What are the fundamental principles of corporate governance?

Board diversity and appointments make good headlines - but the basic principles required for successful board-led leadership are even simpler. It's time we stated them again.

In my last New Statesman blog in July 2013 I talked about the responsibilities of companies operating today; what these might be and why we think they are important, as we continue to examine what went wrong and led us to the global financial crisis.

In the light of this, our focus on the role of corporate boards heightened. They are the people who set a company’s strategic aims and provide the leadership needed to put them into effect. This is nothing new: company boards have always had this task. The UK Corporate Governance Code, which guides many businesses, states that the board sets the values of the company, and this is very different from running the business day-to-day.

For example, there is much discussion of who should be on the board. The diversity debate comes to mind immediately, but that is only one aspect. It makes a good news item when a novel appointment has been made from outside the usual candidates.

But this is not just about diversity. At the same time, there is a lot of support for getting people with extensive experience and competence on board. This could be particularly meaningful in highly specialised industries. But it might risk board members getting too close to the operational management of the company.

What board members need to remind themselves is that they are collectively responsible for the long-term success of their company. This may sound obvious but it is not always recognised.

Why do I feel the need to say this? Perhaps because the idea might feel slightly awkward in light of current concerns about the harm that dominant individuals on boards or a "group-think" mentality can do to decision making. Indeed, the challenge is for a board member to be independent, bringing in a different viewpoint and wider experience, but at the same time working together to achieve the same objective.

In a way, this is asking board members to deliver multiples of responsibilities. But then again, how different is it from us accepting the need to balance different – sometimes conflicting – responsibilities in our daily life? A good mix of people who can constructively challenge each other in the board room can help businesses to make meaningful decisions in rapidly changing markets.

Our suggestion is to get back to the fundamental principles of good governance which board members should bear in mind in carrying out their responsibilities. If there are just a few, simple and short principles, board members can easily refer to them when making decisions without losing focus. Such a process should be open and dynamic.

In ICAEW’s recent paper What are the overarching principles of corporate governance? we proposed five such principles of corporate governance.

·       Leadership

An effective board should head each company. The Board should steer the company to meet its business purpose in both the short and long term.

·       Capability

The Board should have an appropriate mix of skills, experience and independence to enable its members to discharge their duties and responsibilities effectively.

·       Accountability

The Board should communicate to the company’s shareholders and other stakeholders, at regular intervals, a fair, balanced and understandable assessment of how the company is achieving its business purpose and meeting its other responsibilities.

·       Sustainability

The Board should guide the business to create value and allocate it fairly and sustainably to reinvestment and distributions to stakeholders, including shareholders, directors, employees and customers.

·       Integrity

The Board should lead the company to conduct its business in a fair and transparent manner that can withstand scrutiny by stakeholders.

We kept them short, with purpose, but we also kept them aspirational. None of them should be a surprise – they might be just like you have on your board. Well, why not share and exchange our ideas - the more we debate, the better we remember the principles which guide our own behaviour.

Back to basics: What are the fundamental principles of corporate governance? Photograph: Getty Images.

Jo Iwasaki is Head of Corporate Governance at ICAEW.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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