Directors Survey: Boards Confront an Evolving Landscape

Mary Ann Cloyd is leader of the Center for Board Governance at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The following post is based on the executive summary of PwC’s Annual Corporate Directors Survey; the complete publication is available here. A previous PwC survey, concerning board composition, was discussed on the Forum here.

We are witnessing unprecedented change in the corporate governance world: new perspectives on boardroom composition, higher levels of stakeholder engagement, more emphasis on emerging risks and strategies, and the increasing velocity of change in the digital world. These factors, coupled with calls for enhanced transparency around governance practices and reporting, the very active regulatory and lawmaking environment, and the enhanced power of proxy advisors, are all accelerating evolution, and in some cases creating a revolution, in the boardroom.

In the summer of 2013, 934 public company directors responded to our 2013 Annual Corporate Directors Survey. Of those directors, 70% serve on the boards of companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. As a result, the survey’s findings reflect the practices and boardroom perspectives of many of today’s world-class companies. The focus of this year’s research not only reflects in-depth analysis of contemporary governance trends, but also emphasizes how boards are reacting to a rapidly evolving landscape. These are the highlights:

  • Directors are even more critical of their fellow directors than last year: 35% now say someone on their board should be replaced (compared to only 31% in 2012). The top three reasons cited are diminished performance because of aging, a lack of required expertise, and poor preparation for meetings.
  • Replacing a fellow board member can be difficult; 48% cite impediments to doing so. The top inhibitor, cited nearly twice as often as any other factor, is that board leadership is uncomfortable addressing the issue.
  • Board service is not driven by money or ego. More than half of directors (54%) say that their primary motivation for sitting on a corporate board is intellectual stimulation, 22% see board service as a way to keep engaged, and 17% indicate they simply want to give something back. Remuneration is low on the list.
  • There is a dichotomy between directors who believe it’s appropriate to communicate about governance issues directly with shareholders and those who do not. Just over 30% say it’s “very appropriate” to communicate about corporate governance issues, and about a quarter say the same about executive compensation and director nominations. But the same or slightly more say director communication about these three areas is “not appropriate.”
  • Regarding communication with other stakeholders, nearly half of directors say their boards either have no policy or one that’s not useful. Considering the increasing frequency of stakeholder interactions, it’s not surprising that about one-quarter of those without such a policy believe there should be one.
  • Boards continue to take action in response to say on pay voting results (70%) but few actually reduced compensation (3%). Over one-half of directors say that it would take a negative shareholder vote of 30% or more to cause them to reconsider executive compensation.
  • The number of directors who believe there is a clear allocation of risk oversight responsibilities among the board and its committees (80%) improved over the prior year by 17 percentage points. Yet half of those who say that there is clarity reflected that it still could be improved.
  • CEOs and directors have different perspectives on who influences company strategy or what threatens their company’s growth prospects. As reported in PwC’s 16th Annual Global CEO Survey, CEOs see more influence by the media and supply chain partners, while directors believe investors have more clout. Directors are significantly more concerned about the government impairing growth prospects.
  • Ninety-four percent of directors say they receive information on competitor initiatives and strategy, but nearly a quarter of them wish it were better.
  • Three-quarters of directors said their boards took additional action to oversee fraud risks. Six of 10 held discussions regarding “tone at the top,” a 14 percentage-point increase from last year. Other actions included increased interactions with members of management below the executive level and having discussions about insider trading controls.
  • Directors reflected on the increasing importance of the IT revolution at their companies—15% call IT critical, up from 13% in 2012, and the amount of time directors spent overseeing IT increased correspondingly. Despite the fact that about one-third of boards spent more hours overseeing IT, 61% want to spend even more time considering related risks in the coming year, and 55% say the same about IT strategy.
  • There was a jump in the use of outside consultants to advise boards on IT strategy and risk: from 27% last year to 35% this year. Even more are thinking about it. While most of these were hired on a project-specific basis, the percentage of consultants engaged on a continuous basis doubled from last year.
  • Almost a third of directors believe their company’s strategy and IT risk mitigation is not adequately supported by a sufficient understanding of IT at the board level. And only about a quarter “very much” agree that the company provides them with adequate information for effective oversight.
  • The majority of directors have evolved their practices to be more engaged in overseeing traditional IT issues: the status of major IT implementations and the annual IT budget. These account for the highest levels of director engagement (80% and 63%, respectively). But directors say they are not sufficiently engaged in understanding the company’s level of cyber-security spend (24%) and competitors’ leverage of emerging technologies (22%).
  • Nearly two-thirds of directors (64%) believe recent regulatory and enforcement initiatives have not increased investor protections, and 77% don’t believe such actions have increased public trust in the corporate sector. In addition, 51% think these efforts have not enhanced transparency to stakeholders “very much” or at all.
  • Nearly three-fourths of directors feel that increased regulation and enforcement initiatives have added costs to companies that exceed the benefits, and 56% believe they have put excessive burdens on directors. Over a third (36%) responded that such initiatives have contributed to unreasonable expectations of director performance.
  • Despite their perceived increased influence, proxy advisory firms appear to be losing ground when it comes to their credibility with directors. Directors’ ratings of the firms’ independence, thoroughness of work, and quality of voting recommendations all declined in 2013.

A summary of selected insights reflecting the best of the boardroom is included in the first part of this report. The appendix includes other graphs and survey results.

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