In simple terms, boards are the governing bodies of corporations elected to make major decisions concerning financing, mergers and acquisitions, selling the company, nominating the CEO, and when or if they should release an IPO to take the company public.
The board serves the corporation as its agent and makes decisions in an unbiased service of the company and its shareholders’ best interests. An important distinction to note between board members and management teams is that it is not the board’s responsibility to run the company. Their responsibility falls more under oversight and ensuring that the right people are running the company. Boards that get too involved risk undermining the management team and fail adherence to the crucial board principle of acting with independence.
The sum of these responsibilities is a board’s fiduciary duty, meaning they must place the company’s best interest before their own. This sounds simple in theory, but in practice, many boards run into trouble when faced with difficult decisions that go against their personal interests. Therefore, it is poor practice for board members to have strong financial ties with the company that will inhibit them from acting ethically.
High performing boards will maintain an active spirit of debate. Because every matter of strategic importance needs the board’s approval, good directors must always be on their toes and highly involved in deliberating the best course of action. Additionally, good board members must listen carefully to and respect opposing opinions. Only then can a consensus be reached efficiently and smoothly.
The leader of the board, the chairman, must ensure that everyone remains in check and leads the decision-making process. The chairman should not be affiliated with the CEO and should weigh the CEO’s opinion of no greater importance than the board directors. A strong chairman will drive its board to ask the necessary hard questions, challenge the status quo, and continuously evolve to develop highly informed, up-to-date perspectives.
The trending evolution as of late has been a sweeping move to incorporate more diversity members and women on boards. A more diverse board reflects an independent board selection process and predicts a greater ability of the board to make unbiased decisions that have been considered from all angles.
Diversity standards typically mean having at least one person of color, one woman, and one independent director on the board, though recent growing pressures to increase diversity have caused some companies to raise the standard to at least two people of color and women. The current top-three public companies ranked by board diversity are leading this movement with numbers as high as 60% female directors in Stitch Fix, 50% ethnic-minority directors in Hewlett-Packard, and 92% independent directors in Verizon. Further proof of the diversity movement is seen through Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon’s statement that the bank will no longer take companies with all-male, all-white boards public.
It will be interesting to see how these shifting board dynamics play out, but in the meantime, we can rest assured that the overarching roles of boards are not changing anytime soon.