« The key to rating boards is understanding context. Most researchers and public policies assume a similar board system across industries. This assumption allows law makers and researchers to ignore inter-company board differences. Nevertheless, board functions and effectiveness must reflect the context in which an organization finds itself. After all, board processes and functions are clearly dependent on context (growth or the lack of it, competition, strategy or the lack of it, etc.). For example, after it became very clear that the functioning of the board of directors at Canadian Pacific was no longer suitable to drive company growth, an activist shareholder pushed for new directors and a reorganized board. This led to a dramatic increase in cost ratios, profit and share price. It changed the function of the board. Other illustrations where context called for a change of the board include BlackBerry (formerly RIM) and Barrick Gold….
When it comes to an effective governance model, one size does not fit all. Context is paramount. Context is both endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous variables include complexity, asset base, competitive advantage, capital structure, quality of management, and board culture and leadership. Exogenous variables include industry structures, position in growth cycle, competitive force, macroeconomics (interest rate, commodity pricing), world supply and growth, political changes, and unforeseen events (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.). These variables are key inputs for company performance and determine whether earnings are above or below average. Simply put, companies may need a different type of board to fit with different sets of endogenous and exogenous variables.
Boards and management typically have different mandates, not to mention a different social architecture to carry them out. It is generally agreed that the CEO and the management teams run the firm, while the board approves strategy, selects the CEO and determines the incentives, sets risk management, and approves major investments and changes to the capital structure. But as discussed in Boards that Lead (2014) by Ram Charan, Dennis Casey and Michael Useen, directors must also lead the corporation on the most crucial issues. As a result, the ideal level of board involvement remains a grey area and is rarely defined. Setting boundaries when there are overlapping responsibilities is difficult. Nevertheless, how the functional relationships between the board and management work is probably far more important than board features to the growth, and sometimes survival, of the organization.
In Back to the Drawing Board (2004), Colin Carter and Jay Lorsch suggest the reason so little has resulted from the various reforms aimed at improving governance is the focus on visible variables, or what others have labeled structural issues, instead of a focus on process or inside board behavior. In other words, features have trumped functions.
The increase in complexity may be another issue. Keep in mind that directors don’t spend a lot of time together, which is a barrier to good behavior and process and makes it difficult for boards to function as a dynamic team. According to a 2013 McKinsey survey of over 700 corporate board members, directors spend an average of 22 days per year on company issues and two thirds do not think they have a complete understanding of the firm’s strategy. Clearly, there are severe limitations on boards, which have more to do than time available, especially with their limited number of board meetings packed with presentations from management.
Boards should be viewed as an organizational system, with context part of any performance judgment. This view has more merit in distinguishing between effective and ineffective boards than the structural view. Human resource metrics may hold more promise and be more important than the structural indices currently used to distinguish between effective and ineffective boards. »