Boards & Governance

Responding to Activist Challenges in the Boardroom

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Recently, NACD convened the spring 2014 meeting of the Nominating and Governance Committee Chair Advisory Council. Delegates discussed the impact of activist investor challenges in the boardroom, with guests Janet Clark, a former director of Dell and Bill McCracken, a former chairman of CA Inc. This session built on dialogue from the council’s previous meeting in November 2013, where delegates discussed shareholder activism from the investor perspective with two representatives of activist hedge fund Trian Partners: Nelson Peltz, CEO and founding partner and Brian Schorr, partner and chief legal strategist. Insights from the April meeting include:

  • Understand the specifics of key investors’ profiles and priorities: Boards should ask management to report on takeaways from the company’s dialogue with “both sides of the house”—that is, those making investment decisions, as well as those who vote the proxy statements.
  • Activist campaigns often have a significant impact on board dynamics: Directors may have differing views on how to respond to an activist campaign, which can create tension among board members.
  • Senior management should maintain a focus on employees during an activist campaign. Many delegates agreed with one who urged boards to keep an eye on culture and employees: “We have to keep generating revenue and retaining our talent, in an uncertain and potentially very contentious environment.”
  • Use outside perspectives to help prepare for potential activist challenges:Independent assessments, including analyst reports, shareholder surveys, and third-party reviews of board members’ tenure and skill sets, as well as perspectives from the firm’s independent advisors, can be useful in this regard.

The forum also included a discussion on building the boardroom of the future through effective “board refresh practices.” For an in-depth discussion of these and other insights and questions, click here to read the full Summary of Proceedings.

How Boards Can Strengthen the Risk Oversight Dialogue With Management

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This spring, members of the NACD Advisory Council on Risk Oversight convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss how boards can strengthen their dialogue with management on risk oversight. Participants—including Michael Hofmann, the former chief risk officer of Koch Industries and current director of Calpine—shared experiences, lessons learned, and effective approaches for embedding risk in board-level strategy dialogue. From that discussion—detailed in the meeting’s Summary of Proceedings—delegates focused on these steps directors can take. They include:

  • Establish a clear definition of what “risk” means at the company: For management and the board to work together, they need to establish a shared definition of what risk means to the company.
  • Monitor the company-wide risk culture: Directors should ensure that the company has a culture that supports the discussion of risk throughout the entire organization and is seen as part of the company’s fabric.
  • Avoid the trap of false precision: Looking at only the expected return of a new business program or strategic move can restrict dialogue and lead to minimization of the potential downside.
  • Get out of the weeds by taking a deep dive: To help counteract the tendency of boards and management to focus on operational, regulatory, and financial reporting risks, many boards conduct an annual “deep dive” or “off-site” meeting. These meetings are dedicated to thinking about, understanding, and challenging assumptions of strategic moves and risks.

The Summary of Proceedings also investigates ways in which directors can and do incorporate these practices into their boards’ activities. NACD members can click here to access the full list of takeaways.

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