How long is too long for board directors?

Hint: 50 years is too long

 

I spoke to corporate and not-for-profit directors in Dallas, Texas this week about board dynamics and board renewal. The subject of the length of board service and director retirement arose. I said there was a recent study that the optimal service for a director was nine years, beyond which firm value was adversely affected. Many directors serve beyond nine years. The most excessive example of long service occurred once when a director of a community bank board said, “Richard we have four directors who have been on our board for over 50 years.” I mistakenly thought that this was 50 years in total, among the four directors. But I was wrong. There were four directors who had been on the board for over 50 years each.

Many directors hang on to directorships for far too long. I counted several directors who have been on corporate boards for 10, 15, 20 and 25 years. This blocks board renewal, up-skilling, and diversification. Incumbent directors offer reasons for staying: how they know the company, enjoy serving, etc., and are skillful at wiggling, raising the retirement age to 71, 72 and now 75 (from 69 and 70).

The academic evidence however does not support excessively long-serving directors, or directors who are serving on multiple boards (known as “over-tenured” and “over-boarded” directors, respectively). Firm value is adversely affected for over-tenured directors. Oversight and long-term performance are compromised for busy boards composed of over-boarded directors.

Often the most vocal directors are those who are the least relevant or most effected by renewal. When you do a proper board review, it is apparent who is performing and who is not. There is resistance to an expert third-party board evaluation by underperforming directors for fear of being found out. Directors know who the non-performers are. I said to the audience this morning that every board has one (or more) underperforming or dysfunctional directors, and if you don’t know who it is on your board, then it is you.

If boards do not solve their lack of renewal, regulators will do it for them. It is already starting. Regulators in the UK, Australia, India, Hong Kong, Singapore and other countries are imposing term limits on directors of between 9 and 10 years, beyond which independence is questioned. Regulators are imposing diversity requirements on boards. In the UK, even auditors are subject to tendering every five years. Regulators read the press reports of directors serving 40 years, auditors even serving up to 100, and communicate with academics on what the empirical research findings are.

The fact of the matter is that boards, as self-policing bodies, may be incapable of solving the renewal issue on their own because of entrenchment and self-interest. And herein lies the ethical question, posed to me by a director today: “When does hanging on or digging in breach a fiduciary duty by the director to act in the company’s best interest, rather than the director’s?” When should doing what is right; putting oneself at risk; having proper succession planning; mentoring, coaching and developing the next generation of directors; and letting go gracefully and honorably, matter?

This is an integrity issue. If – or perhaps when – a director becomes irrelevant, or is destroying value, is it ethical for that director to continue? Is it ethical for the board to allow that director to continue? The problem is doing what is ethical vs. acting out of self-interest can get commingled in an under-performing director’s mind, or even a founder’s mind, or even other directors’ minds (who have been captured by the entrenched director colleague), without an objective measurement. This is not in the interests of the company and its shareholders.

Aggrandizing long service, referring to “godfathers,” compounds this renewal problem and wearing as a badge of honor how many boards one has served on, or does serve on. As one “godfather” recently remarked in open session at a corporate governance conference, referring to guidelines he had coordinated, “We did virtually no research.” Well, maybe research should be looked to more when governance guidelines are developed. Firm value and the oversight of shareholder investment are at stake.

Eventually, a director fights redundancy and relevance. A tipping point is reached if there is indefinite service. It is inevitable. No one wants to be irrelevant. If there is no policy or, better yet, no measurement of actual performance and follow up accordingly, self-interest is perpetuated and complacency is allowed continue, by the very people who should be leading by example. Directors need to know when it is time to go. And if they do not, regulators will.

Richard Leblanc is a governance lawyer, academic, speaker and independent advisor to leading Canadian and international boards of directors. He can be reached at rleblanc@boardexpert.com.


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