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Safety, Health, and Environment Committee, led by an independent, nonexecutive director, in addition to their audit, remuneration, and nominations committees10 These company/industry-specific committees can help a board provide important focus and supervision to critical operations not covered by the standard board committees
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THE IMPERIAL CEO 11
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The Sarbanes-Oxley Act addressed many of the perceived causes of corporate abuses exposed during 2001 and 2002 New implementing rules from the SEC and listing standards issued by the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ further strengthened corporate governance practices by improving the independence of public company boards Arguably the most comprehensive public company legislation since the 1930s, Congress nevertheless left undone one of the most contentious issues of our day: the problem of a single individual holding the conflicting roles of CEO and Chairperson of the Board of a public company or what many refer to as the imperial CEO This unfinished business was not due to a lack of visibility Academics, corporate governance experts, and shareholder activists have ensured that both Congress and corporate America are well aware of this conflict of interest However, it appears that these combined roles are so pervasive in the nation s public companies that many believe it would be too disruptive to summarily demand separation Yet shareholder activists are not waiting for corporate boards or Congress to begin reform They are taking the fight to the boardrooms of some of our largest corporations Smart executives, who currently hold both positions, will take the initiative to make certain that change will occur on their terms In his book Boards at Work: How Corporate Boards Create Competitive Advantage (1998), Ram Charan, a highly respected board consultant, argues against an independent chairperson or the creation of a lead director He suggested that separate positions dilute accountability, diffuse communications, and lead to personal rivalries12 Granted, these dynamics exist, however, they can also be driven by issues unrelated to the identification of a lead director The chairperson of the board sets the board agenda and administers its work-
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ings The CEO manages the company These roles are clear Both sit on the board, so there should not be a communication problem unless there are other underlying problems that could lead to personal rivalries In such circumstances, the board must identify the true genesis of the conflict and clear the way Others also make effective arguments against splitting the position of chairperson and CEO Some warn it could create gridlock if there is not a consensus between the CEO and chairman regarding how to move the company forward In my view, this is healthy conflict reflecting a possible weakness with the competitive strategy or other issue dividing the board Once again, the board must debate the issues, arrive at the appropriate conclusions, and enable action If personalities continue to get in the way after a course of action has been agreed, the board has the hard task of removing the obstacle Many also argue that the imperial CEO model, which is prevalent in the United States, has served this country well over time However, while we have done well, we can and will do better Best practice is to separate the chairperson and CEO positions The role of chairperson conflicts with that of CEO because the CEO often is, or should be, the subject of board discussions and will be directly affected by decisions on matters such as who joins the board, management team performance, and compensation An imperial CEO who has unfettered control of the board can discourage discourse and implement a range of policies that serve only management as opposed to the shared needs of management and shareholders This increased risk must be assessed by a director Today, approximately 74 percent of US public companies run under the imperial CEO model While not uniquely an American problem, of the major Western economies, only France combines the roles of chairperson and CEO more frequently The United Kingdom, along with the United States, is often cited as having some of the strongest corporate governance practices in the world Over 95 percent of the FTSE 350 companies split the duties of chairperson and CEO Germany and the Netherlands maintain a split board structure with a nonexecutive supervisory board exerting general oversight and governance rights and a management board consisting of company executives that provide operational supervision13 This structure, by definition, precludes the creation of the imperial CEO
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