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But will splitting the role of chairperson and CEO really make that much of a difference in corporate performance There have been a number of studies that question whether good governance is profitable A recently published work by Yale economist Paul W MacAvoy and corporate governance guru Ira M Millstein, however, makes a compelling argument that good corporate governance does in fact lead to better returns for shareholders Their study of corporate governance practices, compiled by the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and related Economic Value AddedTM 14 for public companies, found a causal link between good governance and shareholder return The authors most important recommendation culminating from their work is to separate the roles of chairperson and CEO and designate an independent director as chairperson15 Other countries are doing it, and it seems to be a profitable practice, so why have the boards of our public companies not embraced this governance initiative The most obvious reason is that imperial CEOs are loath to easily give up the power they have achieved, and boards are unwilling to upset a CEO they view as important to the company Some also argue that separating the roles will not ensure good operating performance Furthermore, some believe that any benefits to a company are short lived as a director s independence of mind degrades the longer they are in the role since they begin to identify themselves with some of the decisions made16 Regardless of the counterarguments, shareholder activists are not waiting for debate to settle the question As Michael Eisner found out the hard way, institutional shareholders are banding together to force change Years of underperformance, rich paychecks, and a reputation for forcing out talented managers who might one day take the company reigns moved some of Disney s largest shareholders to action CalPERS, the nations largest and, arguably, the most influential public pension fund refused to support Eisner s reelection; and many other public pension funds followed suit17 A remarkable 43 percent voted no confidence in Eisner Under shareholder pressure, he was forced to resign his role as chairperson in order to continue as the company s CEO He eventually decided to retire The year after Eisner resigned as chairperson and announced his pending retirement, 92 percent of shareholders voted to reelect the Disney board Robert A Iger, the only viable internal candidate who could succeed
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Eisner, received almost 95 percent approval However Disney is not the only company facing challenges from shareholder activists TIAACREF, another pension fund behemoth, has targeted 50 companies that they have identified as having independence issues Companies with strong share price appreciation may be able to keep activists at bay for a time, but any turn in fortune will leave a CEO vulnerable A smart management team will take steps to address this issue now on their own terms rather than waiting for the inevitable market downturn They will not wait for their largest shareholders to raise the issue; instead they will work with their board to adopt a roadmap or plan that takes concrete steps to aid board independence and create a succession plan that eventually leads to the creation of an independent chairperson The first action is to appoint an independent lead director to develop and run executive session meetings where management is not present The CEO may still be chairperson of the board, but the lead director will guide discussion of management performance, compensation and other sensitive issues with the other independent directors This intermediate step demonstrates the board s commitment to independence while buying some time to prepare a succession plan in a deliberate fashion Many companies appear to be adopting this approach as a first step Spencer Stuart reports that 84 percent of S&P 500 companies have appointed a lead or presiding director, up from just 36 percent last year18 The second necessary action to take is the preparation of succession plan for both the CEO and chairperson positions to be implemented on the retirement or unavailability of the current CEO The most difficult aspect of a succession plan is not preparing the plan itself, but identifying successor candidates The successor to the CEO should ideally be developed from the management ranks The importance of this concept was recently underscored by the untimely death of McDonald s Corporation s CEO followed by the resignation of his successor for health reasons Due to the foresight of former CEOs and directors, a succession plan was in place at the company that resulted in the transfer of power in a manner that assured the least possible impact on the company s strategy and operations Despite the turnover, the company was able to post a first quarter increase in earnings of 42 percent a year later Compare that to Disney, where very talented managers have left over the years leaving the board to
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