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What is corporate governance? Your 2024 guide!

Published: January 2024

Good corporate governance is the cornerstone of ethical, responsible and transparent operations while maximizing shareholder value and safeguarding the interests of other stakeholders. 

As you delve into this comprehensive guide, we’ll answer the key question; what is corporate governance? In doing so we’ll explore the principles, roles, responsibilities, and emerging trends associated with good corporate governance. You’ll venture into the emerging trends shaping the landscape of governance, arming yourself with pragmatic tips and invaluable resources to navigate challenges and stay at the forefront of this ever-evolving domain.

In this guide to what is corporate governance, you’ll find:

  1. What is corporate governance?
  2. What are the key components of corporate governance?
  3. What are the 5 pillars of corporate governance?
  4. What are the typical board responsibilities?
  5. How does corporate governance work: Models and examples
  6. What are the emerging trends and the future of corporate governance?

What is corporate governance?

Corporate governance refers to the system of rules, practices, and processes by which a company is directed and controlled. It essentially involves balancing the interests of a company’s many stakeholders, such as shareholders, management, customers, suppliers, financiers, government, and the community.

Good governance transforms performance because it protects against downside risks such as reputational risks and integrity risks, and helps organizations to adapt, which creates upside opportunities.” – IMD Professor, Didier Cossin

The framework for corporate governance is designed to allow the board of directors and management to pursue objectives that align with the interests of the company’s stakeholders and to facilitate effective monitoring. This is designed to encourage firms to create value. This framework consists of explicit and implicit contracts between the company and the stakeholders for the distribution of responsibilities, rights, and rewards, along with procedures for reconciling the sometimes conflicting interests of stakeholders in accordance with their duties, privileges, and roles.

In the modern business environment, the importance of corporate governance has been increasingly recognized. It is seen not just as a legal obligation, but as a framework for improving competitiveness and enhancing efficiency and market confidence, leading to sustainable growth.

What are the key components of corporate governance?

Key elements of corporate governance include Board Structure and Practices, which ensure that boards are appropriately constituted with a mix of expertise, diversity, and independence to enable them to offer guidance and oversight effectively.

Risk Management and Internal Controls are vital for identifying, assessing, and managing risks, along with ensuring the integrity of financial and managerial reporting. Transparency and Disclosure are crucial for earning and maintaining investor trust. They involve providing timely and accurate disclosure on all material matters, including the financial situation, performance, and governance of the company.

Ethical Business Conduct underpins all activities and is fundamental to a company’s reputation and long-term success. It involves adhering to laws, regulations, and standards to prevent fraudulent or unethical practices. Shareholder Rights and Responsibilities focus on protecting shareholders’ interests and ensuring their fair treatment, while also emphasizing the importance of their own responsibilities in the governance process.

Here’s what a corporate governance framework usually looks like:

  • The board of directors is the highest governing body, responsible for setting the organization’s strategy, overseeing management, and ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.
  • The executive management team, led by the chief executive officer (CEO) or top executive, is responsible for the organization’s day-to-day operations and implementing the board’s strategic decisions.
  • Company boards typically include executive directors (senior management) and non-executive directors (independent directors: individuals not employed by the company or its affiliates, and thus free from any conflicts of interest).
  • Independent members of the board bring objectivity, diverse perspectives, and specialized expertise to the board, enhancing transparency, accountability, and good governance practices. They represent shareholder and stakeholder interests, ensuring their rights and concerns are considered in decision-making.

To fulfill its responsibilities effectively, the board often delegates certain functions to specialized committees. A few common board committees include:

  • Compensation committee: This group oversees executive compensation and pay, and evaluates employee performance to determine adequate salaries in alignment with the organization’s objectives and shareholder interests.
  • Audit committee: They monitor the integrity of financial reporting, oversee internal controls (policies and procedures that safeguard assets, ensure accurate financial reporting, promote efficiency, and mitigate risks), and engage with external auditors to ensure compliance.
  • Corporate governance committee/Nominating committee: These members are responsible for board composition, identifying and nominating new directors, and developing governance policies and practices.

What are the 5 pillars of corporate governance?

These core principles of corporate governance are the framework for ethical and effective board governance. These guidelines will help your organization create a strong foundation of ethical conduct, responsible decision-making, and long-term value creation. Let’s go over each in detail:

1. Fairness

This means treating all stakeholders in a just and equitable manner, including shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and the broader community. A code of conduct or ethical guidelines can outline the expected behavior and standards of fairness within your organization. Fairness ensures that decision-making accounts for the interests of all stakeholders and promotes a culture of integrity.

2. Transparency

Open and timely disclosures about your company’s activities, financial performance, and governance practices. Transparent reporting fosters trust and enables stakeholders to make informed decisions about investing, partnering, or doing business with your company. This includes providing access to accurate and reliable information, promoting accountability, and reducing any information asymmetry between your company and its stakeholders.

3. Responsibility

Responsibility refers to the board’s duty to act in the best interests of the company and its stakeholders. The board should prioritize sustainable and long-term value creation while considering economic, environmental, and social factors as well. It includes responsible decision-making, risk management, and addressing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues that impact the company’s operations and reputation.

4. Accountability

This pillar takes responsibility a step further and ensures that the board and management are answerable for their actions and decisions. The board should establish clear lines of responsibility and hold management accountable for accomplishing planned objectives, financial performance, and adherence to legal and ethical standards. This promotes good governance, mitigates risks, and encourages responsible behavior at all levels of the organization.

5. Risk Management

Risk management involves identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks that could negatively impact the company and stakeholders. Strong internal controls, including sound financial and operational systems, help with this. Boards should establish risk management frameworks, evaluate risks regularly, and address potential conflicts of interest. Integrating risk management strategies like these into a board’s decision-making processes ensures smart and informed choices for the company’s long-term sustainability.

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What are the typical board responsibilities?

Board governance involves various responsibilities that contribute to an effective organization. By fulfilling these, a board enhances corporate governance, facilitates effective decision-making, and strengthens stakeholder relationships, ultimately contributing to long-term organizational success.

Developing, implementing, and approving corporate strategies 

The board plays a crucial role in setting the company’s strategic direction and ensuring alignment with long-term value creation. It actively participates in the development, review, and approval of corporate strategies, business plans, and major initiatives. By overseeing these strategic decision-making processes, the board ensures that its company’s goals are well-defined and consistent with its mission and vision.

Financial reporting and disclosure

The board has a responsibility to oversee the accuracy and transparency of the company’s financial reporting. It reviews and approves financial statements, ensuring compliance with accounting standards and regulatory requirements. Financial reporting includes disclosure of financial performance, profitability, and any material risks that may impact the company. By providing truthful, reliable financial information, the board instills confidence in shareholders and other stakeholders.

Committee oversight

A board typically delegates certain responsibilities to committees that can provide specialized oversight and expertise. However, the board still maintains oversight of these committees, ensuring they operate within their mandates, fulfill their duties, and report back to the board.

Managing board composition

It’s important for a board to be composed of members with the necessary skills, expertise, diversity, and independence to move its organization forward. That’s why any board will need to manage succession planning, identify qualified nominees for board vacancies, and evaluate board member performance. Proactively managing board composition ensures the board has the right mix of talent and perspectives to make informed decisions and provide effective oversight.

Developing compensation policies 

Senior managers are typically the people making salary decisions for a company. But who decides on their compensation? That would be the governing board. Often through a dedicated compensation committee, the board establishes compensation policies for senior management, including the CEO. These policies align executive compensation with company performance and shareholder interests. The board reviews and approves executive compensation packages, ensuring they are fair, competitive, and reflective of the company’s performance and long-term goals.

Engaging shareholders

All organizations need to understand the perspectives, concerns, and expectations of their shareholders, and the board helps accomplish this through continued engagement with employees, customers, suppliers, and the community. They may speak with institutional investors, respond to shareholder activism, and maintain positive investor relations (which is particularly important for public companies). 

How does corporate governance work: Models and examples

Corporate governance models refer to the different approaches and structures used to govern and oversee companies. These models vary across countries and regions due to differences in legal systems, cultural norms, ownership structures, and market dynamics. 

Let’s discuss several prominent corporate governance models: 

The Anglo-American model

Also known as the shareholder-oriented model, this one emphasizes shareholder rights and promotes market efficiency. Key characteristics include:

  • Shareholder primacy: The model places significant emphasis on protecting shareholder interests and maximizing shareholder value. Shareholders have strong legal rights and influence in decision-making processes.

    For example, The Vanguard Group – one of the world’s largest investment management companies – prioritizes the interests of its shareholders by actively engaging with those companies so their interests influence those of their own.
  • An independent board structure: A board of directors consists primarily of independent directors who act as shareholder representatives. They ensure accountability, oversee management, and protect shareholder rights.

    A real-world example of an independent board structure is Tesla Inc. The company’s board of directors includes independent directors who don’t have any material relationships with the company, thus promoting impartial decision-making and reducing the potential for conflicts of interest.
  • A market-based approach: This model relies on market forces to discipline companies and drive efficiency. It emphasizes financial performance, transparency, and timely disclosure to attract investors and facilitate capital markets.

    An example of a market-based approach to board governance is the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The NYSE operates as a self-regulatory organization, where listed companies must comply with specific corporate governance standards and regulations to maintain their listing status, ensuring transparency and accountability to investors.

The United States and the United Kingdom are prominent examples of countries that follow the Anglo-American model. Large publicly-traded companies, particularly those listed on stock exchanges, tend to adopt it, and it’s well-suited for organizations in competitive markets with dispersed ownership and a focus on shareholder returns.

The Japanese model

Also known as the stakeholder-oriented model, this option emphasizes long-term stability, consensus-building, and maintaining harmonious relationships among stakeholders. 

Key characteristics of this model include:

  • Keiretsu structure: Japanese companies often have close business relationships with suppliers, customers, and financial institutions, forming cooperative networks known as keiretsu. These relationships influence decision-making and long-term planning.

    For example, Mitsubishi maintains close ties with its affiliated suppliers, forming a mutually beneficial network that influences production, innovation, and supply chain management decisions, ultimately contributing to the company’s success in the global automotive industry.
  • Cross-shareholdings: Companies hold shares in each other, fostering stable and long-term relationships. This reduces the likelihood of hostile takeovers and promotes collaboration among firms.

    Consider the relationship between Toyota and its affiliated companies, including Denso and Aisin. Toyota holds shares in these companies, creating a network of cross-shareholdings that allows for collaboration, coordination, and mutual support in decision-making and long-term planning.
  • Lifetime employment: Japanese companies often prioritize job security and long-term employment relationships, emphasizing loyalty and commitment from employees.

    One company that does this is Sony, which has historically emphasized job security and long-term employment for its employees, contributing to a sense of stability and commitment within the organization.

The Japanese corporate governance model is best suited for organizations with concentrated ownership, close relationships with stakeholders, and a focus on long-term stability and preserving social harmony.

The continental model

The continental model, also known as the dual-board model or two-tier board system, is prevalent in Western European countries including Germany and Switzerland. It features a two-tier board structure with a management board and a supervisory board. 

Key characteristics of this model include:

  • Management board: The management board is responsible for day-to-day operations and is composed of executive directors employed by the company.
  • Supervisory board: The supervisory board oversees the management board, provides strategic guidance, and ensures accountability. Supervisory board members are non-executive (independent) directors appointed by employees and other stakeholders.
  • Codetermination: Large corporations in some countries are subject to this system, which ensures employees are represented on the supervisory board, giving them a voice in decision-making processes.

Companies like Volkswagen and Royal Dutch Shell adhere to the continental model, as does Deutsche Bank. It has a distinctly separate CEO-led management board and a supervisory board of shareholder representatives that oversees the management board to ensure legal and regulatory compliance. This separation ensures effective oversight.

This model is best suited for organizations that value a collaborative decision-making process, prioritize employee representation, and emphasize stakeholder interests.

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