Archive for the ‘governance’ Category

Why Do Family Firms Thrive?

Family firms (or family-controlled corporations) are a bit of an outlier in the modern business world. Modern corporations are typically characterized by a “separation of ownership and control” — that is, companies are generally run by professional managers, who manage on behalf of a very large number of mostly-anonymous shareholders. Most people who own shares own them only indirectly through pension funds mutual funds, and so they have little direct input into the way the company is managed. This pattern is directly responsible for the modern focus on governance standards: when managers are given the task of managing on behalf of anonymous, disempowered shareholders, they have an ethical obligation to take seriously the obligations such an arrangement implies. The CEO has to remember that it’s not her company: she’s a guardian, managing on behalf of others. Modern governance standards take some of the relevant ethical obligations and enshrine them in laws, regulations, and ‘best practices.’

“Family” firms (or family-controlled corporations) are somewhat different. The sort of family firms I’m talking about here are not ‘mom-and-pop’ organizations, but rather large, publicly-traded companies in which a family owns a controlling interest (i.e., 30% or more of stock). So while such firms are typical, publicly-traded companies in some regards, they are unusual in important ways. The family in question may have not just a strong position in terms of the stock it holds; they may also bear the name that’s emblazoned on the company letterhead. And the company’s origins and evolution may be intimately bound up with the family’s own history. This adds up to considerable influence. Is that influence a good or a bad thing? In principle, at least, there’s a worry that the family’s influence might not always work in the interests of other shareholders. And this worry is exacerbated by the fact that family-controlled companies often don’t stick to widely-acknowledged best practices in terms of corporate governance.

To shed some light on this topic, my friends* at the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness have just released a new study Family Firm Performance Study. Their central finding?

“Canadian family-controlled issuers have outperformed their peers between 1998 and 2012. Moreover, family firms often appear best able to create value for their shareholders when they choose not to adhere to typical best practices in share structure and independence.”

It’s an intriguing finding. The study as a whole is worth reading. I want to comment on just a couple of issues, here.

First, a study like this casts doubt on the one-size-fits all approach to corporate governance. Best practices (such as standards for the number of independent directors on your board) and legal standards (such as the requirement to have an audit committee) typically prescribe how a corporation’s board should be composed and conduct itself, irrespective of the corporation’s history, industry, and so on. And, importantly, such standards don’t draw a distinction between family and non-family companies. And while such standards generally evolve (or are imposed) in response to emerging challenges and scandals, they are liable to be based on the average or typical company. But, of course, the average or typical company is a fiction. Every company is unique, and so one-size-fits-all may mean one-size-fits-none. At very least, it is worth acknowledging that a compromise is being made: uniformity in exchange for mediocrity. Best practices may not be best.

When I asked Matt Fullbrook, Manager of the Clarkson Centre, about this, he was cautious. There will be no immediate change in the way the Clarkson Centre itself ranks companies. He agreed, however, that it’s an open question: “we are actively asking ourselves about whether or not good governance might mean something different to family firms, and that’s the next place we hope to take our research.”

Second, a result like this immediately raises questions and generates hypotheses about why family-controlled firms work so well, despite their frequent violation of governance norms. One theory (alluded to in the Clarkson report) has to do with managing for the long run: a company rooted in a family’s history and tradition and reputation may well be less susceptible to the short-termism that is so notoriously a factor at most corporations today. Alternatively, does success come about precisely because family-controlled companies aren’t subject to the kinds of agency problems that other firms are subject to. Maybe having family members deeply involved keeps the company’s management honest. Or is it a matter of the way family firms cleave to a set of ethical values, in an attempt to safeguard the family name? It’s a question that bears more study.

Finally, it’s worth asking what ethical lessons can be learned by other sorts of companies — that is, by ones that are not family-controlled. If family-controlled companies do so well, should the be imitated? Lots of companies already use the rhetoric of family, encouraging employees to think of themselves as kin, as descendants of a proud lineage, and bound together by corporate “DNA.” To some, that’s a way of improving morale, and perhaps thereby improving performance. But if family control is itself a strength, that suggests another reason to think this way.

In sum, research like this is essential. Family-controlled corporations are already the subject of some ambivalence. On one hand, they evoke the traditional affection most of us feel for a family-run business. On the other hand, many of us mistrust dynasties in general, and the mismanagement and indeed malfeasance that nepotism can bring. But our attitudes toward them are more properly guided by research on whether (and how) they get the job done, than it is by emotion.


*Disclosure: I was a Visiting Scholar at the Clarkson Centre during the 2011-2012 academic year.

Ethics Lessons from Toronto Mayor’s Ouster from Office

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been found guilty of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and will be removed from office. The much-anticipated court decision was handed down this morning.

Regrettably, this is unlikely the end of the story. Ford had announced, prior to the decision, his intention to run again should the judge remove him from office. The judge had the option to include, as part of Ford’s sentence, a prohibition on running again, but opted not to do so.

Ford has plenty of detractors. Some don’t like his politics. Some question his aptitude for the job of mayor of Canada’s largest city. Others worry about his being implicated not just in one but in a string of conflict of interest violations. But he also has plenty of defenders — after all, there are an awful lot of people out there who voted for him, and many of them are sticking to their guns on that choice. So the debate will rage. Plenty of ink is sure to be spilled in by both camps in the wake of this decision. I’ll limit myself here to just two quick points. One is about leadership, and the other is about governance.

First, leadership. Whatever your views of Ford, and whatever your views about the severity of his breach of the Conflict of Interest Act, you pretty much have to agree that Ford demonstrated a disappointing lack of leadership ethics, here. Yes (as his lawyer pointed out) people do make mistakes, and even a mayor can be forgiven for an incidental breach of a rule now and then. But what’s particularly worrisome here is that Ford, who by all rights ought to be the guy who leads Council in understanding its ethical obligations, seems to be utterly clueless about them. And he doesn’t seem terribly worried about that, either. According to a report of the court proceedings, Ford “testified he never read the Conflict of Interest Act or the councillor orientation handbook. Nor did he attend councillor training sessions that covered conflicts of interest.”

My second point has to do with governance. As Marcus Gee pointed out in the Globe and Mail recently, bumping Ford from office might be a case of ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire.’ Turmoil is likely to ensue. Council is now faced with the choice of having someone else — someone not elected to be mayor — serve out the rest of Ford’s term, or spending several million dollars of taxpayer money to hold another election. The result of turfing Ford seems especially troubling when we compare Ford’s ethical cluelessness with the out-and-out corruption that has brought down mayors in other major cities.

But what was the alternative? A judge has no choice but to call ‘em like he sees ‘em. Ford violated important rules, and those rules say he should be removed from office. Note that the judge in this case would have had the same range of sentencing options if the dollar amount at the heart of this case had been $3.15 rather than $3,150. A more sane system would perhaps allow for a broader range of penalties. Examples could be found in other systems and at other levels of government. A fine? Censure? Limitation of future mayoral discretion? Mandatory ethics training? I don’t know the answer. But a governance system that allows a political leader to blunder this way and then throws a city into turmoil is not a good system. Principles matter, but so does the way we implement them.

Ethics of Risk Management

Business is, in many ways, all about risk. It’s about investing in R&D and in productive processes that may or may not result in products that customers want to buy. It’s about hiring people and then putting your company’s reputation into their hands. It’s about trying and doing new things, always aware of the chance of failure. Society flourishes because businesses are willing to take risks. Of course, some risks should not be taken, and others should be taken only subject to suitable safeguards. Risk, in other words, needs to be managed.

Modern risk management, as that term is used in corporate contexts, has its roots in finance and refers primarily to the management of financial risks. It relies heavily on mathematical models used for asset pricing and portfolio assessment. Banks use risk management techniques to determine how many loans and mortgages of what kinds to hand out, and on what terms, and to figure out (within regulated limits) how much capital they need to keep on hand in case depositors come calling to reclaim their deposits. This all requires careful calculations. Take too little risk, and you’ve got money sitting idle. Take too many risks and, well, you end up with what we saw back in 2008.

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting Professor John Boatright, as part of the Business Ethics Speakers Series that I run at the Ted Rogers School of Management. John is the guy who literally wrote the book on ethics in finance. He’s author of Ethics in Finance and editor of Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice. There simply is no one better on issues of ethics in finance. And his topic last week was an important one: “The Ethics of Risk Management: A Post-Crisis Perspective.”

As John’s talk pointed out, the advent of modern risk management strategies is, somewhat ironically, implicated in the financial crisis of ’08-’09, from which we are still recovering. The mathematical models risk managers use made possible the popularization of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs). And the fact that there were actual hard-core equations behind these instruments — which Warren Buffett “financial weapons of mass destruction” — made them seem far safer than they were. This illusion of safety encouraged very high levels of leveraging, with what we now know to be disastrous consequences.

One of the other things that John’s talk clarified for me was that there’s a kind of ambiguity in the very term “risk management.” To the public, the idea of “managing” risks sounds very much like the idea of “reducing” risks. And that, of course, sounds like a very good thing. But risk management absolutely is not the same as risk reduction. Indeed, it can be quite the opposite. Risk management is the art of finding the right level and mix of risks, the right ‘risk profile.’ What matters ethically, as John pointed out is which risks are managed, by whom, by what means, for whose benefit.

The other point from John’s talk that I want to highlight here has to do with the ‘corporatization’ of risk management. As John pointed out, business firms both encounter and create risk, and risks are encountered by both firms and by individuals in society. If, as seems to be the case, risks to individuals are increasingly being managed by corporations, we as a society need to be acutely aware of the way corporations think about risk. John quoted author Michael Power as saying that “Risk is the basis for corporations to process morality.” In other words, risk is the lens through which corporations consider and act upon their obligations.

The problem here is clear: risk is an inherently outcomes-based construct, and not everything we care about ethically is a matter of outcomes. We also care about rights and duties, and about justice in the way good and bad outcomes are distributed. If risk becomes the lens through which obligations are examined, something important is being left out. Corporate risk management, in other words, is itself a mechanism that brings risks that need to be managed.

Executive Compensation at a Regulated Monopoly

Protests broke out last week at the first annual shareholders’ meeting of Canadian energy company, Emera. Emera is a private company, traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. But one of its wholly-owned subsidiaries, Nova Scotia Power, is the regulated company that supplies Nova Scotia with virtually all of its electricity.

The protest concerned the fact that several Emera and Nova Scotia Power executives had received substantial raises, despite the fact that Nova Scotia Power had just recently had to go to the province’s Utility and Review Board to get approval to raise the price it charges Nova Scotians for electricity. According to the utility, the rate hike was needed to add new renewable energy capacity to Nova Scotia’s grid. But protestors wondered if the extra cash wasn’t going straight into the pockets of wealthy executives.

The first thing worth pointing out for anyone not already aware is that practically no one thinks that anyone is doing executive compensation particularly well. Sure, most boards have Compensation Committees now, and many big companies engage compensation consultants to do the relevant benchmarking and to make recommendations. But no one is particularly confident in either the process or the results. So Emera’s board is far from alone in facing this kind of critique.

The second point worth making is that there are two very different kinds of stakeholders concerned in a case like this, but in this particular case they happen to overlap substantially. On one hand, there are Emera’s shareholders. They have an interest in making sure the company’s Comp Committee does its job, and sets executive compensation in a way that attracts, retains, and motivates top talent in order to produce good results. On the other hand, there are customers of Nova Scotia Power, ratepayers who want a cheap, stable supply of electricity. Now, as it happens, many of the vocal protestors at Emera’s annual meeting are members of both groups: they are shareholders in Emera and customers of Nova Scotia Power. But it is crucial to see that these are two separate groups, with very different sets of concerns. When this story is portrayed as a story about angry shareholders, this crucial distinction gets blurred. What’s good for shareholders per se is obviously not the same as what is good for paying customers. And, importantly, a company’s board of directors aren’t accountable to customers in the same way that they are to shareholders.

The final point to make about this is that, to observers of corporate governance, this is actually a “good news” story. As noted above, no one thinks executive compensation is handled very well. But despite that fact, corporate boards still face relatively little pushback from shareholders, and are relatively seldom held to account in this regard. There are of course exceptions (including a number of failed “say on pay” votes) but those exceptions prove the rule. And that’s unfortunate. In any ostensibly democratic system, it is a good thing when the voters take the time to show up and to ask hard questions. Even if no one is sure that such participation improves outcomes, it is an invaluable part of the process.

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(I was on CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon show to talk about this controversy. The interview is here.)
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Bribery at Wal-Mart de Mexico

Just when things seemed to be going so well at Wal-Mart!

Six years ago, just after I started blogging, I made a happy prediction about Wal-Mart. The company was subject to a truly enormous amount of bad press at the time, accused of everything from environmental infractions to falsifying employee time-cards. Nonetheless, I predicted that “within 5 years, Wal-Mart will be at the top of at least some business ethics / corporate social responsibility / corporate citizenship rankings.” I don’t think it was a particularly brave prediction: Wal-Mart has the money, and the organizational efficiency, to do just about anything it turns its mind to. And most of the bad things the company was being accused of weren’t central to its business model, so there didn’t seem to be any major barriers to the company turning over a new leaf in response to massive public pressure.

And my prediction turned out to be roughly right. While certainly not free of criticism, Wal-Mart has turned into an icon of environmental sustainability, and has indeed won a number of ethics-related awards. The bad press had dropped to virtually zero.

And then this.

If you haven’t yet read the stunning exposé on bribery at Wal-Mart de Mexico, you should. The short version: Wal-Mart de Mexico was apparently involved in an organized campaign to use bribery as an aid to its ambitious plans for expansion. When insiders notified Wal-Mart head office in Bentonville, Ark., of what was going on — the corruption, the devil-may-care attitude to law-breaking, the risk to corporate reputation — the big fish there basically swept the problem under the rug.

It’s a damning story, one that has vast implications all the way to the very top of the company’s world-wide operations. All kinds of questions arise. Where was the Board? What does this say about ‘tone at the top’? What role was played by international differences in law and custom? What damage will this do to Wal-Mart’s attempt to rehabilitate its reputation? What does this scandal say about the management skills of top executives at Wal-Mart de Mexico? Should heads roll? Or, more likely, whose heads should roll? To what extent does this pull the rug out from under the company’s sustainability and CSR efforts? I’ll explore a few of those questions here in the coming days.

Citigroup Shareholders, Say on Pay, and Moral Suasion

Shareholders at Citigroup have voted against the pay packages granted to the company’s top executives. Under Dodd-Frank, major firms are now required to hold shareholder votes on executive compensation at least once every three years. But the vote held Citigroup’s annual meeting on Tuesday was historic: it was the very first time that shareholders at a major financial firm have used this mechanism to express displeasure.

OK, now what? Well, that’s not entirely clear. Such votes are non-binding, and so the Board at Citigroup is legally entitled to ignore this recent vote entirely. But a widely-cited statement from the company includes the following assertion: “The Personnel and Compensation Committee of the Board will carefully consider their input as we move forward.” But really, what does that mean? And really, what should a Board of Directors do in the face of such feedback?

One problem is that a simple yea or nay vote is not very eloquent: there can be lots of reasons for saying “no” to a compensation package, and of course speculation is rampant. The Board (and its Personnel and Compensation Committee) now needs to talk to major shareholders — presumably it is already doing so — to find out what the problem is.

One analyst has been quoted as noting approvingly that this vote means the owners of big corporations are finally yanking the leash, a move towards getting things back under control. Mike Mayo, author of Exile on Wall Street, says that “[T[he owners of the big banks, namely the shareholders, are finally taking a greater amount of responsibility by speaking up.” The thinking here is that shareholders may have been objecting not just to Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit’s $15 million dollar pay, but also to the $10 million retention payment awarded to him, and the general lack of correlation between Pandit’s pay and the company’s financial performance.

But then, while the idea that shareholders “own” the company is common, it is not uncontentious. The connection between most shareholders and the company is indeed pretty tenuous. And regardless of ownership claims, lots of people reject the idea that shareholders have any special role here, or that their voices should count for more than the voices of other stakeholder groups. Under such a view, a shareholder say-on-pay vote deserves little more than a shrug. After all, if shareholders are just one more stakeholder group, then evidence that they don’t approve of CEO pay is no more important than evidence of similar disapproval on the part of workers or suppliers or whomever.

But a shareholder vote has to count as more than just one more bit of moral suasion. For better or for worse, shareholders are, under most companies’ systems of governance, the ones to whom all insiders, including the CEO and Board of Directors, swear allegiance. Managers don’t promise to make a profit — such a promise would hardly be credible — but they do promise to at least try to make a profit, to have something left for shareholders after the bills are paid. It’s the one bit of accountability that every CEO, regardless of political persuasion, pays homage to.

Apple: The Ethics of Spending $100 Billion

What’s the best thing to do with a hundred billion dollars? Apple — the world’s richest company — gave its answer to just that question, when it announced yesterday how it will spend some of the massive cash reserve the company has accumulated.

Of course, spending the whole $100 billion was never on the agenda. The company needs to keep a good chunk of that money on-hand, for various purposes. Then there’s the fact that a big chunk of it is currently held by foreign subsidiaries, and bringing it back to the US to spend it would require Apple to pay hefty repatriation taxes. But any way you slice it, Apple has a big chunk of cash to spend, and so its Board faces some choices.

In the abstract, there are lots of things one could do with that much money. Financial analysts had rightly predicted that Apple company would decide to pay out a dividend (for the first time since 1995). Some were predicting bolder moves, like buying Twitter (which would use up a mere $12 billion). But what could Apple have done with that much money, aside from narrow strategic moves?

The money could have, in principle, been spent on various charitable projects. That amount of money could also do a lot towards helping developing countries combat and adapt to climate change. Or it could revolutionize the American education system. Closer to home, the company could spend a bunch on improving working conditions at its factories in China, conditions for which the company has been widely criticized. All of these, and many more, are (or rather were) among the possibilities.

But business ethics isn’t abstract; Apple’s Board faced a concrete question. And the Board has ethical and legal obligations to shareholders. Those aren’t its only obligations, but once workers are paid, warranties are honoured, expenses are covered, and relevant regulations are adhered to, the main remaining obligation is to shareholders.

Now, there’s a significant strain of thought that says that a company’s managers (and its Board) are not there just to serve the interests of shareholders, but also to carry out shareholders’ obligations. So, if you believe that Apple shareholders have an obligation to fight climate change or to promote education or to improve conditions for workers, then maybe it makes sense to think that the company ought to help shareholders to act on that obligation. But keep in mind that Apple’s shareholders are a rather amorphous group. Shares in corporations change hands incredibly frequently, and the interests and obligations of shareholders vary significantly, so a Board ‘represents’ shareholders (or acts as their agent) only in a rather abstract sense.

The alternative, of course, is for Apple’s Board to give itself some leeway, forget about what shareholders’ collective obligations might be, and go back to thinking abstractly about what to do with that big pile of cash. They can simply decide whether the shareholders’ financial interests outweigh their collective obligation to do some good with that money, and simply decide which of the various worthy causes it should go to. But of course, lots of people are rightly uncomfortable with the idea of well-heeled corporate boards arrogating to themselves that kind of power. The question for discussion, then, is this. Which is the greater evil? For corporations not to step up to the plate and contribute to social objectives, or for corporate leaders to presume to spend vast sums of money as if it were their own?

Greg Smith, Goldman Sachs, and Corporate Culture

By now everyone has heard that a guy named Greg Smith wrote a letter this week. Who is Greg Smith and why does anyone care? Why is Greg Smith’s letter getting attention from anyone who isn’t a Goldman Sachs employee, customer, or shareholder? Sure, he’s a mid-level executive at one of the world’s most powerful financial institutions. So he’s certainly not a nobody. And sure, Goldman, like other big financial institutions today, is seen by many as the corporate embodiment of evil, and so people are bound to be fascinated by an insider’s repudiation of the firm — especially accompanied, as it was, by a good dollop of juicy details. But there’s more to it than that, and the “more” here is instructive.

I think the key to understanding why Smith’s letter caused such an uproar is the fact that Greg Smith’s letter taps into the deep, dark fear that every consumer has, namely the fear that, somewhere out there, someone who is supposed to be looking out for us is instead trying to screw us. Smith’s letter basically said that that is exactly what is going on at Goldman, these days: the employees charged with advising clients about an array of complex financial decisions are, according to Smith, generally more focused on making money than they are on serving clients.

Now, first a couple of words about the letter. It goes without saying that we should take such a letter with a grain of salt. It’s just one man’s word, after all. Now that doesn’t make Smith’s account of the tone at Goldman implausible. He’s not the first to suggest that there’s something wonky at Goldman. It just means that we should balance his testimony against other evidence, including for example the kinds of large-scale surveys of Goldman employees that the company’s own response to Smith’s letter cites. Then again, such surveys are themselves highly imperfect devices. Either way: buyer beware.

(Note: one group that must take this stuff seriously is Goldman’s Board of Directors. A loyal employee taking a risk like Smith has is not a good sign, and his story deserves to be investigated thoroughly by the Board.)

OK, so let’s bracket the reliability of Smith’s account, and ask — if it accurately reflects the tone at Goldman — why that matters.

It matters because of this awkward fact: in many cases, in business, all that stands between you the customer and getting ripped off is that amorphous something called “corporate culture.” Most of us are susceptible to being ripped off in all kinds of ways by the businesses we interact with. That’s true whether the business in question is my local coffee shop (is that coffee really Fair Trade?) or a financial institution trying to get me to invest in some new-fangled asset-backed security. My best hope in such cases is that the business in question fosters a culture within which employees are expected to tell me the truth and help me get the products I really want.

Now culture is a notoriously hard thing to define, and harder still to manage. Culture is sometimes explained as “a shared set of practices” or “the way things are done” or “the glue that holds a company together.”

Why does culture matter? It matters because, other things being equal, the people who work for a company won’t automatically feel inspired to spend their day doing things that benefit either the company or the company’s clients. People need to be convinced to provide loyal service. In part, such loyalty can be had through a combination of rewards and penalties and surveillance. Work hard, and you’ll earn a bonus. And, Treat our customers well, or your fired. And so on.

But sticks and carrots will only get you so far. Far better if you can get employees to adopt the right behaviours voluntarily, to internalize a set of rules about loyal service and fair treatment. An employee who thinks that diligence and fair treatment just go with the turf is a lot more valuable than one who needs constantly to be cajoled. And, humans being the social animals that we are, getting employees to adopt and internalize a set of rules is a lot easier if you make it part of the ethos of a group of comrades. Once you’ve got the group ethos right, employees don’t act badly because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing we do around here! In the terminology used by economists and management theorists, culture helps solve ‘agency problems.’ Whatever it is that you want employees to be focusing their energies on, corporate culture is the key.

Of course, there’s still the problem of what exactly employees should be focusing their energies on. Should they be taking direct aim at maximizing profit? Or should they be serving customers well, on the assumption that good service will result in profits in the long run? In any reasonably sane market — one without ‘TBTF‘ financial institutions — the latter strategy would be the way to go, practically every time. And that fact is precisely what makes large-scale commerce practical. Consumers enjoy an enormous amount of protection from everyday wrongdoing due to the simple fact that most businesses promote basic honesty and decency on the part of their employees.

Unfortunately, it’s far from clear that Goldman operates in a sane market. So it is entirely plausible that the company could have allowed its corporate culture to drift away from seeing customers as partners in long-term value creation, toward seeing them as sources of short-term revenue. I don’t know whether Greg Smith’s tale is true, and representative of the culture at Goldman Sachs. But if it is, that means not just that Goldman isn’t serving its clients well. It means that Goldman embodies a set of values with the potential to undermine the market itself.

If Facebook Were a Country, Would Zuckerberg Be King?

I’m serious. Is Mark Zuckerberg aiming to be the hereditary sovereign of the Kingdom of Facebook?

Amid all the ballyhoo about the Facebook IPO, concerns have arisen about the ownership structure — and, hence, governance structure — structure that the company’s plan implies. As Matt Yglesias recently outlined, the current plan implies considerable continuing power for Zuckerberg. Given the number of Class B shares he owns, along with proxies he controls, Zuckerberg effectively has “57 percent of the voting rights over the company.” In addition, his control will be transferred to whomever inherits his fortune.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? A couple of points, both having to do with how Zuckerberg will use his power.

One is that, interestingly, Zuckerberg has (in a letter to investors) disavowed a focus on profits:

“Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.

And we think this is a good way to build something. These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits….”

Some will rejoice at this. But of course, when a company says it’s going to aim at things beyond profits, there’s no particular reason to think that they’ll aim instead at goals you approve of. Facebook is a powerful company, grounded on a potent technology. Whomever controls it has the power to do a lot of good, or a lot of evil. And as I’ve pointed out before, Zuckerberg holds some dangerous views about, for instance, things like privacy.

Some of the comments under Yglesias’s piece have suggested that Yglesias exaggerates just how unique Facebook is in this regard. Other companies have been controlled by powerful central figures. Fair enough, but Facebook isn’t your average company. In a very real way, Facebook is becoming part of the infrastructure of modern life. In its role, it is more like a public utility than a private company. That puts the company — and its leader — in a very different position than, say, Ford or Exxon. Facebook really is more like a nation, and so he who controls it really is more like a political leader. This casts a very different light on how we evaluate not just the man, but the processes that are in place to guide his judgment.

Should Penn State’s Board Resign?

In the wake of the Sandusky sex-abuse scandal the question has arisen whether Penn State University’s Board of Trustees should tender its collective resignation. And now, following the death of Coach Joe Paterno on Sunday, the question has taken on additional emotional resonance. The university’s Faculty Senate is scheduled to discuss a motion to strike an independent committee to investigate the Board’s role in the whole affair, and indeed has seen at least one motion calling for the entire Board’s resignation.

So, should the members of the Board be asked to resign? And if not, should they do so of their own volition?

To answer these questions, here are some questions that need to be considered:

Fist, did indeed the Board fail in its fiduciary (‘trust-based’) duties? It’s worth noting that the Board has been under fire from two different directions, here. Some think the Board failed in not staying sufficiently ‘on top of’ the Sandusky situation, and in resting satisfied with whatever dribbles of information the university administration saw fit to feed them. (The only detailed account I’ve read so far paints the Board in a rather sympathetic light, in this regard.)

Others think the Board failed in firing — in their eyes, scapegoating — the beloved Paterno. Both sides think the Board screwed up, but for very different reasons. Of course, both can be right at the same time. Perhaps the Board has just generally done a bad job, first by letting the situation get out of hand and then second by botching the task of responding to it. Rather than cancelling each other out, maybe these two sets of complaints just compound each other.

Next, we need to ask, if the Board failed, was it a failure of people or a failure of structure? A board, after all, is both an institutional structure and a set of people occupying that structure.

If it was a failure of structure (and, as governance expert Richard Leblanc wrote back in November, there are serious problems with how Penn State’s board is configured) then there’s little reason to think that a change of personnel on the Board is either necessary or sufficient to fix the problem. And if instead it was a failure of people, then getting rid of them all is a blunt, but perhaps effective, way to solve the problem — providing, of course, that the new people brought in to replace them are better.

Of course, the problem is that it’s difficult to distinguish between a failure of people and a failure of structure, in a case like this. Perhaps people better-suited to the job would have risen above the confines of a poorly-structured board, or lobbied to have its structure revised. Human behaviour and institutional structure shape each other.

And finally, regardless of the above questions about the sources of failure, it might be the case that the removal or resignation of the Board is necessary in order to restore public confidence. That is, even if the individuals currently on the Board are not in any way to blame, the fact that key stakeholders have lost faith in the Board might be sufficient grounds for calling for the entire Board to go. Without the confidence of key stakeholders, any Board is going to find it hard to do its job.

But then, while the current Board certainly faces challenges, so would an entirely new Board. The loss of continuity that would result from a 100% change in membership could seriously impair the Board’s functioning, and make it even more reliant on — and susceptible to control by — university administrators. There’s a good reason why well-governed boards have careful plans in place to make sure that new blood is brought in regularly, rather than en masse. In the end, it seems to me that the best prescription is this. The Board of Trustess at Penn State needs to see substantial structural change. It also needs enough new blood to restore confidence, while retaining enough of the old guard to ensure continuity. Beyond that, the Board is just going to have to do its best to muddle through whatever challenges lie ahead, with whatever strengths and limits it possesses, just like any other board.

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