also to a broader range of indicators: market performance, network positioning, organizational performance, and operational performance. Similarly, a broader appreciation of risk—including credit, market, regulatory, organizational, and operational risk—is vital. Without this knowledge, directors will have only a partial understanding of a company. While boards receive and discuss all sorts of “strategic information,” financial measures—probably the least valuable component of a board member’s strategic information requirements—still dominate. Even with better information, time constraints may prevent a broader role for the board. Boards typically perform their strategic governance role in the course of a couple of hours at every third board meeting—annually supplemented by a 2-day strategy retreat. A more active role in strategy development requires much more time.
Despite these difficulties, Nadler (2004) argues that companies should try hard to create a meaningful role for their boards in the strategy developmentThe process of a board’s setting the direction for the corporation; reviewing, assessing, and approving strategic directions and initiative; and assessing and understanding the issues, forces, and risks that define and drive the company’s long-term performance. process. The key is to create a process in which directors participate in strategic thinking and strategic decision making but do not infringe on the CEO’s and senior executive team’s fundamental responsibilities. In such a process, the CEO and management should lead and develop strategic plans with directors’ input, while the board approves the strategy and the metrics to assess progress. The direct benefits of such an engagement are many, including a deeper understanding by directors of the company and its strategic environment, a sense of ownership of the process and the resulting strategy, better decisions reflecting the broader array of perspectives, greater collaboration between the board and management on other initiatives and decisions, increased board satisfaction, and more effective external advocacy.Nadler (2004).
But, as Nadler notes, while the benefits can be significant, broader board participation in strategy development also has costs. First, directors must have a thorough understanding of the company—its capital allocation, debt levels, risks, business unit strategies, and growth opportunities, among many issues—and that takes time and commitment. Importantly, they must engage management on the major challenges facing the company and have a firm grasp on the trade-offs that must be made. A second potential cost is that increased board participation can result in less management control over outcomes. Real participation means influence, and influence means the ability to change outcomes. A well-designed process yields the benefits of participation while limiting the amount of time and potential loss of control.Nadler (2004).