Rethinking governance: what should companies be responsible for?

It is time that we looked at the basic question of what should companies be responsible for, writes Jo Iwasaki.

The global financial crisis impacted not just on the economy, it intensified the challenges on corporate culture more broadly. Remuneration, short-termism, engagement with shareholders and, alongside these the business agenda and cultural issues such as diversity now form the core of the corporate governance debate.

All these issues highlight how companies are run. One might say that these issues have always existed. However, we have taken advantage of the current interest and explored whether the existing models of running companies need a major rethink.

Corporate governance looks at much more than board procedures and regulatory compliance. As recent business issues and controversies have demonstrated, shareholders, government, and the broader public are all interested in how companies respond to the changing business and social environment. The nature of the capital markets has changed so much it has influenced our thinking around the relationships between companies, boards and shareholders.

It is time that we looked at the basic question of what should companies be responsible for. Responsibilities need not be seen as onerous they prompt us to be alert to diverse interests that surround and affect businesses today. With a keener awareness of their surroundings and the willingness to respond, companies can be better prepared to identify where new opportunities are.

In recent ICAEW paper 'What are companies responsible for' we discuss four key responsibilities of companies. They are not a definitive or exclusive list, but we have dared to present them as a basis to prompt debate.

Achieving a business purpose

A company needs to have a business purpose that is easy to understand. As well as shareholders, everyone involved in a company, including employees, customers, suppliers and lenders, expect companies to generate continuing profits. However, maximising profit is not the only business purpose of a company.

A business should not be so focused on a specific purpose that it ignores changes in its environment. Innovation and adaptability are essential for a business to be viable over a corporate life.

Behaving in a socially acceptable way

Without being written down, social norms are there to set boundaries for what is acceptable as business culture and behaviour, in the societies where the company operates. Companies may need to, in some cases, actively go the extra mile to identify what is socially acceptable. This would certainly cost time and resources.

Companies also need to recognise that different communities (e.g. the financial services sector, or a particular industry) develop their own norms and these may be very different from those prevalent in a wider society.  This gap may suddenly become apparent when their values are subject to external scrutiny.

Meeting legal and regulatory requirements

Legal and regulatory requirements relate to issues such as employment, health and safety, anti-corruption and taxation for example and private contractual, legal and financial obligations such as company pensions and debt covenants.

Being based on law, these are mostly public, and understood by most people. Breaches of these requirements may lead not only to formal sanctions and litigation but more importantly, reputational damage.

Stating how their responsibilities are met

Companies are expected to acknowledge their responsibilities, provide information on how they meet them and be accountable. This is about acknowledging those responsibilities publicly, reporting on how they are discharged, and being answerable for consequences. It helps companies construct a robust foundation for building and maintaining trust.

If companies are fully aware of the range of their responsibilities and attempt to meet them, legislators and regulators can focus on developing codes and practices that are proportionate. This is a big 'if' and to imagine such change to happen instantly is naïve. However, without a change in how we think, the effectiveness of laws and regulations would be limited. Only when companies embrace the principles which are underlying laws and regulations, will we see corporate behaviour change. And an end to the rather cynical box-ticking culture at present.

Jo Iwasaki is Head of Corporate Governance at ICAEW 

A statue of a dragon marks the boundary of the City of London. Photograph: Getty Images

Jo Iwasaki is Head of Corporate Governance at ICAEW.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era