The Business Roundtable long has been a leader in Corporate Governance thought leadership. They have written Principles of Corporate Governance going back to 2002. This is the third in a series of articles that summarizes their principles.
Boards of directors of large publicly owned corporations vary in size from industry to industry and from corporation to corporation. In determining board size, directors should consider the nature, size and complexity of the corporation as well as its stage of development. The experiences of many Business Roundtable members suggest that smaller boards often are more cohesive and work more effectively than larger boards. Directors should be elected by a majority vote.
In addition, boards should adopt a resignation policy that requires a director who does not receive a majority vote to tender his or her resignation to the board for its consideration. Although the ultimate decision whether to accept or reject the resignation will rest with the board, the board should think critically about the reasons why the director did not receive a majority vote and whether or not the director should continue to serve. Among other things, the board should consider whether the vote resulted from concerns about a policy issue affecting the board as a whole or concerns specific to the individual director. If the board decides not to accept a resignation, the corporation should disclose the reasons for this decision promptly.
In addition, when a director is elected but receives significant “withhold” or “against” votes, the board should consider the reasons for the vote. Having a variety of backgrounds and experience, consistent with the corporation’s needs, is important to the overall composition of the board. Because the corporation’s need for particular backgrounds and experience may change over time, the board should monitor the mix of skills and experience that directors bring to the board and assess whether the board, as a group, has the necessary tools to work together in a productive and collegial fashion and perform its oversight function effectively. The board should consider implementing a structured framework for this ongoing process, such as using a skills matrix detailing specific qualifications and identifying the skills that current directors, and director candidates, bring to the board.
Directors with relevant business and leadership experience are beneficial to the board as a whole and to the corporation. These directors can provide a useful perspective on business strategy and significant risks and an understanding of the challenges facing the business. Corporations should assist directors who do not have significant background in a corporation’s business or industry through orientation programs and otherwise. All directors should remain informed about issues and developments relevant to the corporation’s business and industry by reviewing pertinent information provided by management and the corporation, subscribing to industry journals, reviewing analyst and press reports, and participating in educational programs. As part of the ongoing assessment of board composition, the board should plan ahead for the nomination of new directors by engaging in succession planning. The board should conduct a forward-looking assessment to identify qualifications and attributes that the board may find valuable in the future based on the corporation’s strategic plans, anticipated director retirements and evolving best practices in the corporation’s industry. The board also should plan ahead for director departures, considering whether it is appropriate to establish or maintain procedures for the retirement or replacement of board members, such as a mandatory retirement age or term limits.
The board should assess whether other practices, such as the assessment of director candidates in connection with the renomination process, annual board evaluations and individual director evaluations, may make a retirement age or term limit unnecessary. Many boards also establish a requirement that directors who change their primary employment tender a board resignation, providing an opportunity for the board to consider the desirability of their continued service in light of their changed circumstances. Board independence is critical to effective corporate governance. Providing objective independent judgment is at the core of the board’s oversight function, and the board’s composition should reflect this principle. Accordingly, a substantial majority of the board’s directors should be independent, both in fact and appearance, as determined by the board.
Board independence depends not only on directors’ individual relationships and outlook but also on their ability to question management, exercise constructive skepticism and express their views even when those views may differ from those of management or other directors. The board should make an affirmative determination as to the independence of each director annually and should have a process in place for making these determinations.
» Definition of “independence.” An independent director should not have any relationships with the corporation or its management—whether business, employment, charitable or personal—that may impair, or appear to impair, the director’s ability to exercise independent judgment. The listing standards of the major securities markets define “independence” and enumerate specific relationships involving directors and their family members (such as employment with the corporation or its outside auditor) that preclude a director from being considered independent.
» Assessing independence. The board should consider all relevant facts and circumstances when assessing directors’ independence, taking into account the requirements of the federal securities laws, securities market listing standards, and the views of institutional investors and other relevant groups. When evaluating whether a director is independent, the board should consider whether the director has any relationships, either directly or indirectly, with the corporation, senior management or other board members that could affect the director’s actual or perceived independence. Corporations must disclose in their proxy statements relationships that the board considered in assessing independence in accordance with the requirements of the federal securities laws. Many boards have adopted standards to assist them in assessing independence. These standards should be included in a corporation’s corporate governance principles.
» Relationships with not-for-profit organizations. The board’s director independence assessment should include a review of relationships that directors, and their spouses, have with not-for-profit organizations that receive support from the corporation. In conducting this assessment, the board should take into account the size of the corporation’s contributions and the nature of the relevant director’s relationships to the recipient organizations. Independence issues are most likely to arise when a director, or the director’s spouse, is an employee of the not-for-profit organization and when a substantial portion of the organization’s funding comes from the corporation. It also may be appropriate to consider contributions from a corporation’s foundation to organizations with which a director or a director’s spouse is affiliated.
— Steve Odland