Jackson: How do you do that? The SEC can't mandate assertive boards?
Finkelstein: You're right. Outsiders can't make it happen. It has to come from the boards themselves who are often self-perpetuating. You and I worked on a tool for boards to use to identify early-warning signs of problems. It wasn't a very successful tool because we found that most boards don't want to hear about the problems they have. No bad news is good news. And there's an army of consultants and search companies to always come around and compliment you.
However, the evidence of the last 12 months is clear: If boards don't do a better job identifying early-warning signs, their companies will fail. I guess that's my hope, that boards become afraid enough so that they'll make the necessary changes themselves. The government cannot regulate good governance. We're talking about quality of decision-making and interaction here. You're not going to be able to put something like that in a Sarbanes-Oxley.
Jackson: How should CEOs and boards safeguard themselves against killing their companies?Finkelstein: Do you have high-quality debate in your management team or board or are you an "imperial CEO" who has driven away anyone with a different opinion than you? Are you surrounded only by "yes men" or a bunch of weak consultants telling you what you want to hear? Boards need to be regularly monitoring the strategy of the company against a set of predetermined yardsticks. It should be like a well-run venture-backed company: You don't get your next round of funding until you hit your metrics. Is the board regularly discussing the risks facing the company and are they working on mitigating the risks? Finally, each director -- no matter how much they like their CEO or other members of the management team -- has to constantly remind themselves that they are the last backstop for shareholders and for other stakeholders. Don't let a stellar career go up in smoke because you didn't ask that extra question. Understand what the company does for customers, and exactly how that translates into profits and shareholder returns. That's one thing that no board member can outsource. Jackson: Thanks, Syd. Think Again from Harvard Business Press will be available in February.