Nigel Travis On The Board’s Role In Talent Strategy

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Doing their reading, monitoring hotlines and getting out in the field will help directors stay on top of culture.

It’s not the board’s role to define the culture, Nigel Travis, former CEO of Dunkin’ and board member at Abercrombie & Fitch, told attendees at Corporate Board Member‘s 18th annual summit. That task should be left to the CEO and the HR lead, he said. But there are steps directors can take to monitor the culture and ensure that it’s “one that people want to be engaged in.”

In a conversation with Dottie Schindlinger, executive director of Diligent Institute, Travis offered the following advice:

1. Get out in the field. “Do not sit in the same boardroom every meeting. Home Depot has a policy—[directors] have to go to a certain number of stores every year, a certain number of distribution centers every year, etc.  What most boards do is they have a couple of meetings, perhaps online, and then go to the headquarters for the rest of the meetings. Everyone goes on about, ‘we haven’t got the time’—it’s really not that difficult. So I think boards need to get off their backsides and out in the field.”

2. Monitor hotlines. When whistleblower calls come in via hotline—most typically to the governance, audit or finance committees—board members need to review them and ask questions, said Travis. “You have to then ask questions. “When you see, we had 1,000 calls to the hotline. What were they? Why is this repeating?”

3. Do your reading. Review employee surveys at least twice a year, and monitor sites like Glassdoor, suggested Travis, who says reviews can be surprisingly instructive about culture. “The worst review I got [as CEO] was, ‘I stood in the elevator with the CEO and he didn’t speak to me.’ I have been so conscious ever since when I get in an elevator of actually talking to someone.”

In addition to culture, Travis recommended directors focus on three talent issues:

1. A la carte comp. Post-pandemic, companies must get more creative about tailored compensation packages, he said. “I’ve been pushing for the ultimate cafeteria model—fit the compensation structure to the individual. For example, if you join a company and your husband already has a health plan to cover you, you may not need healthcare. Maybe vacation days are more important to you. Or work flexibility. So, you have a total package or an individual, and you allow them to choose what they want, and you cost it out.”

2. Hybrid work. Companies need to accept that the nine-to-five, in-the-office model of work is history. Boards should help management devise a strategy that works best for their specific company. “I’m of the view that three days a week is a good balance, where people can come into the office, learn from each other, talk about issues, solve problems,” Travis said. “But commuting is ridiculous, a waste of time, environmentally unfriendly – so this 2, 3, 4 day week has to become the mantra. And it’s a way for people to spend more time with their family. Like we’ve seen in Europe, particularly in France, we’re going to see people requiring a more balanced lifestyle.”

3. Childcare. The challenge of finding adequate childcare has risen to near-crisis level across the country—and it’s employers who will need to figure it out, said Travis. “Solving that problem would give employers more access to more people, women in particular. So we as employers need to think about how we’re going to tackle child care. Because if you go to a company that does a good job with it, like Bright Horizons, they’ve got no more capacity. It is a national problem that needs to be tackled.”

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