So what constitutes an effective corporate governance program that will increase a company’s potential for success instead of failure? I’ve outlined six key elements below.
But before jumping in, let me offer a working definition of corporate governance to set the stage:
Corporate governance is basically a set of rules, practices, and procedures that guides company oversight and control by its Board of Director and independent committees. It involves balancing the interests of a company’s stakeholders—including management, employees, suppliers, customers, and the community—with the need to deliver value to its shareholders/owners. Having a strong, active, governance program is absolutely critical to the ongoing financial health, growth, and success of an enterprise over time.
Keeping that definition in mind, here are the essential elements for effective corporate governance:
The Board of Directors plays a key role in company oversight, including:
The most effective boards have a majority of independent directors who are able to supervise company management and independent committees for the benefit of shareholders. These directors should attend the meetings and be prepared to discuss key issues. They also should be evaluated based on how long they have served on a particular board. Long-tenured directors can become too entrenched in a company to be considered truly independent.
The practice of “overboarding” by board members should also be a concern. This refers to situations where directors hold too many seats on the boards of other publicly-traded companies or nonprofit organizations to be effective. As a result, these directors may be unable to attend meetings, prepare questions, discuss key issues, or adequately serve the shareholders who elected them.
Typically, the roles of the Chairperson of the Board and the CEO for a company should be filled separately. But in some cases, it may be appropriate to have the roles combined if there is an independent leadership position on the board such as a Lead Director to provide a counterbalance. Otherwise, the combined CEO/Chair may unduly influence the Board to make rules that create a conflict of interest. An example of this type of conflict would be allowing a CEO to structure a loan with inappropriate or self-serving terms.
In reviewing board candidates, shareholders should also evaluate the performance of directors who have held seats on boards of companies that experienced significant accounting or ethical scandals. Perhaps those directors should have identified the issues more proactively and taken a different course of action?
Studies have shown that companies with more diversified boards are more risk averse, have less volatile stock returns, and are more likely to pay dividends. So, it can be argued that diversity by gender, age, and minority representation should be a key goal for the composition of every company’s board and senior management ranks.
But, in fact, a 2016 report from the Alliance for Board Diversity and Deloitte consulting found that women and minorities held just 30.8% of Fortune 500 company board seats. The report also found that Caucasian men were much more likely to serve as board chairs, lead directors, or chairs of key board committees.
Many investors are now pushing for more board diversity, and companies are beginning to take heed. BlackRock recently declared diversity to be a corporate governance priority and both State Street Advisors and the State of Massachusetts Pension Fund now consider a board’s diversity when voting proxies.
Another essential element of corporate governance is the review and management of compensation at both the board and executive management levels.
Director compensation has been increasing in recent years as the hours devoted to board positions have been growing. According to a 2016 Pay Governance review, the median compensation received by directors at S&P 500 companies was $265,487. And while the role that board members play should not be diminished, it’s also true this is a part-time position and many directors are employed full time elsewhere. In addition, when compensation is too high, there may be concerns that directors will not adequately question the actions of senior management for fear of losing their board fees.
The scope and method of management compensation should be considered as well, with proxy statements a good source of information about executive compensation plans. Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), a proxy voting recommendation service, has established these five compensation guidelines as part of their proxy voting principles:
A review of audit practices and company accounting can also signal problems to come. Auditors should be independent (with no financial interest in a company) with the majority of their revenues derived from audit activities, not consultation services. Accounting issues should be handled in a transparent manner, with complete, detailed information and reports always available to the board and measures put in place to prevent recurrence of any questionable findings.
Investors should consider shareholder rights as a key element of good governance as well.
Multiple shares/classes do not necessarily indicate poor governance, but they are a factor to consider. In the information technology sector, for example, it is common for company founders and insiders to hold shares that have greater voting rights than outside investors.
A company’s record of dealing with shareholder proposals that receive a majority of votes may also be an indicator of how a company deals with its shareholders.
Increasingly, investors are using proxy voting as a means to influence a board’s corporate oversight as well as its commitment to improving its governance on issues such as climate change, income inequality, and shareholder proxy access.
Shareholders must have the ability to use their votes to send a message to the board by withholding votes for the directors in cases where the company has delayed taking action on winning shareholder proposals, failed to deal with a director’s poor performance, or did not improve board accountability and oversight.
Letter writing campaigns also can be successful in lobbying for change in a company’s corporate governance and, in some cases, have taken the place of putting proposals on shareholder ballots. Pension funds and asset managers, for example, may join forces to successfully use letter writing to bring about new voting measures, including majority voting, repealing classified boards, and removing supermajority voting provisions.
 2016 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, http://www.catalyst.org/system/files/2016_board_diversity_census_deloitte_abd.pdf
 The Evolution and Current State of Director Compensation Plans, PayGovernance.com http://paygovernance.com/the-evolution-and-current-state-of-director-compensation-plans/
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as investment or legal advice.