June 21, 2023

Breakthrough Boardrooms: A snapshot of the 2023 ICD National Director Conference

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By Prasanthi Vasanthakumar, Institute of Corporate Directors

For the first time since 2019, the Institute of Corporate Directors hosted the ICD National Director Conference & Fellowship Awards Gala in person. More than 500 corporate governance leaders and senior executives came together in Montreal, June 13 to 15, while over 400 others joined virtually.

Interspersed with networking events, this year's Conference and Gala featured more than 40 world-class speakers – including Noubar Afeyan, Chair and Co-founder, Moderna, Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist and Associate Editor, Financial Times, and Gillian Tett, Chair, U.S. Editorial Board and America Editor-at-Large, Financial Times.

From artificial intelligence and sustainability reporting to supply chain risks and leadership style, governance was top of mind. The ICD and TMX Group’s Charting the Future of Canadian Governance: A Principled Approach to Navigating Rising Expectations for Boards of Directors was also touched on in discussions.

Gillian Tett urged business leaders to understand today’s office through the lens of an amateur anthropologist. The panel on geopolitical and trade uncertainty identified the importance of diplomacy and technology in navigating political and economic risks. And the session on ESG and sustainable investing suggested it may be wise to disaggregate environmental, social and governance factors to address what’s most relevant for an organization.

It’s impossible to capture the magic and energy of the Conference in writing, but here is a look at a few of the discussions.

Rana Foroohar delivers the morning keynote address. Photos © Bénédicte Brocard.

A new world order
In her morning keynote address, “Governing in an Age of Economic Localization,” Rana Foroohar delved into the political and economic forces challenging corporate directors. According to her, the era of cheap capital, cheap labour and cheap energy is behind us. However, this “cheap-everything paradigm” came with many business risks, such as those from concentrated supply chains and dangerous working conditions in developing countries.

Foroohar predicts global business will become more localized and regionalized. Businesses will move from an efficiency model to one of resiliency and redundancy to mitigate these risks. This model, coupled with the energy transition and greater capital expenditures, will cause inflation to persist in the near term. But at the end of this journey, the world will be a more balanced place, Foroohar says. Directors have an important role in crafting this shift.

“This sense of building a new stakeholder value system, thinking not just about consumers, but about citizens, not just about asset-holders but about labor, balancing production and consumption, balancing asset growth and income growth…this is ultimately going to take us to a better place,” she says.

Mark Podlasly, Cherie Brant, Collette Brown-Rodriguez and Ricky Fontaine (left to right) discuss why Indigenous representation on the board matters.
The value of Indigenous board members
In the panel discussion, “Creating Value Through Indigenous Partnerships – Role of the Board,” Mark Podlasly, Director, Hydro One, Cherie Brant, Director, TD, Hydro One, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, Collette Brown-Rodriguez, Director, Apollo Silver Corp., and Ricky Fontaine, Senior Partner, RGL Fontaine, explained why the ‘I’ in Indigenous is inherent in ESG – and why Indigenous representation on the board matters.

The panelists noted Indigenous directors bring unique perspectives stemming from their lived experience and knowledge, have strong ties with the community and its projects, understand the economies of Indigenous governments and community needs, and bring a view toward resiliency developed through the hardships faced by many First Nations people.

They also discussed how boards can recruit more Indigenous members. Overcoming preconceived notions – for example, that all Indigenous people are against mining – and asking other Indigenous board directors and community leaders for candidate recommendations are good ways to find Indigenous representation.
Podlasly urges boards to read 92 to Zero by RBC Economics and Thought Leadership.

It’s about “seeing Indigenous people not as a risk factor to your business and your operations, but a competitive advantage to getting projects built, sourcing the capital, getting public opinion onside, and increasingly, getting to market ahead of competitors,” he says.

Estelle Métayer, Jo Mark Zurel, Isabelle Courville and Jacynthe Côté (left to right) explore best practices for board chairs.
How to be an effective board chair
In the Conference’s closing session, “Highly Effective Chairs – Leading Insights,” Jacynthe Côté, Chair, Royal Bank of Canada, Isabelle Courville, Chair, Canadian Pacific Railway, Jo Mark Zurel, Chair, Fortis Inc, and Estelle Métayer, Chair, Nortera discussed best practices for board chairs.

One panelist observed that to be a good chair, one needs to prepare by serving on a board and chairing committees, “develop the muscles” of crisis management, clearly define what constitutes a crisis that requires the board’s attention, and build trust with management.

Another panelist emphasized the importance of information flow during major transactions. Public relations briefings, management reports and board meetings should follow a consistent and frequent pace to ensure board and management are on the same page.

The board chairs also observed the value of regular, one-on-one discussions with other board directors and the CEO to identify potential problems and shape the meeting agenda. Indeed, a well-run board needs people that trust each other, Courville said. Creating opportunities for the board and management to interact outside board meetings is a critical part of the chair’s job.

Noubar Afeyan delivers the keynote address at the Fellowship Awards Gala.
Achieving the impossible
Imagine receiving a phone call asking you to save the world. This is what happened to Noubar Afeyan, and his keynote address at the Fellowship Awards Gala was a lesson in leadership under fire. The Moderna Chair outlined the regulatory, supply chain and human safety considerations Moderna faced in delivering billions of lifesaving Covid-19 vaccine doses around the world. He also delved into the board’s role in complex and fast-moving decision-making to deliver on a goal that seemed impossible.

Afeyan’s story of leading with humility and humanity received a standing ovation.
Join us next year for the 2024 ICD National Director Conference & Fellowship Awards Gala in Toronto, June 4 to 6.
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