About a year ago, I was speaking with the governance committee of a prospective client. One of the committee members asked me what the “best practice” was in a particular area. I said that I hate the term “best practice,” because one size never fits all, there is almost always a range of perfectly fine practices, and that a company needs to think about how a particular practice would work (or not) given its industry, its history, and its culture, among the many things that make a company unique. Afterwards, I wondered if my candor would result in not getting the work, but evidently the committee agreed, and the rest is history.
At the time, I’d forgotten about a 2015 blog post I’d written on so-called best practices. In fact, I continued to forget about it until I recently read a fantastic paper published by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford. Loosey-Goosey Governance discusses four misunderstood governance terms: good governance, board oversight, pay for performance, and sustainability. Along the way it demonstrates how wrong “conventional” wisdom can be – and is – regarding what companies should and should not do in the governance realm. Some examples:
- Independent chairmen: There are those in the institutional investor community, the media, and elsewhere who seem to believe that having an independent chairman (or woman) of the board is the sine qua non of corporate governance. I’ve long disagreed with this notion (see my earlier blog post), and Loosey-Goosey agrees with my view. In fact, it points out “that research shows no consistent benefit from requiring an independent chair.”
- Staggered boards: Similarly, the conventional wisdom holds that staggered boards are the next best thing to satanic. Loosey-Goosey sticks a pin in this balloon by noting that “research shows quite plainly that the impact of a staggered board is not uniformly positive or negative.”
- Dual-class shares: I am not a fan of dual-class shares, particularly when they prevent boards of directors from having any meaningful role in governance. (As my good friend Adam Epstein has noted, it’s hard to understand why anyone would join a board of a corporation that doesn’t permit him/her to govern.) However, here again, Loosey-Goosey points out that “[w]hile…research…on dual-class share structures tends to be negative, it is not universally so,” and that a dual-class structure can provide benefits.
The paper also debunks the notion that all company failures are board failures; since when is the board responsible for absolutely everything that a company does (or doesn’t do)? And it questions the meaning of “pay for performance,” given that SEC compensation disclosure requirements don’t necessarily provide useful information as to “pay,” and “performance” may be in the eye of the beholder. And so on.
So I’m glad that I spoke candidly to that prospective client, and I’m glad that I wrote that posting a while back. It’s nice to be validated. In fact, one might say it’s a good practice, even if it’s not a best one.