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Board Oversight of Corporate Culture

Board Oversight of Corporate Culture

As we've seen in the headlines, corporate culture is front and center for companies, shareholders, regulators, employees, and customers. Not surprisingly, the focus tends to be on corporate culture as the culprit—with headlines of sexual harassment, price gauging, shady sales practices, and other wrongdoing. As a result, boards themselves are in the headlines— with an expectation that they need to “fix” broken cultures.

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Given the critical role that corporate culture plays in driving a company's performance and reputation—for better or, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement, for worse—it is not surprising that boards today are reassessing their approach to oversight of culture. The key question they are asking: How can we "up our game" and take a more proactive approach to understanding, shaping, and assessing corporate culture?

That was the focus of KPMG's Director Roundtable Series, which gathered more than 500 directors and business leaders in cities across the country during May and June. One director described culture as "a little like faith or gravity. You can't see it or touch it, but it's there and it's a really strong force." Another emphasized that "technology has amplified the ability of customers, employees, and investors, to scrutinize not only what products and profits a company makes, but how it makes them, and if they don't like what they see, the network effect of social media quickly takes over."

The roundtable discussions explored four key areas of board focus as they reassess their oversight of corporate culture:

  • Understand what "culture" is and why it is critical today
  • Establish clarity on the foundational elements of the company's culture: zero-tolerance policies as well as behaviors that will help the company excel
  • Clarify the board's role in overseeing culture—recognizing that visibility is a major hurdle
  • Assess where culture belongs on the board and committee agendas.

Understand what “culture” is and why it is critical today

As Spencer Stuart has noted, culture is not a series of objectives or aspirational values posted on the wall; rather, culture "is the culmination of the shared values, beliefs, and assumptions that shape the behavior of the organization. These ‘unwritten rules’ guide the thousands of decisions employees throughout the organization make every day."The company’s culture is critical because it permeates virtually every aspect of the organization: strategy, execution, risk management, compliance, business processes, employee performance, long-term value creation, etc. It drives corporate behavior in good times and in times of stress.1

As one director said, "Done right, culture can be a huge competitive advantage and it can drive shareholder value. We view our culture as one of our greatest advantages."Another director emphasized the importance of expectation and environment:

"The board and management should describe what’s expected and set the right environment so those expectations are possible. You need feedback to make sure that is happening."

Who is responsible for the organization’s culture? It is almost impossible for the board to create culture, though it can influence culture. The CEO is, by far, the most significant driver of culture, along with his or her senior management team. Understanding an organization’s culture is difficult because the underlying drivers of culture are usually hidden. But if you can’t see it, describe it, or measure it, it’s hard to know if your company’s culture is helping or hurting the organization.2

Establish clarity on the foundational elements of the company's culture: zero-tolerance policies as well as behaviors that will help the company excel

As recommended in the 2017 Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Culture as a Corporate Asset, boards should strive for a level of discipline with respect to culture oversight that is comparable to leading practices in the oversight of risk. To do that, the board, CEO, and senior management should establish absolute clarity on the foundational elements of the organization’s culture in two areas:

  1. Behaviors for which there is zero tolerance
  2. Values and behaviors that help the company excel and are to be encouraged.

Zero-tolerance policies

Participants noted the importance of zero-tolerance policies for certain behaviors—such as violence, fraud, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and, perhaps, drug use—and emphasized the importance of enforcing zero tolerance consistently at all levels of the organization. "If someone behaves in a way that is inconsistent with a behavior for which the company has a zero-tolerance policy and you make an exception for them because they're a top performer, it's essentially granting permission for everyone to behave the same way."

So how does a board and management team develop an effective zero-tolerance policy? The #MeToo movement provides some important lessons for boards as to how to establish absolute clarity regarding its zero-tolerance policy for harassment and abuse.

Examples include:

  • Send a clear message from board and senior management that they are committed to preventing workforce harassment and abuse at all levels and that the issue is a top priority for the board
  • Assess soundness of sexual harassment policies, training, and enforcement
  • Assess effectiveness of employee hotline mechanisms, including processing and escalation
  • Identify types of complaints that must be brought to the board's attention
  • Consider whether compensation incentives— including clawbacks—exist to motivate compliance and the right behaviors
  • Monitor red flags
  • Clarify duty of officers and directors to share workforce misconduct information with the full board
  • Recognize importance of board independence, diversity, and refreshment as essential to good governance.

As one director said, "It's essential for companies and boards to get the zero-tolerance policy right and to make it effective."

Values and behaviors that help the company excel and are to be encouraged

The NACD Blue Ribbon Commission recommended that boards also work with management to establish clarity around the values and behaviors that help the company excel and are to be encouraged—i.e., the behaviors that are key to execution of the company’s strategy. Of course, the types of behaviors the company might encourage will vary based on its strategy. For example, a company that is positioned as a disruptor will encourage different behaviors than one that is heavily regulated (see image below).

jnet-2018-issue4-article3-Fig01

Obviously, the types of behaviors a company encourages will vary depending on where the company is on the spectrum. Roundtable participants emphasized that the key is for the board and management to agree on the desired culture and behaviors and to ensure that there is alignment of the desired culture and behaviors with strategy, values, and incentives, as well as controls to help identify any outliers.

While the CEO sets the company's culture, the board plays an important role in influencing it by making culture a priority, modeling the desired culture, and selecting the CEO, and through its influence on policies related to succession planning and talent development, incentive compensation, hiring, firing, and promotion decisions.3

Speakers stressed the importance of considering culture fit up front, during the hiring process, particularly as part of the CEO succession process. "Be deliberate. Do a tremendous amount of due diligence."

"It starts with hiring individuals who match the company's values," said one director."It doesn't have to cost a lot of money, but it does cost time in the form of up-front investment in the hiring processes."

Clarify the board's role in overseeing culture— recognizing that visibility is a major hurdle.

In overseeing culture, an important role for the board is to regularly assess and monitor corporate culture. This requires looking beyond the "corporate values" posted in the lunchroom and understanding the unwritten rules as to how things get done; there is often a disconnect between the corporate values and how employees live them. Roundtable participants agreed that one of the biggest challenges for boards in overseeing culture is visibility. The board should have visibility to the tone at the top, but the culture in the middle and bottom is key and difficult for boards to assess—i.e., visibility is a major hurdle.4

"Because directorship is a part-time job, it's hard to feel the culture on a daily basis," one commenter noted. "It's important that boards ask management to help the board understand the culture throughout the organization—the top, middle, and bottom."

"It's also important to look at different segments of the population—not just top to bottom," another attendee observed. "There may be pockets of discontent."

Directors discussed the importance of using a variety of methods to gain a better understanding of the corporate culture. Some common methods include:

  • Employee surveys
  • Visiting company facilities and talking to employees below senior management
  • Input from internal and external auditors
  • Whistleblower hotline reports
  • Customer complaints
  • Walking the halls of corporate headquarters
  • Monitoring social media
  • Reviewing a dashboard of leading and lagging indicators of culture and conduct.

"Use multiple ways to gauge culture, not just one. You need to look at all of these pieces," a director said.

Even in highly centralized organizations, data related to culture is often collected and tracked by a number of different functions, including legal, internal audit, finance, risk management, human resources, ethics and compliance, and customer service. Further complicating matters, in large, dispersed organizations, valuable information may exist at the local, divisional, or regional levels.5

Several participants said culture dashboards can be helpful for providing an integrated picture of the organization's culture. The NACD report contains a sample dashboard (see p. 6), which includes cultural indicators such as customer satisfaction data, human resources and employee data, ethics and compliance data, historical performance and geo-mapping. One director recommended that, if your company doesn't have a culture dashboard, ask that a team of executives from internal audit, compliance, and human resources assemble a dashboard. "Just as we saw with cybersecurity dashboards several years ago, we would expect culture dashboards to evolve over time to provide a better, and better integrated, view of the organization's culture."

One CEO noted that his board looks at a culture dashboard and a conduct dashboard quarterly. "The culture dashboard tracks what employees and customers tell us. The conduct dashboard looks at daily actions. How many complaints have we gotten? How many breaches of policy were there? What were the consequences?"

Participants also emphasized the importance of drilling down on red flags, such as outsized performance. "If you are doing better than all of your competitors, you should ask, ‘Why are we doing so well?'" Others warned to watch for unrealistic corporate stretch goals and behavior that goes unchallenged. "What are the consequences of failure? No harm, no foul is not acceptable."

"Don't let strong performance by the company or a top executive cloud the board's focus on culture. Good results generated by the wrong behaviors are not sustainable."

"Beware of the absence of complaints…noorganization is perfect, and the absence of problemsmay signal a culture of intimidation."

Assess where culture belongs on the board and committee agendas.

Where is culture on the board agenda? How is it discussed? As we heard during the roundtable discussions, some boards address culture as a stand-alone agenda item, while others say that they actively discuss and address values, behavior, and culture in a more integrated way, for example, as part of discussions about strategy, risk, customer and employee feedback, compensation policies, health and safety incident reports, customer service, dealings with suppliers and agents, etc. Participants identified several key areas of board focus, including:6

  • Is the culture really aligned with strategy? Does the culture encourage the values and behaviors that best deliver value creation over the short, medium, and long term? What role does culture play in the performance—or under performance—of the business?
  • Do the CEO and management view culture as a key enabler, the differentiator, and source of competitive advantage? Do they understand the importance of culture to the successful execution of strategy?
  • CEO and leadership succession and talent development are key ways in which the board helps shape culture.

Determining the most effective ways to discuss culture may be a "journey" for many boards—perhaps at the outset, including culture as a discrete agenda item and also integrating culture into discussions about strategy, risk, and performance. As the board’s discussions mature, perhaps there is no longer a need to discuss culture as a separate agenda.

"Our board has dedicated agenda sessions on culture quarterly where they review the culture dashboard and the conduct dashboard," noted one CEO. "When management leaves the room, the directors discuss whether we’re measuring it the right way. Then they give the CEO their view on how they think we are doing."

And in certain circumstances, such as a merger or acquisition, a culture failure, or where the company is undertaking a major strategic shift that requires a cultural change, culture may need to be discussed as a discrete agenda item.

jnet-2018-issue4-article3-Fig02

While ultimate responsibility for culture oversight lies with the full board, key committees also have important oversight responsibilities for certain aspects of culture. For example:7

Audit committee:

  • Results of internal and external audits
  • Ethics and compliance
  • Whistleblower hotline
  • ICOFR and controls around key operational and compliance risks
  • Tone at the top and culture in finance organization

Compensation committee:

  • Alignment of incentives with culture
  • Risks posed by incentives
  • CEO and senior management evaluations
  • Talent strategy

Nominating/governance committee:

  • Board governance policies
  • Succession planning for CEO, senior management, and board
  • Board composition, diversity, and independence
  • Board and individual director performance evaluations

Keeping culture front and center in the boardroom

Where is culture on the board and committee agendas? Is it a priority, with clear roles for the board and key committees?

Does the CEO set the tone needed to achieve the desired results?

Does the culture encourage the behaviors essential to the execution of the company's strategy?

Are we sensitive to critical alignments—purpose, values, strategy, culture, controls, and incentives?

Does management provide the board regular assessments of culture? Could internal audit add more value in its assessment of culture?

Does the board integrate culture into its ongoing discussions about strategy, risk, and performance, emphasizing the way performance is achieved?

Do directors review the culture of the board and its key committees on a regular basis?

How confident are you that the company's actual culture—including the "unwritten rules" for how things get done day-to-day—reflects its stated culture or corporate values?

jnet-2018-issue4-article3-Fig03

How satisfied are you that your board has a good understanding of whether the company's culture encourages behaviors essential to execution of its strategy?

jnet-2018-issue4-article3-Fig04

Based on responses from 560 KPMG Director Roundtable registrants

Some or all of the services described herein may not be permissible for KPMG audit clients and their affiliates or related entities.

Find more from Board Leadership Center on corporate culture and the board at kpmg.com/blc

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  1. George Anderson, Michael J. Anderson, and Jeremiah B. Lee, "What Do Boards Need to Know About Culture?" Spencer Stuart, February 2015.
  2. Michael J. Anderson, et al., "Leading With Culture," Spencer Stuart Point of View 2015.
  3. Financial Reporting Council, Corporate Culture and the Role of Boards: Report of Observations, July 2016.
  4. National Association of Corporate Directors, Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Culture as a Corporate Asset," 2017 and Anderson, et al., "Leading With Culture."
  5. NACD, BRC Report on Culture as a Corporate Asset.
  6. NACD, BRC Report on Culture as a Corporate Asset and Anderson, Anderson, and Lee, "What Do Boards Need to Know About Culture?"
  7. NACD, BRC Report on Culture as a Corporate Asset.

The information contained herein is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavor to provide accurate and timely information, there can be no guarantee that such information is accurate as of the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future. No one should act on such information without appropriate professional advice after a thorough examination of the particular situation.

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