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May 12, 2022

How to govern with courage - A selection of takeaways from the ICD National Director Conference 2022

By Prasanthi Vasanthakumar, Institute of Corporate Directors

Courageous leadership often entails uncomfortable discussions and difficult decisions. How do you govern the CEO of the 2020s corporation? Can you truly achieve inclusion in the boardroom? Why does net-zero change everything? And is globalization still good for business?

To answer these questions and others, the ICD National Director Conference 2022 brought together more than 25 world-class experts to speak on May 5. Over 1,300 leaders from across the globe registered to virtually participate in this day of deep learning and robust discussion on the conference’s theme, Governing with Courage.

Here is a sample of thought-provoking ideas from the conference.

A sample of clips from the ICD National Director Conference 2022.

Globalization: Still a good thing
Diversity is a resource, not a strength, but it can also be used to generate ill. It’s easy to use diversity to set people against each another, and having much of it is not an automatic benefit to a country. Canada’s strength is a long practice of managing diversity successfully by showing people they have more to gain from co-operation than acrimony. – David Frum, Senior Writer, The Atlantic
Keynote address: Cultivating and leveraging collective genius for innovation
Organizations focused on learning fast will have missteps, but they should honestly reflect on them, and question the risk/reward ratio. For boards, this means listening to how senior management talks about decision-making. Are they willing to share concerns? Too often, senior management worries that if they share too many cons, the board will reject the initiative. But taking no risk is the riskiest proposition of all for a company right now. – Linda Hill, Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration, Faculty Chair, Leadership Initiative, Harvard Business School
Governing the 2020s corporation

The meaning of corporate performance in 2022
When navigating turbulence and controversy, leaders should approach issues through the lens of their corporate purpose. It can be difficult to do this, as there is much pressure to engage with issues outside your normal lane. Lead and govern with your individual corporate purpose in mind, while keeping an eye on long-term success and value. – Maria Ghazal, Senior Vice President and Counsel, Business Roundtable

Governing the CEO
Management must share clear and succinct information with the board, and the board has to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. The board chair should ensure there is dialogue with the board, not a presentation or performance by the CEO. This way, board members can evaluate the information from their perspective. Together, you can collectively make the best decision for the company. – Dawn Farrell, Former President and CEO, TransAlta; Chancellor, Mount Royal University; Chair of the Board of The Chemours Company
It’s important to have alignment on purpose and values because it takes courage to make the right call even when it's not popular. How you define the right call goes back to purpose and values. – Charles Brindamour, CEO and Director, Intact Financial Corporation

Impact investing and shareholder engagement
Investors and boards can achieve more by working together. The big challenge for directors is navigating the risk of early adoption versus being too late. Boards can learn from investors who bring an outsider’s perspective, across competitors and industries. – Jennifer Grancio, CEO, Engine No. 1

Keynote address: Courage and complexity in the boardroom

Boards and management should pay more attention to the second bounce of the ball. When a shock hits, we often think about how to react, and potentially, how to anticipate it. But sometimes it's the second bounce of the ball that's more severe, the secondary effect of that initial shock. Such an event can have financial, reputational and talent implications, among others. When a risk hits us, can we handle the inevitable five or six other risks that follow? – Dominic Barton, Global Managing Partner Emeritus, McKinsey; Past Ambassador of Canada to the People’s Republic of China; Incoming Chair, Rio Tinto
Building an inclusive economy

Board Governance and the Importance of Economic Reconciliation
Directors should get out of the boardroom and meet with the community. It’s important to create that space and learn about the local communities in which you operate. – Sean Willy, Director, TELUS Corp.; CEO, Des Nedhe Group

Training should be scheduled. This important work can take courage and elicit discomfort, and it often doesn’t make the board agenda. It’s going to take courage for those with Indigenous roots to speak up and find confidence in that space, and it’s going to take courage on the part of those who are listening and learning because these can be uncomfortable topics. – Alicia Dubois, Co-Chair, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business

Beyond the rhetoric: Defining Canada’s diversity narrative
Equity and diversity will not have their intended effects until we embrace inclusion. This is the new frontier of the journey, and it’s the only way corporations can reap the benefits of diversity. It’s through inclusion that diverse individuals with different perspectives can contribute to, and share in, these benefits. Inclusion is how we build trust with stakeholders. – Rahul Bhardwaj, President and CEO, Institute of Corporate Directors

Beyond the rhetoric: Inclusion in the boardroom
The board chair has a vital role to play in fostering inclusion in the boardroom. It’s important to listen to voices that are new to serving on a board. The chair has to pull people in, listen, and encourage those with quieter voices. If you're sounding out people on controversial issues and topics, you have to make them feel like you have their back, and that no question is too silly. – Helena Morrissey, Chair, AJ Bell; Founder, 30% Club

Beyond the rhetoric: What will it actually take?
Companies with diversity policies and targets have the best representation on their boards. Chairs should think about diversity not as a tick-box exercise, but as adding fundamental value to the board. – Maureen Jensen, Past Chair, Ontario Securities Commission; Chair, The Prosperity Project
A worrying number of directors are elected based more on their connections, than competence. We need diversity targets to move the needle. – Turid Solvang, Past Chair, EcoDa; Founder and CEO, FutureBoards
Quotas are not the best path forward. It’s better to tackle D&I in all sectors by providing educational opportunities. We must do more to educate corporations about the advantage of diversity in the workplace, such as increasing productivity and profit, lowering absenteeism and turnover, and improving relationships with staff. – Hon. Vim Kochhar, Former Canadian Senator; Founder, Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons

Governing a sustainable future

Why net zero changes everything: Governance implications
The world is quickly waking up to the issue of climate change, and organizations are facing demands by regulatory and financial systems. If corporate directors are to position an organization for future success, they need to skate to where the puck is going – which is net-zero pathways to a net-zero world. – Dan Wicklum, CEO, the Transition Accelerator

The new global baseline for sustainability reporting
Directors are going to change the world because economies need to change. Many investors are requesting ESG metrics, targets and disclosure. Your CEOs and executive teams are already facing these opportunities and risks. But the conversation that really needs to take place through the standards and disclosures needs to be front and centre in the boardroom. – Emmanuel Faber, Chair, International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), IFRS Foundation

Gigatrends and the drive to net positive: How courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take
CEOs are trying to manage the megatrend of younger people with different beliefs about business and their jobs. Younger millennials are focused on finding a workplace that shares their values. Gen Z believes businesses should focus on solving environmental and social problems, and sees no disconnect with profit. Which companies will attract and retain this talent? This is probably the biggest differentiator for business that boards need to get a handle on. – Andrew Winston, Author; Manager, Winston Eco-Strategies LLC
ICD National Director Conference registrants: View the on-demand conference content until June 30, 2022. Please refer to the instructions e-mailed to you.
Note: Speaker insights have been abbreviated for the purpose of this article.