Do Independent Chairs Reduce CEO Pay?

In an advisory vote earlier this year, shareholders roundly rejected JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s executive compensation package, particularly a whopping  $52.6 million stock option award for CEO and Chair Jamie Dimon. But at the same time, shareholders voted against a proposal to split those roles.

The proxy advisory firms Glass Lewis and Institutional Shareholder Services favor separating the CEO and chair roles. “Executives should report to the board regarding their performance in achieving goals set by the board,” Glass Lewis explains in its 2022 voting guidelines. “This is needlessly complicated when a CEO chairs the board, since a CEO/chair presumably will have a significant influence over the board.”

An analysis of Bank Director’s Compensation Survey data, examining fiscal year 2019 through 2021, finds that CEOs earn less when their board has an independent chair. Most recently, the 2022 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Newcleus Compensation Advisors, found that banks with separate CEO and chair roles reported median total CEO compensation of $563,000, compared to $835,385 where the role was combined. 

The results are striking, but they should be taken with a grain of salt. The information collected from the survey, which is anonymous, doesn’t include factors like bank performance. Respondents skewed toward banks with an independent chair. And data alone can’t sufficiently describe what actually occurs in corporate boardrooms.

“I can’t really say which model works better. Look at Jamie Dimon; that’s worked really well for the shareholders of JPMorgan Chase, whereas I think there have been three or four initiatives to try to split that role,” says Jim McAlpin Jr., a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. McAlpin also serves on the board of Bank Director’s parent company, DirectorCorps. “It was voted down every time by the shareholders.”

CEOs typically negotiate when and whether they’ll eventually be named chair when they join a bank, says McAlpin. “If you have a very impactful, strong CEO who wants to be chair — most boards will not deny him or her that position, because they want [that person] running the bank.” It’s a small price to pay, he adds, for someone who has such a dramatic influence on the bank’s performance. “There is nothing more important to the bank than a CEO who has a clear vision, who can show leadership, form a good team and can execute well,” says McAlpin. 

But it’s important to remember that boards represent the interests of the shareholders. “The most important thing a board has to do is hire and retain a quality CEO. Part of retaining is getting the compensation right,” says McAlpin. “It’s important for the board to control that process.” 

McAlpin favors appointing a lead director when the CEO also has the chair position, to provide input on the agenda and contribute to the compensation process. 

Truist Financial Corp., in response to shareholder pressure around chair independence in 2020, “strengthened” its lead independent director position, according to its 2022 proxy statement. Former Piedmont Natural Gas Co. CEO Thomas Skains has served as lead independent director of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank since March 2022. Skains has the authority to convene and set the agenda for executive sessions and other meetings where the chair isn’t present; provide input on the agenda, and approve board materials and schedules; and serve as a liaison between the independent directors and CEO and Chair William Rogers Jr. 

But one individual can’t single-handedly strengthen the board, says Todd Leone, a partner and global head of executive compensation at McLagan. The compensation committee is responsible for the company’s pay programs, including executive compensation, peer benchmarking, reviewing and approving executive compensation levels, recommending director compensation, evaluating the CEO’s performance and determining the CEO’s compensation. With that in mind, Leone says the strength of the compensation committee — and the strength of its committee chair — will influence the independence of these decisions.

Leone also believes that increased diversity in the boardroom over the years has had a positive effect on these deliberations. “A diverse board, in my experience, they’re asking more questions,” he says. “And through that process of asking those questions, various things get unearthed, and the end result generally is stronger pay programs.”

Twelve years of Say-on-Pay — where public company shareholders offer an advisory vote on the top executives’ compensation — has also benefited those decisions, he says. Today, most long-term incentive plans are based on a selection of metrics, such as return on assets, income growth, asset quality and return on equity, according to Bank Director’s 2022 Compensation Survey. And in August, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission passed a pay versus performance disclosure rule that goes into effect for public companies in the fiscal year following Dec. 16, 2022.

“There’s a much higher bar for getting these plans approved,” says Leone, “because the compensation committees feel much more responsibility for their role in that process.”

In McAlpin’s experience, the best CEOs have confidence in their own performance and trust the process that occurs in the boardroom. “If they don’t like the results, they’ll give feedback, but they let the process unfold,” he says. “They don’t try to overtly influence the process.”

Heading into 2023, Leone notes the whipsaw effects that have occurred over the past few years, due to the pandemic, strong profitability in the banking sector and looming economic uncertainty. These events have had abnormal effects on compensation data and the lens through which boards may view performance. “We’re in a very volatile time, and we have been on pay since the pandemic,” says Leone. “Boards, [compensation] committees and executive management have to be aware of that.” 

Building a Better Nominating/Governance Committee

Boards could be missing out on valuable opportunities to better leverage their nominating/governance committees. 

There’s broad agreement on the responsibilities that many nominating/governance committees are tasked with, according to the directors and CEOs responding to Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP. Half of the survey participants serve on this committee. But the results also suggest there are areas that these committees may be overlooking. 

As chair of the governance committee at $2.8 billion First Fidelity Bancorp in Oklahoma City, Samuel Combs III views the committee’s overarching duty as being responsible for the board’s broader framework and committee infrastructure. He says, “We try to determine if we are balanced in what we’re covering and in our allocation of resources, board members’ time [and] assignments to certain committees.” 

First Fidelity’s governance committee typically meets three to four weeks ahead of the board meeting to develop the agenda, often working closely with the CEO to do so, Combs says. Devoting this advanced time to craft the agenda means that the board can devote sufficient time later to discussing important strategic issues. 

The survey’s respondents report that their boards’ nominating/governance committees are generally responsible for identifying and evaluating possible board candidates (92%), recommending directors for nomination (89%), and developing qualifications and criteria for board membership (81%). 

Far fewer respondents say their governance committee is responsible for making recommendations to improve the board (57%) or reviewing the CEO’s performance (40%). 

While the suggestion is unlikely to come from the chief executive, a bank’s CEO could benefit from regular reviews by the nominating/governance committee, says Jim McAlpin, a partner at Bryan Cave and leader of the firm’s banking practice group. Reviewing the CEO’s performance gives the board a chance to talk about what’s working and what could be improved, separate from compensation discussions. 

“The only review he or she [typically] gets is whether the compensation remains the same,” says McAlpin, who also serves as chair of the nominating/governance committee at a $300 million bank located in the Northeast. “Beyond compensation, there’s very rarely feedback to the CEO.” 

Almost half (47%) of the survey respondents say their board goes through regular evaluations. Among those, 60% say the nominating/governance committee chair or the committee as a whole leads that process. That tracks with the roughly half (53%) who name reviewing directors’ performance as a responsibility of the nominating/governance committee. 

First Fidelity’s board alternates board evaluations with peer evaluations every other year, but Combs stresses a holistic approach to those. “Not only do you evaluate, but you spend time reviewing it with the group,” he says. “And then with each independent board member, if necessary. And we usually give them the option of having that conversation with myself and the CEO, post-evaluation.” 

McAlpin suggests another exercise that nominating/governance committees could consider: Make it a regular practice — say every 2 or 3 years — to locate and review every committee’s charter. It can be useful to regularly review each committee’s scope of responsibilities and also provides an opportunity to update those responsibilities when needed. 

“Does it list all of the things the committee does or should be doing? And secondly, does it list things that the committee is not doing?” McAlpin says. “It’s a fairly basic thing, but important in corporate hygiene.”

Forty-five percent task the governance/nominating committee with determining whether the board should add new committees. In the case of First Fidelity, the governance committee discussed how to handle oversight of cybersecurity issues and whether it would benefit from a designated cybersecurity committee. The governance committee ultimately assigned that responsibility largely to its audit committee, with some support from its technology committee. 

Nominating/governance committees should also stay apprised of emerging issues and trends, like intensifying competition for talent and increased focus on environmental, social and governance issues. Those may ultimately help governance committees better assess the skills and expertise needed on the board, which about three-quarters of respondents identify as a key duty of the governance committee. 

“It’s good for nominating and governance committees to be forward thinking, to be thinking about the composition of the board, to be thinking about the skill sets of the board, the diversity of the board,” says McAlpin. 

Many boards may assign primary responsibility for talent-related issues to their compensation committee, but Combs argues that it should also concern the governance committee, especially in the tough, post-Covid recruiting landscape. “Talent acquisition, talent retention, talent management should have always been at this level, in my opinion,” Combs says. “These emerging trends should lead you to how you position yourself with your board talent, as well as your staffing talent.” 

The Promise and the Peril of Director Term Limits

Bank boards seeking to refresh their membership may be tempted to consider term limits, but the blunt approach carries several downsides that they will need to address.

Term limit policies are one way that boards can navigate crucial, but sensitive, topics like board refreshment. They place a ceiling on a director’s tenure to force regular vacancies. Bringing on new members is essential for banks that have a skills or experience gap at the board level, or for banks that need to transform strategy in the future with the help of different directors. However, it can be awkward to implement such a policy. There are other tools that boards can use to deliver feedback and ascertain a director’s interest in continued service.

The average age of financial sector independent directors in the S&P 500 index was 64.1 years, according to the 2021 U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index. The average tenure was 8.3 years. The longest tenured board in the financial sector was 16 years.

“I believe that any small bank under $1 billion in assets should adopt provisions to provide for term limits of perhaps 10 years for outside directors,” wrote one respondent in Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey.

The idea has some fans in the banking industry. The board of directors at New York-based, $121 billion Signature Bank, which is known for its innovative business lines, adopted limits in 2018. The policy limits non-employee directors to 12 years cumulatively. The change came after discussions over several meetings about the need for refreshment as the board revisited its policies, says Scott Shay, chairman of the board and cofounder of the bank. Some directors were hesitant about the change — and what it might mean for their time on the board.

“In all candor, people had mixed views on it. But we kept talking about it,” he says. “And as the world is evolving and changing, [the question was: ‘How do] we get new insights and fresh blood onto the board over some period?’”

Ultimately, he says the directors were able to prioritize the bank’s needs and agree to the policy change. Since adopting the term limits, the board added three new independent directors who are all younger than directors serving before the change, according to the bank’s 2022 proxy statement. Two are women and one is Asian. Their skills and experience include international business, corporate governance, government and business heads, among others.

And the policy seems to complement the bank’s other corporate governance policies and practices: a classified board, a rigorous onboarding procedure, annual director performance assessments and thoughtful recruitment. Altogether, these policies ensure board continuity, offer a way to assess individual and board performance and create a pool of qualified prospects to fill regular vacancies.

Signature’s classified board staggers director turnover. Additionally, the board a few years ago extended the expiring term of its then-lead independent director by one year; that move means only two directors leave the board whenever they hit their term limits.

Shay says he didn’t want a completely new board that needed a new education every few years. “We wanted to keep it to a maximum of a turnover of two at a time,” he says.

To support the regularly occurring vacancies, Signature’s recruitment approach begins with identifying a class of potential directors well in advance of turnover and slowly whittling down the candidates based on interest, commitment and individual interviews with the nominating and governance committee members. And as a new outside director prepares to join the board, Signature puts them through “an almost exhausting onboarding process” to introduce them to various aspects of the bank and its business — which starts a month before the director’s first meeting.

But term limits, along with policies like mandatory retirement ages, can be a blunt corporate governance tool to manage refreshment. There are a number of other tools that boards could use to govern, improve and refresh their membership.

“I personally think term limits have no value at all,” says James J. McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

He says that term limits may prematurely remove a productive director because they’re long tenured, and potentially replace them with someone who may be less engaged and constructive. He also dislikes when boards make exceptions for directors whose terms are expiring.

In lieu of term limits, he argues that banks should opt for board and peer evaluations that allow directors to reflect on their engagement and capacity to serve on the board. Regular evaluation can also help the nominating and governance committee create succession plans for committee chairs who are near the end of their board service.

Perhaps one reason why community banks are interested in term limits is because so few conduct assessments. Only 30% of respondents to Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, which published May 16, said they didn’t conduct performance assessments at any interval — many of those responses were at banks with less than $1 billion in assets. And 51% of respondents don’t perform peer evaluations and haven’t considered that exercise.

For McAlpin, a board that regularly evaluates itself — staffed by directors who are honest about their service capacity and the needs of the bank — doesn’t need bright-line rules around tenure to manage refreshment.

“It’s hard to articulate a reason why you need term limits in this day and age,” he says, “as opposed to just self-policing self-governance by the board.”

2022 Governance Best Practices Survey: Culture & Composition

Even the strongest corporate boards benefit from a regular infusion of fresh ideas.

Culture, composition and governance practices — all of these are critical elements for boards to fulfill their oversight role, support management, and maintain the bank’s vision, mission and values. The results of the 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, suggest that while most directors and CEOs believe their board’s culture is generally solid, they also see room for improvement in certain areas.

Specifically, the majority (54%) say their boardroom culture would benefit from adding new directors who could broaden the board’s perspective. In comments, some expressed a desire to get more tech expertise, greater diversity and younger directors into the boardroom. Others cited a need to retire ineffective directors or cut out micromanagement.

Bringing new perspectives, skills and backgrounds to the table can help boards tackle a host of rapidly evolving challenges, from cybersecurity to environmental or social risks.

Culture can be hard to define, and the survey finds varying opinions about the attributes of a strong board culture. Forty-five percent point to alignment around common goals and 42% value engagement with management on the performance of the bank. Just 30% favor an independent mindset as an important attribute of board culture, something that can be derived through cultivating diverse perspectives in the boardroom.

A majority believe gender, racial and ethnic diversity can improve the board’s performance, similar to previous surveys. Yet, 58% claim it’s difficult to attract suitable board candidates representing diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

That’s not necessarily for lack of trying, however. When asked to explain why they find it hard to attract diverse board candidates, many respondents state that they have a limited pool of candidates in their markets or personal networks. But that’s changing as the U.S. population grows more diverse.

“We have a very non-diverse community, although it is changing,” writes one respondent. “I believe the difficulty will lessen with time.”

Key Findings

ESG Oversight
A vast majority – 82% – believe that measuring and understanding where banks stand on environmental, social and governance issues is important for at least some financial institutions, but there’s little uniformity when it comes to how boards address ESG. Nearly half – 45% – say their board does not discuss or oversee ESG at all. Forty-four percent say their board and management team has developed or has been working to develop an ESG strategy for their bank.

Training Mandates Vary
Forty-nine percent indicate that all directors must meet a minimum training requirement; 36% say training is encouraged but not required of members. Just over half of respondents say their board has an effective onboarding process in place for new directors. However, 27% say their board lacks an onboarding process and 13% say their current onboarding process is ineffective.

Knowledge Gaps
Respondents identify cybersecurity, digital banking and commerce, and technology as the top areas where their boards need more knowledge and training. Forty-three percent also believe they could use more education about ESG issues.

Board Evaluations
Almost half, or 47%, of respondents conduct board evaluations annually; another 23% assess their board’s performance, but not on a yearly basis. Of those that performed assessments, 58% say they then created an action plan to address gaps identified in those evaluations.

Assessing Peer Performance
Few boards take advantage of peer-to-peer evaluations, with 51% revealing that their board does not use this tool, nor have they discussed it. Of the 29% of respondents whose bank has conducted a peer evaluation, 83% use the exercise to inform conversations with individual directors about their performance.

Committee Structure
An overwhelming majority of respondents say their board had enough directors to staff all its committees, but 16% say that would no longer be the case if they added more committees. Nearly all respondents say their committees are provided adequate resources to carry out their jobs. The survey reveals continued variation in risk governance practices, with 54% managing audit and risk oversight within separate committees. In boardrooms where there isn’t a technology committee, half believe their organization would benefit from one.

To view the high-level findings, click here.

Bank Services members can access a deeper exploration of the survey results. Members can click here to view the complete results, broken out by asset category and other relevant attributes. If you want to find out how your bank can gain access to this exclusive report, contact bankservices@bankdirector.com.

2022 Governance Best Practices Survey: Complete Results

Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, surveyed 234 independent directors, chairs and chief executives of U.S. banks below $100 billion in assets, with the majority of respondents representing regional and community banks. Members of the Bank Services program now have exclusive access to the full results of the survey, including breakouts by asset category.

The survey regularly explores the fundamentals of board performance, and this year examines board culture, committee structure, and how ESG is governed in the boardroom, along with practices such as evaluations and training that help boards improve their performance. The survey was conducted in February and March 2022.

Click here to view the complete results.

Key Findings

ESG Oversight
A vast majority – 82% – believe that measuring and understanding where banks stand on environmental, social and governance issues is important for at least some financial institutions, but there’s little uniformity when it comes to how boards address ESG. Nearly half – 45% – say their board does not discuss or oversee ESG at all. Forty-three percent say their board and management team has been working to develop an ESG strategy and defined goals for their bank.

Training Mandates Vary
Forty-nine percent indicate that all directors must meet a minimum training requirement; 36% say training is encouraged but not required of members. Just over half of respondents say their board has an effective onboarding process in place for new directors. However, 27% say their board lacks an onboarding process and 13% say their current onboarding process is ineffective.

Knowledge Gaps
Respondents identify cybersecurity, digital banking and commerce, and technology as the top areas where their boards need more knowledge and training. Forty-three percent also believe they could use more education about ESG issues.

Board Evaluations
Almost half, or 47%, of respondents conduct board evaluations annually; another 23% assess their board’s performance, but not on a yearly basis. Of those that performed assessments, 58% say they then created an action plan to address gaps identified in those evaluations.

Assessing Peer Performance
Few boards take advantage of peer-to-peer evaluations, with 51% revealing that their board does not use this tool, nor have they discussed it. Of the 29% of respondents whose bank has conducted a peer evaluation, 83% use the exercise to inform conversations with individual directors about their performance.

Committee Structure
An overwhelming majority of respondents said their board had enough directors to staff all its committees, but 16% say that would no longer be the case if they added more committees. Nearly all respondents said their committees are provided adequate resources to carry out their jobs. The survey reveals continued variation in risk governance practices, with 54% managing audit and risk oversight within separate committees. In boardrooms where there isn’t a technology committee, half believe their organization would benefit from one.

Aligning Strategy and the Board

The board plays an important role in guiding the bank’s strategy and supporting the strategic plan. That requires a varied mix of skills, backgrounds and expertise in the boardroom. In this video, Scott Petty of Chartwell Partners shares the gaps that some boards may need to fill, and provides tips on how to expand your board’s network to attract candidates.

  • Three Questions to Consider
  • Attributes Every Board Needs
  • Building Diversity in the Boardroom
  • Expanding Your Network

Rethinking the Conversation About Diversity and Inclusion

While financial institutions adjust to the new and challenging operating environment, they are also grappling with potentially fraught social issues, including how to increase and incorporate diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts.

To learn how one of the industry’s most diverse leadership teams thinks about D&I ahead of Bank Director’s 2021 Bank Compensation & Talent Conference in Dallas, Texas, I spoke with Greg Cunningham, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at U.S. Bancorp. Cunningham shared how the bank, which has $567.5 billion in assets, practices authentic D&I inside the bank and how other banks can think about their own efforts in the context of broader social trends. The transcript that follows has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: How does U.S. Bancorp practice diversity and inclusion?
GC: We’re headquartered in Minneapolis. George Floyd was murdered less than three miles from where our offices are. In February [2021], we decided to change the systems inside our organization. It was important for us to come to terms with how complicit the financial services industry has been in creating many of the disparities that we’re all concerned about and trying to solve for. Step one for us was acknowledging the role our industry played. Step two was saying, “What’s our role individually and how can we incorporate our core competencies?”

Our focus is squarely on “How do we stand up, across the entire bank, to help close the racial wealth gap?” White households have eight times the wealth that Black households have in this country. That’s not a Black problem, that’s an American problem. It’s a drag on the entire U.S. economy and it impacts every single American household in terms of household income.

[Another area of focus] is on our employees. We have the Rooney Rule in our organization: For every open position in our company, we have at least one woman and/or personal color candidate interview. We have scorecards for our managing committee members that we share with the board on a quarterly basis. We tie performance conversations to their diversity, equity and inclusion performance, just as we can do with financial performance. Accountability is everything. Without accountability, you won’t move the organization at all.

BD: Have these efforts been successful? And what does the bank have left to do?
GC: I think every organization struggles with what we call the broken rung: As you move up in an organization, the representation of women and people of color falls off. The broken rung at the executive level, moving into senior executive level, has been our focus.

We have to continue to do better. But the important point here is: This work is not about fixing women and people of color. They’re not broken. Too many times, diversity efforts focus on training women and people of color. No. We have to train managers to be more and better inclusive leaders. Leading inclusively is on everybody’s performance review. It’s part of the leadership expectation; if you don’t do this well, then you won’t continue to rise in the organization, because it’s on your performance review.

BD: How does US Bancorp keep its D&I efforts authentic and try to avoid tokenisms for your employees with diverse identities?
GC: I think the conversation in the future will be less about inclusion; the real aspiration is belonging. Belonging is ensuring that everybody has a place in the environment and that the culture supports everybody’s opportunity to be successful. Belonging is the notion that we co-create the environment together, that our voices are equal and that we’re creating the condition where everybody feels a sense of psychological safety, where they can speak up and can challenge the status quo.

BD: Banks may struggle to envision how they can increase diversity and inclusion if they haven’t started, or if they have started but don’t have someone in a role like yours. What advice would you share to others as they start or continue to evolve?
GC: My advice would be number one, understand your “why.” What is your real commitment to it? If you’re only doing it to check a box, to meet some sort of compliance standard, then I think you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. You have to understand your why before you go down this path, because once you define your why, it will also help you understand this work.

You have to understand this takes long term commitment. The headlines come and go; you still have to do this work. You’ve got to have some stamina and real commitment and be willing to take an honest reflection of where you are in order to improve.

What Directors Think About Diversity, Independence and Credible Challenge

Building a diverse board —as defined by gender, race and ethnicity — is a controversial issue in many corporate boardrooms today, banks included. An increasing number of large institutional investors and stock exchanges like the Nasdaq Stock Market are pushing for it, and a small but growing number of states either mandate it or are instituting disclosure requirements.

But not everyone is convinced that greater diversity inherently leads to better governance, as illustrated by results of Bank Director’s 2021 Governance Best Practices Survey. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents agreed that diversity as defined by race, gender and ethnicity improves the performance of a corporate board. However, 36% agreed with statement but said the impact was overrated, and 5% disagreed that greater diversity improves performance.

James J. McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP and leader of the firm’s banking practice group, is a strong proponent of board room diversity. “I have experienced the power of diversity on a bank board of which I am a member,” he says. “We have gone from a board of eight men and one woman three years ago to now a majority female board. There is a difference resulting from that positive transformation. Our board is probably more risk averse that it used to be. We seem to be better prepared as a group for meetings. And as a group we ask more probing questions.”

Sponsored by Bryan Cave, the survey polled 217 directors and chief executives at banks under $50 billion in assets in February and March of 2021. The majority of the respondents were independent board members. Almost half of the participants represented banks with $1 billion to $10 billion in assets.

Diversity is just one of many issues covered in this year’s survey. The list includes the practice of credible challenge, the desire for collegiality versus the freedom to disagree, board assessments, the board’s role in strategic planning and CEO performance evaluations. The survey results have been divided into five modules: board practices, the board/management relationship, strategic planning, board refreshment and diversity, and the role of the independent director.

The white paper also includes the insights of two experienced directors who helped us interpret the results: David. L. Porteous, the lead director at Huntington Bancshares, a $175 billion asset bank headquartered in Columbus, Ohio; and C. Dallas Kayser, the independent chair at City Holding Co., a $5.9 billion bank located in Charleston, West Virginia.

Ninety-nine percent of the survey respondents said that personal integrity was the most important attribute of an independent director, followed by the ability to exercise sound judgment at 96% and accountability at 94%.

“Regardless the size of the bank, the role of the independent director is pretty much the same,” says Porteous, who has served on the Huntington board since 2003, and as lead director since 2007. “There has to be a level of commitment, and that commitment has to be to your fellow directors. It has to be to the leadership of the organization, it has to be to the shareholders, to the community and to the regulators. If there comes a time when you just can’t dedicate that level of commitment, you should probably step down.”

To read more about these critical board issues, read the white paper.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

The Secrets Behind Diverse Boards

Four women currently serve on the board at Eagle Bancorp Montana, the $1.3 billion asset holding company for Opportunity Bank of Montana. That’s by design, says Chairman Rick Hays.

“[We] decided that we needed to have a larger board,” Hays says, after a 2012 branch acquisition doubled its footprint in Montana and prompted a later increase from seven to nine members. The Helena, Montana-based commercial bank wanted to add directors representing its expanded geography, along with younger board members and women. Maureen Rude, who joined the board in 2010, was the sole female director at that time.

“We had all the board members, all the executive officers, the local market presidents in those communities, all looking for people with the characteristics we were looking for,” says Hays. Expanding its networks worked: Two women joined in 2015, and the fourth, public accountant Cynthia Utterback, in 2019. During that time, the bank also replaced a male director with another man with a technology background.

“We’re looking for the best possible candidates,” Hays says. “If you decide what you want and commit to getting it, you can get it done.” Adding new perspectives and backgrounds benefits the board and the bank, he adds. “I firmly believe that diversity is about the best possible business decision we can make; I’ve experienced it over and over in a variety of organizations.”

Almost 60% of the directors  and CEOs responding to Bank Director’s 2021 Governance Best Practices Survey believe that diversity in the boardroom improves corporate performance. However, fewer than half — 39% — have three or more board members who they’d consider to be diverse, based on gender, race or ethnicity.

The benefits of diversity in the boardroom are frequently touted by corporate governance experts, and many of the survey participants shared their experience. Here are a few of the comments we received:

“[D]iversity has helped shape everything from policies to product positioning.” — Lead director of a public bank between $1 billion and $10 billion in assets

“We have diversity in age, gender, geography, ethnicity and career experience. Creates more robust questioning when discussing products, trends, issues to ensure full vetting, understanding and ramifications of decisions.” — Independent director, public bank above $10 billion in assets

“[Due to diversity] [w]e have re-visited agendas, meeting logistics, and historical approaches to initiatives with a fresh lens.” — Independent chair at a private bank between $1 billion to $10 billion in assets

Sixty-five percent of respondents want to add more directors with diverse backgrounds, but almost as many (61%) believe it’s difficult to identify and recruit them to serve on the board. These candidates may be in high demand, but the survey finds that respondents representing more diverse boards report that it’s easier to recruit diverse candidates with the skills and expertise their organization needs.

 

As Rick Hays at Eagle Bancorp Montana illustrates, diverse boards broaden their networks to recruit diverse, qualified candidates. But an analysis of the habits of diverse boards yields further clues about their practices. They tend to have mechanisms in place to create space on the board, and to identify the skills and attributes they’re seeking.

Board evaluations can be valuable tools to evaluate governance practices and identify disengaged members. The survey finds that diverse boards more frequently use and also make deeper use of performance assessments, from assessing the effectiveness of the entire board, to identifying underperforming directors and conducting one-on-one conversations with directors.

Bank Director offers a board evaluation and peer assessment through its membership program. Mascoma Bank, a Lebanon, New Hampshire-based mutual, uses this evaluation annually. Clay Adams, the $2.4 billion bank’s CEO, says the tool provides a framework for the board to assess its practices, such as ensuring that the board is receiving an appropriate level of detail about the bank’s operations.

“We’re always thinking about how to do things better,” says Adams. “We use the board effectiveness survey to make sure that we’re on the right path.”

Peer evaluations are less commonly used by bank boards — 24% say their board uses one. Respondents representing boards with three or more diverse members (36%) are more likely to use this tool.

Mascoma’s board conducts a peer assessment every other year, under the purview of the governance committee. Adams has served on other boards that used similar assessments, which he believes provide tremendous value in driving conversations with underperforming directors. “Diverse board member or not,” he adds, “if a person is not fulfilling the duties — duty of trust, duty of care, duty of loyalty — then they shouldn’t be on the board.”

Bank Director included Mascoma Bank in its analysis of the Top 25 Bank Boards for Women earlier this year; the mutual has since added two more women to its board, so its composition is now evenly split between men and women. Adams emphasizes the importance of intention in building a diverse, skilled board. “We’re constantly talking about it [and encouraging] board members to think about people they come across in their lives or reaching out to communities where we may not — as a board, as individuals — interact,” he says.

Adams hopes to further diversify the boardroom. “We’d like to have a [person of color] on our board,” he says. “We live in a predominantly white region, northern New England. Therefore, we need to work a little harder to network with people who are members of that community.”

Mascoma also incorporates term limits for directors — 15 consecutive years — and a mandatory retirement age, at 72, as mechanisms to regularly open seats on the board. These policies were last examined by Bank Director in 2020; our survey found that boards with “several” diverse directors were slightly more likely to use a mandatory retirement age or term limits.

Getting the right mix of skill sets, backgrounds and experiences results from a gradual, deliberate process, says Hays. “When we’ve filled any of our board slots, we’ve probably had discussions for a year and a half to two years to get there,” he says, due to the value Hays and the board place on its composition. “It takes time to find the people we were so fortunate to find [and] bring onto the board. We could not have done it any sooner.”

ESG Principles at Work in Diversifying Governance

Before environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters became commercially and culturally significant, the lack of diversity and inclusion within governance structures was noted by stakeholders but not scrutinized.

The shifting tides now means that organizations lacking diversity in their corporate leadership could be potentially subjected to shareholder lawsuits, increased regulation and directives by state laws, investment bank requirements, and potential industry edicts.

Board and management diversity is undoubtedly a high-priority issue in the banking and financial services sectors. Numerous reports establish minority groups have historically been denied access to capital, which is mirrored by the lack of minority representation on the boards of financial institutions.

Some progress has been made. For example, for the first time in its 107-year history, white men held fewer than half of the board seats at the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional outposts. This was part of an intentional effort, as Fed leaders believe a more representative body of leaders will better understand economic conditions and make better policy decisions. However, further analysis reflects such diversity predominantly among the two-thirds of directors who are not bankers, while the experienced banking directors are mainly white males.

Board Diversity Lawsuits
The current pending shareholder suits have been primarily filed by the same group of firms and targeted many companies listed by a recent Newsweek article as not having a Black director. None of these suits involve financial institutions, but it is not hard to foresee such cases coming in the future. The lawsuits generally assert that the defendants breached their fiduciary duties and made false or misleading public statements regarding a company’s commitment to diversity. The Courts have summarily dismissed at least two suits, but a legal victory may not even be the goal in some cases.

Recently, Google’s parent settled its #MeToo derivative litigation and agreed to create a $310 million diversity, equity, and inclusion fund to support global diversity and inclusion initiatives within Google over the next ten years. The fund will also support various ESG programs outside Google focused on the digital and technology industries.

Regulatory, Industry, and Shareholder Efforts
Federal and state regulatory efforts preceded these recent lawsuits. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has issued compliance interpretations advising companies on the disclosure of diversity characteristics upon which they rely when nominating board members and is expected to push more disclosure in the future. Additionally, the U.S. House of Representatives considered a bill in November 2019 requiring issuers of securities to disclose the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of their boards of directors and executive officers and any plans to promote such diversity.

These efforts will likely filter into boardrooms and may spur additional board regulation at the state level. In 2019, California became the first state to require headquartered public companies to have a minimum number of female directors or face sanctions, increasing 2021. In June 2020, New York began requiring companies to report how many of their directors are women. As other states follow California’s lead regarding board composition, we can expect more claims to be filed across the country.

At the industry level, the Nasdaq stock exchange filed a proposal with the SEC to adopt regulations that would require most listed companies to elect at least one woman director and one director from an underrepresented minority or who identify as LGBTQ+. If adopted, the tiered requirements would force non-compliant companies to disclose such failures in the company’s annual meeting proxy statement or on its website.

In the private sector, institutional investors, such as BlackRock and Vanguard Group, have encouraged companies to pursue ESG goals and disclose their boards’ racial diversity, using proxy votes to advance such efforts. Separately, Institutional Shareholder Services and some non-profit organizations have either encouraged companies to disclose their diversity efforts or signed challenges and pledges to increase the diversity on their boards. Goldman Sachs Group has made clear it will only assist companies to go public if they have at least one diverse board member.

Concrete Plans Can Decrease Director Risk
Successful institutions know their diversity commitment cannot be rhetorical and is measured by the number of their diverse board and management leaders. As pending lawsuits and legislation leverage diversity statements to form the basis of liability or regulatory culpability, financial institutions should ensure that their actions fully support their diversity proclamations. Among other things, boards should:

  • Take the lead from public and private efforts and review and, if necessary, reform board composition to open or create seats for diverse directors.
  • When recruiting new board members, identify and prioritize salient diversity characteristics; if necessary, utilize a diversity-focused search consultant to ensure a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Develop a quantifiable plan for diversity issues by reviewing and augmenting governance guidelines, board committee efforts, and executive compensation criteria.
  • Create and promote diversity and inclusion goals and incorporate training at the board and management levels.
  • Require quarterly board reporting on diversity and inclusion programs to reveal trends and progress towards stated goals.

As companies express their commitment to the board and C-level diversity and other ESG efforts, they should create and follow concrete plans with defined goals and meticulously measure their progress.