I’ve always thought that corporate governance looks deceptively easy. While some are more hands-on than others, a bank’s board of directors does not (and should not) play a direct operating role. It is there to advise and oversee the company’s senior management team, but not run the company. I also believe that governance is critically important, and the board and its individual directors can have a material impact—either positively or negatively—on the fortunes of their companies. The attributes of an effective director are an interesting combination of knowledge, personality and social skills. Not everyone is good at it. Intelligence and experience are the minimum characteristics for any director, but they alone won’t guarantee success. While this is not an all-inclusive list, here are five attributes that I think define what it means to be an effective director.
Be independently minded. There are legal definitions that the major stock exchanges and regulators use when they refer to independence, mostly centering around conflicts of interest, but I’m referring to something different. Is a director willing to exercise their own judgment, with the courage to follow through on their convictions, even if that brings them into conflict with other board members? It can be uncomfortable to be the only director who objects to a particular course of action, or who raises a sensitive issue others are afraid to address. Effective directors are willing to engage in a level of constructive conflict when they believe there is an important principle at stake.
Actively engage in the business of the board. How thoroughly does a director prepare for every board or committee meeting? Do they ask questions? Do they participate in meetings or simply observe? Is their head in the game? Most of the really good directors I know find banking to be intellectually stimulating and believe banks are important. And they enjoy the opportunity to work with a group of smart and successful people who all want the same thing, which is to build a great bank.
Understand banks and banking. The mechanics of corporate governance are pretty straightforward, and a smart person can pick them up quickly enough. But banking is a complex business, in part because it is so heavily regulated, but also because the economics are different than most other industries. Most outside directors do not come from the banking industry, but to be effective and fulfill their fiduciary duties, a director must know enough about the business of banking to have a meaningful dialogue with management. This requires a commitment to learning and continuing education that lasts for as long as a director serves on the board. It’s also important that a director have an intimate understanding of their own bank, its strategies, its major risks and the things that drive its economic value.
Pay attention to the world around you. The business of banking is changing, and banks need to adapt. Much of this change is driven by the growth of a digital economy and evolving preferences in how consumers want to transact with their merchants and service providers, including their banks. Customer demographics is a factor in this shift. Most bank directors today are baby boomers, while the fastest growing customer segment is the millennial generation, and they want to bank differently. The digital economy isn’t the only external development that directors need to pay attention to. For example, the recent tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration on imported steel could have a negative impact on small and medium-sized manufacturers that rely on cheap steel from Mexico. How changes in the larger economy affect a bank’s corporate and business customers should always be a top concern for the board.
Know when it’s time to leave the board. Everyone has a freshness date that reflects their own unique combination of physical and mental capabilities, and life circumstances. While some boards have a mandatory retirement age policy, the argument against them is they can force a highly competent director to leave simply because they age out. Unfortunately, some directors remain on the board too long, just as some professional athletes play beyond their prime. If the board doesn’t have a mandatory retirement age, every director should have enough respect for the importance of corporate governance to acknowledge and step out gracefully if they feel they can no longer meet the demands of board service. Those who do will gain the lasting respect of their colleagues, because that’s a message no one else on the board wants to deliver—that it’s time to go.