How well-run boards make decisions

Michael Useem
Harvard Business Review 2006, 84 (11): 130-6, 138, 158
In the aftermath of seismic debacles like those that toppled Enron and WorldCom, corporate boards have been shaken up and made over. More directors are independent these days, for instance, and corporations now disclose directors' salaries and committee members' names. Research shows that most of the changes are having a positive effect on companies' performance. They are primarily structural, though, and don't go to the heart of a board's work: making the choices that shape a firm's future. Which decisions boards own and how those calls are made are largely hidden from the public. As a result, boards are often unable to learn from the best governance practices of their counterparts at other companies. This article pulls back the curtain and provides an inside look. Drawing on interviews with board members and executives at 31 companies, along with a close examination of three boardroom decisions, the author identifies several formal processes that can help companies improve their decision making: creating calendars that specify when the board and the standing committees will consider key items; drafting charters that define the decisions committees are responsible for; and developing decision protocols that divvy up responsibilities between directors and executives. The author also identifies a number of informal decision-making principles: Items that are strategically significant and touch on the firm's core values should go to the board. Large decisions should be divided into small pieces, so the board can devote sufficient attention to each one. Directors must remain vigilant to ensure that their decisions are effectively implemented. The CEO and either the nonexecutive chair or the lead director should engage in ongoing dialogue regarding which decisions to take to the full board and when. And directors should challenge assumptions before making yes-or-no decisions on management proposals.

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