A report released on October 17, 2017 from PwC finds that on some subjects there is a wide disparity between the directors who oversee corporate strategy and the investors to whom they owe the legal duties of care and loyalty. These findings are reflected in the title of the report, issued by PwC’s Governance Insights Center, The governance divide: Boards and investors in a shifting world.
The report concludes that “directors are clearly out of step with investor priorities in some critical areas,” especially with regard to climate change and sustainability and board composition. “I definitely think there is a gap,” said Paula Loop, who leads the Governance Insights Center. “There are some areas where we made some improvements, where we’ve done some bridging of the gaps but there are some areas where the gap has widened as well.”
The report revealed some surprising dissatisfaction by board members with their fellow directors. There is a significant increase with now 46 percent of the more than 800 corporate directors who responded to the survey admitting that at least one of their fellow directors should not be on the board. The reasons for dissatisfaction were evenly divided between five different categories: overstepping boundaries with management, lack of appropriate skills/expertise, ability diminished by age, reluctance to challenge management, and an “interaction style” that “negatively affects board dynamics.” Loop said, “It gets back to having a board assessment process and to really think about refreshment of the boards. We try to do the follow up discussion: How do you provide feedback to board members? Why haven't you addressed this issue? Why is it that your board can't do the right thing to make sure you have the right people on the board or provide coaching to the people on the board that you don't think are doing a good job? It really gets back to board leadership.”
She noted that board quality is also a significant priority for shareholders. “Something that institutional investors have been talking quite a bit about is board composition, making sure you have the right people in the boardroom. Investors want to understand what your skills matrix is, what are the different things these individuals bring to the room and whether or not you are doing some kind of an assessment process.” She pointed to the New York City Comptroller’s Board Accountability 2.0 project, with Scott Stringer and the $192 billion New York City Pension funds asking for better board diversity, independence, and climate expertise.
But while institutional investors like pension funds raise concerns about board diversity, 24 percent of directors said that they didn't think that racial diversity was a priority in board composition. Loop said, “We asked whether or not they thought that age diversity was important in the boardroom and 37 percent of them told us that they thought that age diversity was very important. Interestingly enough, 52 percent said they already have it. But in the S&P 500 only four percent of the directors are under the age of 50. So you do wonder, what's their definition of age diversity?” The report’s findings on gender diversity show little progress. “All but six companies in the S&P 500 have at least one woman on their board, and 76 percent of those have at least two women. But only 25 percent have more than two women, and gender parity is rare. Only 23 companies in the Russell 3000 have boards comprised of 50 percent or more women.” Unsurprisingly, the report found that women directors thought efforts for diversity were moving too slowly, while the male directors thought there was too much focus on diversity.
For me, the most surprising finding was the overwhelming majority of directors who said their board did not need sustainability or climate change expertise. The core priority directors should have is sustainable growth, and it is impossible to do that without directors who are familiar with all aspects of sustainability, from the supply chain to the company’s reputation, technology, and product development. But investors and directors in agreement on the importance of cybersecurity expertise as a board priority. Loop said that many directors acknowledged this as an area where they need to spend more time and get more expert guidance. Only 19 percent said they had enough already.
And on the ever-popular topic of CEO pay, the report found that 70 percent of directors believe that executives are generally overpaid, although they are themselves responsible for it. Perhaps that is the most telling finding of all.