While no one disputes the need for transparency, honesty, and accuracy, corporate governance is about much more than the accuracy of the income statement and balance sheet. Compliance is a means to an end. The numbers merely summarize and reflect the full array of decisions—from strategy to structure to process—that guide a corporation. Encouraging responsible, responsive governance rather than mere compliance should be the overriding goal and the principal focus of reform. Truly effective boards understand their obligations to shareholders, other stakeholders, and society at large. They grasp the strategic challenges faced by their companies and the role they play in assisting management in seizing competitive opportunity. They also understand the dynamics of the interplay between management and directors, and they value partnership over adversarial relationships without sacrificing independence. And, especially in smaller companies, they alert management to opportunities for growth, assist in raising capital, and provide a sounding board for management on issues of strategy, asset redeployment, and fiscal and legal affairs.
Unfortunately, evidence is emerging that some boards have become even more “defensive” than before in the face of an increased exposure to shareholder and legal action. And, although there is no critical shortage of qualified directors at this time, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the new regulatory environment has made it harder to attract the right talent to serve on boards. It is, therefore, time to ask some penetrating questions: Has the regulatory pendulum swung too far? Do more regulated boards produce greater value? For shareholders? For other stakeholders? For society? Could the additional regulatory burdens reduce business productivity and creativity, or even board assertiveness, especially in smaller firms?
As we start to address these issues, we should realize that there is no unique model for developing a highly effective and responsive board, nor is there a unique model for what such a board looks like, how it organizes itself, or how it operates. It is also unlikely that it can be legislated and regulated into being. As noted earlier, changing the ethics of business behavior and the “sociology” of the boardroom cannot be accomplished through structural changes alone. Instilling ethical behavior and creating a value-creating orientation is fundamentally an internal process that can only be successfully concluded with the complete support of both management and directors. It requires openness to self-examination, a willingness to question individual and collective roles, a resolve to address issues of process, and a receptivity to change.