Bringing responsible leadership to the board table
Changing societal expectations have created new demands on organizations with influential stakeholders now calling for more transparency and risk oversight. In short, it’s not business “as usual” anymore.
It’s a tall task for board directors and committees in both the public and private sectors – to steward their organizations while simultaneously enhancing corporate performance.
“The stakes have never been higher for board directors,” says Christie Stephenson, Executive Director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the UBC Sauder School of Business. “Over the last decade, there has been a continual increase in the expectations and scope of their roles.”
Understanding the risk landscape and opportunities
Stephenson is the lead facilitator of UBC Sauder’s two-day program, Driving Board Value in Changing Times.
“The course is designed for experienced directors with strong governance backgrounds who are looking to grapple with emerging governance challenges on a range of topics, including social and environmental issues,” says Stephenson.
Doug Olson is the Senior Vice President, Water at Associated Engineering Group Ltd., a Canadian employee-owned consulting firm. He’s also served as the director of Associated’s parental board for the last 13 years. He and three other members of the board attended the inaugural session of the course last year.
Even as seasoned board executives, Olson and his colleagues were inspired to participate in the online program to gain a greater understanding of the risk landscape and opportunities.
“A lot more attention is paid to areas of risk oversight, particularly related to technology advancements, digital transformation and resulting risks related to cyber security,” says Olson. “There are also expanding expectations for corporate oversight for company operations to be more environmentally and socially responsible, and a greater focus on diversity and inclusion, both from our internal company staffing levels, but also in the context of board composition levels.”
Developing a common language
The course content spans across four facilitator-led online modules: ‘financial oversight,’ ‘risk oversight,’ ‘governance best practice,’ and ‘where government is headed next.’
Of all the rich content that was shared, Olson points to two topics in particular that helped him and his colleagues develop a common language with respect to governance issues and continue to inform their approach today.
The first, he says, was the course section on board agenda planning. “The board should take the periodic opportunity to spend time on hindsight, oversight and foresight to maintain focus on providing valuable oversight in a timely manner to the most appropriate matters at hand.”
He says his second takeaway was the content related to risk management and the lessons in “assessing risks in the context of preventable, strategic and external at a board level.”
Reflecting with peers in the private and public sectors
To expand its real-world application, a hallmark feature of the Driving Board Value in Changing Times course is the opportunity for participants to engage in interactive reflection exercises with their peers.
“In one of the reflection exercises, you assessed your personal value as a director and created a board value proposition,” recalls Olson. “It was valuable because it made you pause and reflect on your past experiences and contributions and develop a pitch with respect to what value you bring to your own board and those that you may aspire to participate on.”
For Olson, the “very engaging” teaching style of Stephenson and guest speakers served as a perfect complement to the interactive break-out sessions.
“The combination of participants, both from our own board, along with participants from public and private sector boards, meant we could share experiences and draw on others’ to reflect back on our own board dynamics and find ways to improve.”
Bolstering expertise in corporate governance
According to Stephenson, there’s no better time for board directors to bolster their expertise. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the urgency of tackling social issues, including equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as labour rights. She also notes that the course will cover a board’s role in acknowledging Indigenous rights and advancing reconciliation.
“The business community has come to recognize the crucial role that boards play as leaders of organizations,” says Stephenson. “Board directors are the ultimate stewards and responsible leadership has become a requirement for businesses to succeed.”