The role of the board is to direct, not to manage.
Balance of board membership and choice of individuals are key.
Chairmen are responsible for the effectiveness of their boards.
Nonexecutive directors have a particular contribution to make to the work of a board.
Board committees are important structurally and for the tasks they undertake.
Executive directors should be appointed solely for the value they can add to the board.
Board members have different roles; what matters is how they combine to form the board team.
The Role of the Board
The crispest definition of a board’s role is Sir John Harvey-Jones’s: “to create tomorrow’s company out of today’s.” Boards are in place to direct and control, not to manage. Boards have the task of defining the purpose of their enterprises and of agreeing the strategy for achieving that purpose. They are responsible for appointing chief executives to turn strategic plans into action, for supporting and counseling them in so doing, and if necessary for replacing them. Above all, boards are there to provide leadership, and it is in that context that the roles of board members need to be considered.
A single board at the head of a company is the commonest form of board structure. Unitary boards of this nature are made up of executive and nonexecutive or outside directors. Two-tier boards separate these two kinds of director, and their structure is covered briefly in the next section. Given that both executive and outside directors sit on unitary boards, the first issue is the balance between them. In the United States the chief executive is often the only executive on the board, and is usually its chairman as well. Fifteen years ago the ratio on UK boards was around two-thirds executive directors and one-third outside directors. This has now moved through parity to the position where outside directors are in the majority.
The Combined Code on Corporate Governance,1 in provision A.3.2, states: “Except for smaller companies, at least half the board, excluding the chairman, should comprise non-executive directors determined by the board to be independent. A smaller company should have at least two independent non-executive directors.” The issue of independence is dealt with under the heading of the Role of Non-Executive Directors.
In addition to the question of balance, there is the question of size. There is a clear move to smaller boards, both in Britain and the United States. Martin Lipton and Jay W. Lorsch, in their “Modest proposal for improved corporate governance” (Business Lawyer vol. 48, no. 1, Nov. 1992), recommend a maximum board size of ten and favor eight or nine. The argument for smaller boards is that they enable all the directors to get to know each other and to contribute effectively in board discussions, thus arriving at a true consensus. The crucial point is that boards are teams and provide collective leadership. So the balance of membership and choice of individuals are key to forming the team.
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