Clearhouse
Seven Critical Elements of a Board Refreshment Plan
Publication Date: April 3, 2017

We asked Betsy Atkins, veteran of 23 boards and 13 IPOs, to share her perspective on the art and science of board refreshment. In addition to her board service, Ms. Atkins is also well known for making very early stage investments in Yahoo and eBay through her venture capital firm Baja Corp. Following is her sage advice on structuring an effective board refreshment cycle.

1) View the corporate board as a strategic asset, not just a fiduciary.

The first step to an effective board refreshment plan is understanding why refreshment is so important. Historically, the function of boards was to act as a financial fiduciary and steward for shareholders. However, for the past decade or so, the role of boards has been evolving as boards are being held for “futureproofing” against threats, and ensuring the competitive relevance of the company.

Just as a company’s leadership team is forward-hired based on long-term strategy, the board is now equivalently an asset to be reviewed for critical expertise and experience, and refreshed as needed. Unfortunately, it’s still not common for a board to have a holistic view of board composition as a strategic asset, and many corporate boards still view themselves as fiduciaries.

2) Take a proactive versus reactive approach.

It’s never been more important to address the topic of refreshment internally- if the board doesn’t proactively think about it, somebody outside the organization is going to raise it. Index funds that were traditionally passive are now beginning to push for diversity, governance refreshment and renewal, and are raising questions on term limits and age limits.

A board should have an annual governance committee calendar with explicit agenda items, just as it does for compensation committees and audit committees. A typical governance committee refreshment calendar might run as follows:
  • Q1: Review board composition, long-term succession planning and rotation schedules.

  • Q2: Map board skill sets to the corporation’s long-term strategic plan.

  • Q3: Review the board skills matrix to identify gaps.

  • Q4: Outline a plan for executing graceful rotations and engaging search firms to assist in filling gaps.
A standardized annual process for board refreshment establishes expectations on term limits from the beginning, ensures recruitment of new members is not a shotgun affair, and takes the personal element out of rotating members off the board. Board refreshment becomes a pure, professional process for identifying and filling needed skill sets.

3) Annually map board skill sets against the company’s long-term strategic plan.

In the absence of a detailed vision of board composition, it’s human nature to place a premium on good working relationships. Therefore, it’s very important when taking a strategic approach to board refreshment to identify whether the board’s skill sets align with the company’s long-term strategic needs.

A board needs to look closely at its company’s long-term strategy, map that against the skills around the table, identify potential gaps, and create a matrix. The skills matrix is not a one-and-done task-it’s a living document, updated every year against the company’s strategy. For example, the board of a bricks-and-mortar retailer planning to establish an ecommerce channel might determine it needs a board member with ecommerce, web advertising and data analytics expertise.

4) Do not let search firms drive the recruitment process.

Too often a board’s decision to replace a member is triggered by a retirement, an activist, or an institutional shareholder. The result of a passive refreshment process is that search firms wind up driving recruitment by default. A far better practice is for the governance committee to lead the board through it as part of the natural refreshment cycle. That way, the board gets the critical skills it needs and new members understand from the beginning that it’s not a lifetime appointment.

When refreshment is driven by a standardized process based on maintaining competitive skill sets, the board isn’t caught back on its heels if a board member is suddenly incapacitated or an activist rattles the doors. It’s also easier to tell a colleague that it’s time to surrender their board seat to somebody who has more critically relevant experience.

5) Set guidelines for retirement or term limits.

Retirement ages are extending, because people are staying active longer and working longer. Age limit guidelines are an effective way to trigger graceful rotations and maintain director independence. The term is guideline—not mandate—because it’s important to retain the ability to waive the age limit as part of governance. For example, at Berkshire Hathaway they’ll likely waive any age limit as long as Warren Buffet is sharp.

Europe is leading the way in board term limits; some European countries have already mandated 10-year terms. Institutional shareholders in the U.S. are taking note and beginning to discuss term limits as a method to maintaining director independence. Term limits also keep a board’s skill set fresh—but again, the governance committee has to retain the ability, by exception, to waive it. Microsoft isn’t going to ask Bill Gates to step down anytime soon.

6) Don’t get too comfortable with board colleagues.

It’s only human that people who serve together on a board will over time become friends, just as coworkers often do. So it becomes awkward to tell a long-time board colleague that they aren’t the right person going forward. To make it more difficult, boards lack the hierarchy of a private corporation. Instead they are led by a group of peers, with a lead director or a chairman who should together with the governance/nominating chair own the board makeup and refreshment topic.

Executing a proactive approach to refreshment eliminates the awkwardness of asking long-time colleagues to leave a board, because transitioning board members off becomes part of a natural, smooth cycle. The expectation is set from the beginning that board appointments are not for life.

7) Measure boardroom diversity using a holistic set of benchmarks.

Diversity shouldn’t be measured strictly by gender. What boardrooms need is diversity of perspective: gender diversity, ethnic diversity, international diversity, entrepreneurial diversity, and don’t forget technical diversity as technology is the biggest disrupter of virtually every business.

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Betsy Atkins serves as President and Chief Executive Officer at Baja Corp, a venture capital firm. She is currently Lead Director and Governance Chair at HD Supply. She is also on the board of directors of Schneider Electric, Cognizant and Volvo Car Corporation. She also served on the board of directors at Nasdaq LLC and as Clear Standards CEO and Chairman. She is also on the SAP Advisory Board, among many others.

A self-proclaimed “veteran of board battle scars,” Ms. Atkins will be collaborating with Nasdaq to produce a series of corporate governance “nuts and bolts” articles. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with her about the importance of executive sessions as a risk mitigation strategy.

Do you have a question about corporate governance for Betsy Atkins? If so, please send your question to comments@nasdaq.com and we may address it in a future post.