In the folklore of corporate governance, is there a governance structure that is more anathema to corporate governance mavens and shareholder democracy activists than the staggered board? (Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point.) Proxy advisory firms and activists oppose them, institutional investors vote against them and shareholders proposals to eliminate them are unusually successful. Staggered boards, where subsets of board members are elected in separate classes every three years—and therefore cannot be easily or quickly voted out—are often viewed as the archetypal technique to prevent hostile takeovers. Opponents also argue that staggered boards entrench boards and managements by insulating them from the shareholders and making it tough for shareholders to dethrone the CEO. That has to be bad for the company, right? Not so fast, says this study co-authored by a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Stanford Law School. According to the author, quoted in Insights by Stanford Business, “[f]rom Adam Smith on, the concern of corporate governance has been how to mind the managers….Corporate governance has been about building up checks and monitors on the managers. The idea is that if we can fire them, and they know we can fire them, then maybe they will do the right thing.” But for some companies—in this case, early-life-cycle technology companies facing more Wall Street scrutiny—the evidence showed that, by allowing managers to focus on long-term—perhaps bolder and riskier—investments and innovations, staggered boards can actually be a benefit.
Are shareholders really the “owners” of corporations? Even though shareholders have no responsibilities to the corporations they “own”? Should corporations be managed for the sole purpose of maximizing shareholder value? Are shareholders even unanimous in that objective? Is shareholder centricity really the right model for good governance of corporations? What changes in corporate governance have been fueled by the shareholder primacy model? Do those changes make sense? What has been the adverse fallout from the current fastidious devotion to shareholder preeminence? These are just some of the issues addressed in this terrific piece by two Harvard Business School professors, Joseph L. Bower and Lynn S. Paine, in the Harvard Business Review. In their view, the “health of the economic system depends on getting the role of shareholders right.” Highly recommend.