After poor business decision-making in the financial sector was a primary cause of the Great Recession, and after years of board and management mistakes leading to the bankruptcies of industrial icons GM and Chrysler, the business community today faces a crisis of confidence in its own ranks and in broader society. Regard for corporations is at a historic lows
Many are asking: how can corporations govern themselves more effectively---and truly be held accountable?
I found this Times story of special moment because the Committee for Economic Development just a few days ago published a Policy Brief in which I tried to suggest a way forward. It was entitled: "Restoring Trust in Corporate Governance: The Six Essential Tasks of Boards of Directors and Business Leaders."
Necessary public policy debates are taking place all across the globe on new regulations to ensure the safety and soundness of the financial sector and to improve the governance of all publicly-held corporations (with focus on an enhanced shareholder role and mandated disclosure about compensation and risk processes).
But, regardless of regulatory outcomes, the destiny of public corporations will still turn on the complex decisions made by business leaders and boards of directors.
In my view, to meet the legitimate criticisms of business decision-making, corporations must first redefine their mission---and the role of the board and CEO.
To summarize a much longer discussion, they must clearly and explicitly redefine the purpose of the corporation as creation of long term economic value through sustained economic performance, sound risk management and high integrity.
In particular, business leaders must forge a sound balance between necessary risk-taking (creativity and innovation) and required risk-management (financial and operational discipline). They must fuse this high performance with high integrity. High integrity means a commitment to law, ethics and values in order to attain affirmative benefits in the company, the marketplace and global society but also to reduce legal, ethical, reputational, public policy and country risk.
The past emphasis on short-term maximization of shareholder value must be significantly reduced.
The Policy Brief then argues for five other essential tasks built on the imperatives of sustained performance, sound risk management and high integrity: revamped leadership training; a refocused CEO selection process; a restatement of operational goals across performance, risk and integrity dimensions; a revision of compensation that holds back or pays out a significant portion of pay as objectives are met, exceeded or missed; and a re-alignment of board oversight to focus on critical operational and compensation goals.
In my view, only if these six, closely connected tasks are carried out with focused intensity is it possible for trust to be restored. But there are many obstacles to prevent this from happening such as the short-termism of many institutional investors; a "money happy" labor market for business talent which will frustrate compensation regimes paying out over time and for performance, and problems in meaningful board oversight of management.
There is, thus, certainly reason for substantial doubts whether the "practical ideal" I suggest can be realized. For example, with the separation of ownership (shareholders) and control (managers), the theory was that the boards would represent the shareholders and control the management. Unfortunately, too often the practice has been that management controls the board (and, today, there is no one "shareholder" as various types of "shareholders" have myriad conflicting objectives and strategies).
Nonetheless, although other accountability mechanisms such as regulation may, limit private discretion in order to accomplish public goals, private decision-making by boards and business leaders still must drive corporations. This is where ultimate accountability will always lie, however uncertain and problematic.
And, for those skeptical about corporate governance, there is the answer of self-interest. With business facing a crisis in confidence about governance and accountability, it is, I believe, in the demonstrable interest of corporate leaders (and capitalism itself) truly to address legitimate criticisms, to provide a clear, credible and powerful private sector response and, as one alternative, to consider using the "actionable framework" of the six essential tasks.
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For those interested in reading more, go to the website of the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation to find both a longer summary of the argument and the Policy Brief itself.
Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Neighborhoods have been smashed by shelling and government barrel bombs, and towns have been seized by rebels and ISIS militants, then retaken by government troops, killing hundreds of thousands and injuring even more. The United Nations now estimates that more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees, forced to flee to neighboring countries or Europe. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances. Though many families remain in Syria’s war zones, thousands of others are taking dangerous measures to escape, evading militias, government forces, border guards, predatory traffickers, and more, as they struggle to reach safety far from home.
But no tale of posthumous success is quite as spectacular as that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the “cosmic horror” writer who died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937 at the age of 46. The circumstances of Lovecraft’s final years were as bleak as anyone’s. He ate expired canned food and wrote to a friend, “I was never closer to the bread-line.” He never saw his stories collectively published in book form, and, before succumbing to intestinal cancer, he wrote, “I have no illusions concerning the precarious status of my tales, and do not expect to become a serious competitor of my favorite weird authors.” Among the last words the author uttered were, “Sometimes the pain is unbearable.” His obituary in the Providence Evening Bulletin was “full of errors large and small,” according to his biographer.
It is not too late to strengthen the Iran deal, a prominent critic says.
It appears likely, as of this writing, that Barack Obama will be victorious in his fight to implement the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his secretary of state, John Kerry. Republicans in Congress don’t appear to have the votes necessary to void the agreement, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to subvert Obama may be remembered as one of the more counterproductive and shortsighted acts of an Israeli prime minister since the rebirth of the Jewish state 67 years ago.
Things could change, of course, and the Iranian regime, which is populated in good part by extremists, fundamentalist theocrats, and supporters of terrorism, could do something monumentally stupid in the coming weeks that could force on-the-fence Democrats to side with their Republican adversaries (remember the Café Milano fiasco, anyone?). But, generally speaking, the Obama administration, and its European allies, seem to have a clearer path to implementation than they had at the beginning of the month.
A new study finds an algorithmic word analysis is flawless at determining whether a person will have a psychotic episode.
Although the language of thinking is deliberate—let me think, I have to do some thinking—the actual experience of having thoughts is often passive. Ideas pop up like dandelions; thoughts occur suddenly and escape without warning. People swim in and out of pools of thought in a way that can feel, paradoxically, mindless.
Most of the time, people don’t actively track the way one thought flows into the next. But in psychiatry, much attention is paid to such intricacies of thinking. For instance, disorganized thought, evidenced by disjointed patterns in speech, is considered a hallmark characteristic of schizophrenia. Several studies of at-risk youths have found that doctors are able to guess with impressive accuracy—the best predictive models hover around 79 percent—whether a person will develop psychosis based on tracking that person’s speech patterns in interviews.
A new study shows that the field suffers from a reproducibility problem, but the extent of the issue is still hard to nail down.
No one is entirely clear on how Brian Nosek pulled it off, including Nosek himself. Over the last three years, the psychologist from the University of Virginia persuaded some 270 of his peers to channel their free time into repeating 100 published psychological experiments to see if they could get the same results a second time around. There would be no glory, no empirical eurekas, no breaking of fresh ground. Instead, this initiative—the Reproducibility Project—would be the first big systematic attempt to answer questions that have been vexing psychologists for years, if not decades. What proportion of results in their field are reliable?
In 1998, Toni Morrison wrote a comment for The New Yorker arguing that “white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” Last week the New York Times, implicitly cited Morrison’s piece, and claimed the author was giving Clinton “a compliment.” This interpretation of Morrison’s claim is as common as it is erroneous.
The popular interpretation of Morrison’s point (exhibited here) holds that, summoning all of her powers, the writer gazed into the very essence of Clinton, and found him sufficiently soulful. In fact, Morrison’s point had little to do with soul of any kind. She was not much concerned with Clinton’s knowledge of Ebonics, his style of handshake, nor whether he pledged Alpha or Q. Morrison was concerned with power.