Good Governance: A Case for Reaching Higher
In August, the Federal Reserve published its Proposed Guidance on Supervisory Expectation for Boards of Directors and invited comment and discussion on the subject of better performance though better governance—a topic near and dear to us at Quantum Governance.
These proposed guidelines, which apply directly to the boards of directors of banks and savings and loans (not credit unions), seek to “establish principles regarding effective boards of directors focused on the performance of a board’s core responsibilities.” These proposed guidelines are inspired largely by the 2007-2009 financial crisis and are designed around supporting “safety and soundness.” While we applaud any effort to improve governance, we are concerned that these guidelines are too focused on the oversight or a “supervisory” role for the board. That is, they are concerned largely with mitigating exposure to risk and, as such, promote a narrow view of the board’s role in governance. Even though the proposed guidelines do not directly apply to credit unions, we think it is vital to comment, as there are natural parallels to credit union governance.
The Fed’s proposal seeks to better distinguish the role of the board from that of management by encouraging the board to focus on its core responsibilities: (1) setting clear, aligned and consistent direction; (2) actively managing information flow and board discussions; (3) holding senior management accountable; (4) supporting the independence and stature of independent risk management and internal audits; and (5) maintaining a capable board composition and governance structure.
While all of these are admirable goals, they tend to cast the board’s work in the more traditional role of fiduciary oversight, focused on monitoring performance and mitigating risk. While these things are certainly important and necessary for preserving the safety and soundness of a financial institution, they only address one aspect of what makes a board truly effective today.
Governance today is not, as the proposed guidelines imply, simply a matter of carving out areas of responsibility and levels of oversight. To foster a highly effective governance culture, a board must create a genuine, constructive partnership with the CEO—and in credit unions, with the supervisory or audit committee as well. This constructive partnership, we believe, is the true foundation of good and effective governance. A well-conceived constructive partnership is one in which the duties and responsibilities of all parties are clearly communicated, understood, respected and mutually supportive of each other. The board knows not to get involved in day-to-day management (indeed, this is one of the desired outcomes stated in the Federal Reserve’s Proposed Guidelines), but its role goes far beyond this basic standard.
The proposed guidelines do acknowledge a situation that bedevils credit union boards as well as bank boards—the overly burdensome amount of information a board is expected to review. These requirements consume so much time that a director is, ironically, actually distracted from properly fulfilling what we believe are the higher principles of governance: setting the long-term strategic vison and direction of the credit union; defining “success criteria” which do not necessarily have to be financial in nature; encouraging genuinely diverse ideas and discourse; and, as mentioned above, constructively partnering with the CEO and staff to further the credit union’s mission.
In short, we are concerned that the Fed’s proposed guidelines are grounded in an outdated governance model that may foster boards to move back in time, not forward. They appear to be based on a set of legal requirements that focus on a minimum standard. We advocate for all boards to “reach higher” and to put into practice governance principles and skills that are holistic and proven to lead to truly exceptional leadership and ultimately mission success for their credit unions.
Michael Daigneault, CCD, is CEO of Quantum Governance L3C, a CUES strategic provider of governance and board assessment services in Vienna, Va. Daigneault has more than 30 years of experience in the field of governance, management, strategy, planning and facilitation.
Caitlin Curran Hatch is senior consultant for Quantum Governance, supporting the firm’s clients with more than 25 years of experience in the business and legal sectors. The organization fields more engagements in the credit union community than in any other, a total of 40 percent of its work.