An Insider’s Guide To Building Or Enhancing Your Board

Boards that are built to last evolve with the changing needs of their companies and leadership teams. Consider these four guideposts.

The third quarter of 2021 was the most active Q3 for global IPOs in 20 years, according to EY. The IPO rebound, popularity of SPACs and continued surge of private equity and venture capital activity has put tremendous pressure on boards to be ready for being a public company. As a result, many lessons and themes have emerged that serve as beacons and sirens for all boards to consider.

Over the course of our 30 years advising boards and CEOs, what clearly stands out is that the boards that are built to last evolve with the changing needs of their companies and leadership teams. In addition, considering the challenges and opportunities presented by ESG and DE&I initiatives, the stakes for boards to appropriately address stakeholders and have a meaningful impact are at a generational precipice. Accordingly, we are sharing our insider’s perspective on the four most important guideposts your company or organization should think about when building or enhancing your board.

#1: Board Architecture

In the real estate industry, there is a saying that, “the taller the building is, the stronger the foundation needs to be.” The same applies to creating boards of what we call “forever businesses.” As with the previous inflection points in corporate governance best practices, the past two years have reshaped the thinking around how to build a board that is strong enough to confront inevitable headwinds. Every board must start or revisit what their ideal board framework is to successfully execute the company’s strategy in today’s environment and in the next 10+ years.

1. Vision, Purpose, Strategy: All boards must approach their governance framework by understanding the journey they will need to take to reach their aspirational future state.

2. Stakeholder Interests Analysis (SIA): A new but now critical component for all owners and boards is to understand the ecosystem of stakeholders who will have influence or direct impact on the organization.

3. Capabilities: Boards should identify the skills and experiences directors needs to possess to help govern the company and advise management through any challenge.

4. Committee Structure: The number, types, and charters needed for each committee to effectively govern should be carefully crafted. Boards are moving past the standard three committees to include separate risk and finance committees as well as climate, digital and cyber which will require new competencies on the board.

5. Board Size: The number of directors, including independent versus management, should be determined in advance of building a board.

6. Governance Guidelines and By-laws: These should be developed early and include annual director versus classified elections and governance best practices.

#2: Board Leadership

Once the board architecture is finalized, the most critical and important decision is determining the leadership structure of the board, the characteristics of each key position, and who will serve in those roles. Especially for companies preparing for an IPO, the chair of the board, lead director and committee chairs will heavily influence the capabilities, effectiveness and culture of the new board.

1. Board Chair: Every organization has a unique journey ahead of them. Whether it is appropriate to have an independent board chair versus a combined chair and CEO is situationally dependent. Often, the capabilities and experience of the CEO must be overlayed against the needs of shareholders and other stakeholder groups. The board chair sets the tone and tenor for almost all significant forthcoming decisions.

2. Lead Director: If the board determines the best board leadership structure for several years is a combined chair and CEO role, it is imperative to clearly define and empower the duties of the lead director to help carry the workload of the chair and CEO as well as serve as an effective counterbalance to the internal power dynamic.

3. Committee Chairs: As most of the heavy lifting is handled by committees, it is critical for those chairs to have previous committee experience, the necessary capacity and the relevant capabilities to serve. ESG, DE&I and other significant compliance and oversight issues are landing on the doorsteps of the committee chairs, and it is their responsibility to help move the board and their fellow directors forward on addressing these issues.

#3: Board Leadership Succession

One of the most important but often overlooked aspects of building a board is Board Succession Planning. Many boards will prioritize and focus their time and attention on adding directors who can address specific capability gaps when the opportunity arises. This is because succession tends to become apparent when a retirement age or term limit is reached. During the last two years, we have seen a material weakness in the preparedness of boards to have actionable solutions available to address unexpected retirements, especially with committee leadership positions. Some boards approach succession planning like CEO succession planning. However, unlike CEO succession planning when a small number of executives are being groomed and developed for the position, more optionality is required for board succession planning given the demonstrably larger number of directors. All boards need to have a short-term and medium-term succession plan and roadmap for all the key leadership positions that is reviewed and confirmed annually.

1. Develop Director Succession Roadmap: An anticipated and emergency plan should be completed annually for each board leadership position. Ideally, the plan should consider how to fill the position if the need arises immediately, in one year, three years, five years, etc. Boards must pay close attention to the skills, experiences, and behaviors they desire in their leaders.

2. Refreshment: Build your roadmap with the intention that committee chairs will rotate every five years.

3. Diverse Board Leadership Equally Important: Similar to the board as a whole, leadership positions on the board must exemplify diversity as well. This will signal the board’s commitment to diversity as well as help enhance board culture.

4. Board Evaluations: The assessments of the individuals’ performance in these leadership positions must be part of the annual board evaluations. Expectations for the positions are rapidly evolving.

#4: Board Recruiting

The board recruiting landscape is currently incredibly active and competitive. There continues to be an urgency to recruit new directors who can add diversity of thought, experience, expertise, age, ethnicity, gender and/or geography. Whether your board is preparing to go public or is a public company board that just needs to address or enhance a specific capability gap, follow these best practices that we have gathered from advising a wide spectrum of clients on board recruiting.

1. Failing to plan is planning to fail. While focusing on addressing your most pressing gaps on the board, only add a director who has succession potential for one of the board leadership positions. If the director does not have that potential, it will present significant issues down the road.

2. Start yesterday. Many boards wait to recruit until it is definitively known that there will be an “open seat.” What we have learned from working with some of the most effective and well-run boards is they develop a candidate pipeline six months before the need is anticipated. In many cases, boards start sowing seeds with high priority candidates 12 – 24 months in advance.

3. Add what you need—not what you lost. When directors retire or leave a board where they played a significant role, the board needs to avoid the temptation to try to replace the voice and perspective that was lost.

4. Prioritize talent over title. Boards who are willing to focus less on a candidate’s title and more on specific expertise have a better chance of identifying candidates who also have the necessary knowledge to have a real impact and improve the effectiveness of the board. Serving on a board requires someone not only with a specific capability but also broad general management experience. Candidates with previous board experience typically will have an impact immediately and beyond their specific area of expertise. Additionally, it is important to recognize that titling structures differ from company to company and industry to industry. A CEO may bring cachet to the board, but many non-CEOs bring further valuable contributions.

The value of a properly functioning board cannot be underestimated. Your board plays a crucial role in the success of your business. With growing shareholder activism and stakeholder pressures, better corporate governance can only be achieved through a successful working relationship between your board and management as well as positive social and cultural board dynamics and interaction. Taking the necessary time and effort to build or enhance your board is time wisely spent.