The complexities surrounding short-termism make it a tough nut to crack. Short-termism in this instance refers to a focus on short-term company performance results at the detriment of achieving long-term strategic goals. But in all its forms, short-termism is not sustainable in a rapidly changing world. That’s why directors need to ensure that the organizations they govern seek a healthy balance in addressing short- and long-term interests of the organization’s senior executives and stakeholders.
Short-termism is certainly not a new concept. In a recent survey of more than 600 public company directors and governance professionals conducted by NACD, 75 percent of respondents indicated that pressure from external sources to make short-term gains is compromising management’s focus on long-term strategic goals. This pressure can affect the board’s risk oversight.
Short-termism manifests itself in many ways. The more common example is focusing on quarterly earnings at the expense of funding long-term sustainable growth. But it can also lead to the pursuit of several risky activities, including: M&A deals for growth’s sake without clear linkage to the overall corporate strategy; releasing new products to market without sufficient testing; allowing cost and schedule considerations to undermine safety on significant projects (e.g., deferring maintenance or taking risky shortcuts); and taking on excessive leverage to pursue activities that are currently generating attractive returns.
Underlying the evidence of short-termism is a complex series of root causes. Globalization, technological developments, improved transparency, and reduced transaction costs have facilitated capital flows, enabling investors to reallocate their assets to seek higher yields with greater ease. Hedge funds and other activist shareholders are also acquiring small stakes in a company with the objective of steering profits to shareholders immediately (through higher dividends, stock buybacks, asset spinoffs, or downsizing in lieu of investing in innovation that will improve productivity and drive future growth, for instance). Still another cause is the existence of compensation structures emphasizing executive pay over the near term to the detriment of long-term shareholder interests. These compensation models skew management’s decision-making toward maximizing short-term profits even at the cost of taking on excessive risk.
Following are six concrete steps the board can take to ensure short-termism does not compromise risk oversight:
1. Focus the board’s oversight on risks that matter. If risk management is focused primarily on operational matters, chances are management is not focusing attention on the right question: Do we know what we don’t know? To face the future confidently, both management and the board need to focus the risk assessment process on:
a. identifying and managing the critical enterprise risks that can impair the organization’s reputation, brand image, and enterprise value; and
b. recognizing emerging risks looming on the horizon on a timely basis.
Even though the day-to-day risks of managing the business are important, they should not command the board’s risk oversight focus except when truly pressing issues arise.
2. Lengthen the time horizon used to assess risk. Focusing on quarterly performance, annual budgets, and business plans may lead to a risk assessment horizon of no more than three years. That period may be too limiting because strategic opportunities and risks typically have a longer horizon—even with the constant pressure of disruptive change on business models. For example, the World Economic Forum uses a 10-year horizon in its annual risk study. Longer risk-assessment horizons are more likely to surface emerging issues, along with new plausible and extreme scenarios, that might have been missed with a shorter time frame. Thus, the board needs to satisfy itself that management is using an appropriate horizon.
3. Understand and evaluate strategic assumptions. Management’s “worldview” for the duration of the strategic planning horizon is reflected in assumptions about several topics: the enterprise’s capabilities; competitor capabilities and propensity to act; customer preferences; technological trends; capital availability; and regulatory trends, among other things. Directors should weigh in on management’s assumptions underlying the strategy. Doing so could reveal insights into the external environment and internal operating impacts that could invalidate the critical assumptions underlying the strategy. This is a useful approach to understanding sources of disruptive change.
4. Integrate risk and risk management with what matters. Short-termism can render risk to an afterthought to the formulation of strategy. Risk management similarly can become a mere appendage to performance management. The strategy, therefore, may be unrealistic and may involve taking on excessive risk. In addition, performance management may be overly focused on retrospective, backward-looking lag metrics. The board should ensure the strategy-setting process considers risks arising from strategic alternatives, risks to executing the strategy, and the potential for the strategy to be out of alignment with the organization’s mission and values. Directors also should insist that prospective, forward-looking leading metrics be used to complement the more traditional metrics used to manage the day-to-day business operations.
5. Watch out for compensation imbalances. Publicly listed companies on U.S. exchanges are required to disclose in the proxy statement whether the company’s system of incentives could lead to unacceptable risky decision-making in the pursuit of near-term rewards. The compensation committee typically conducts a review for excessive risk-taking in conjunction with its oversight of the compensation structure. Board concerns with respect to short-termism are a red flag for the compensation committee to sharpen its focus on the potential for troubling compensation issues that could lead to bet-the-farm behavior. A key question: Do key executives have sufficient “skin in the game” so they will be incented to take risks prudently in the pursuit of value-creating opportunities?
6. Pay attention to the culture. Short-termism can contribute to a dysfunctional environment that warrants vigilant board oversight. For example, management may continue to execute the same business model regardless of whether market conditions invalidate the underlying strategic assumptions. Also, operating units and process owners may be fixated on making artificial moves (e.g., deferring investments) and manipulating processes (e.g., cutting costs to the bone) to achieve short-term financial targets. Instead, the strategy should be focused on fulfilling customer expectations and enhancing the customer experience by improving process effectiveness and efficiency. These and other red flags warrant the board’s attention because they signal the possibility of unacceptable risk-taking that must be addressed.
If short-termism is a concern of the board, directors need to ensure their risk oversight process isn’t compromised by it. A strong focus on linking risk and opportunity can help overcome some of the “blind spots” that a myopic, short-term outlook can create.
Jim DeLoach is managing director of Protiviti.