Moving Forward with Courage and Purpose

By Peter Gleason


COVID-19 Risk Management Online Article

Editor’s Note: What follows is a version of NACD CEO Peter R. Gleason’s address to the audience on the first day of our Virtual NACD Summit 2020, powered by AIG. Are you unable to attend virtually, but still want to follow along? Return to NACD BoardTalk for more coverage, or follow NACD’s social media channels.

Welcome! We are thrilled to have you with us for our first all-virtual NACD Summit—a new, immersive, digital experience designed to help each of us navigate the waters ahead with as much foresight, skill, camaraderie, optimism, and confidence as we can summon.

What a year 2020 has been.

The past several months have provided time to reflect if nothing else. Those timeless questions—What do we value most? What do we stand for? How do we want to move forward and make a difference within our organizations, our communities, and in our world?—seem to have taken on an even deeper meaning.

When I was preparing for this talk, thinking about what to say at a time when so many lives and livelihoods have been turned upside down and when we’re all looking for something sure and concrete to hold onto, someone asked me, “What do our decisions and actions as directors in the boardroom actually mean to the everyday worker—to the employee on the assembly line, at their desk, or at the service counter?”

And immediately, that simple question brought it all into focus. Because what we do in the boardroom means everything to the American worker. That’s the very point. It’s what NACD is all about. It’s why we exist—because ultimately, if boards are successful, companies thrive. And that means more jobs, better salaries, stronger local economies. It means that communities, families, and people flourish. And right now, what we do in the boardroom is of greater importance than it has ever been.

Just take a minute to reflect on these facts: We’re more than half a year into a pandemic that few of us had ever imagined. Beyond the immediate heartache of human loss, countless large and small businesses, if not already shuttered, are struggling. Millions of people are out of work. Many, who are lucky enough to still have jobs, have sustained pay cuts while others are stressed by fulfilling simultaneous roles as breadwinner, caregiver, and teacher. On top of the economic and health struggles, many are facing complete ruin from wildfires and floods. And we’re playing out this pivotal time in history against the backdrop of a highly polarized political landscape, while facing relentless social injustices that continue to upend our cohesiveness as a civilized, enlightened democracy.

What a time. And what a challenge to our leadership skills and to our very purpose as directors. It’s as if these factors are all intersecting at once, beckoning us with this single message: think hard about how you will move forward.

And we must. Because everything has changed. And things will continue to evolve—how we work, how we learn, how we meet, how we interact, and how we govern.

With little forewarning, we’ve been sprung into a new world reality. And if companies are to survive, boards must adapt. But finding that resilience will require looking deep within—and far beyond—ourselves. It will require rethinking, recalibrating, and identifying anew our objectives and roles as directors in the midst of extraordinary change.

So now let’s get specific about how we are leading to help our members stay ahead of the curve. NACD has heard that call for thoughtful advancement and is heeding it. We have recalibrated everything we are doing to deliver what you—our members—need most. Let me tell you how.

First, we have transformed all of our programming for virtual delivery. From NACD Directorship Certification ® to NACD Master Class® to chapter programming to this Summit, we are addressing the need for remote accessibility while bringing you the high-quality programming you have come to expect from NACD.

What we have discovered is that in some ways we are now able to deliver more. Take chapter programming, for example. In the past, you would likely have attended only your local chapter events. But NACD chapters, led by a fantastic group of volunteers, have broadcast a treasure trove of content—from the board’s role in SEC inquiries to the latest in digital transformation to cyber threats in the face of COVID-19 to investor and shareholder perspectives on ESG—all of them on relevant, timely, and important topics. And best of all, you can tune into any and all regardless of your location. Geography no longer matters. Just charge up your laptop for pertinent, real-time content you need.

While we need to minimize in-person meetings and to avoid large-group settings, we know that it’s more vital now than ever before for you to participate in roundtables with your peers who are facing the same existential challenges you are with regard to issues such as executive compensation, risk, diversity, and more. Especially now, you need to share ideas and learn from one another so you can implement solutions that work.

In response, NACD has been doubling down on connecting you with your fellow directors in private, virtual settings. Let me assure you: we take our role as convener very seriously. So, here at Summit, be on the lookout for peer and expert dialogues and for additional opportunities to gather virtually with like minds throughout the coming months.

Still another way that we are building resilience is through continuing education and skill building. I am proud to say that in our efforts to foster boards capable of leading into the future, NACD has developed the nation’s preeminent certification program for directors. And we have now transformed the program for virtual delivery. What’s more, to increase accessibility, we are partnering with leading executive education providers whose classes can be applied toward NACD Directorship Certification—beginning with Stanford University.

You may find it as noteworthy—as I did—that many in the inaugural class of certified directors have told us that they pursued certification mainly because the job of a director is growing more and more challenging. It now requires much more knowledge beyond one’s own expertise. And it demands that directors stay current on emerging trends. Simply relying on past experiences—no matter how rich—is no longer enough.

And as the longstanding efforts of NACD and many others to diversify America’s boardrooms bear fruit, certification has come at the right time. A proper grounding in foundational board skills is essential, especially for new directors who bring tremendous value but have little, if any, board experience.

And that leads me to another critical way in which we are adapting. I am happy to report that NACD recently announced an all-new, forward-thinking program for prospective directors from diverse backgrounds and experiences—our first ever formally structured program of this nature.

We have launched NACD Accelerate™, a new program that recognizes the need for a strong, diverse, and highly qualified pipeline of professionals to serve as tomorrow’s directors. The two-year program will provide participants with access to NACD Directorship Certification along with a wealth of other NACD educational programming customized to prepare participants for the rigors of directorship.

To bring this program to life, we are asking you, NACD members, to look within your organizations to help us to identify the next generation of board directors.

As we all move toward greater education and skill building in our efforts to adapt and build resilience, it is critically important to keep in mind the age-old aphorism that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is particularly true of boards. To that end, NACD will be offering more opportunities for entire boards to continue their education together, as a whole. After all, real problem-solving and board success come more readily if we elevate the performance of the full board rather than simply the individual board members.

But this means everyone must make the time commitment. And each of you needs to urge your fellow directors to fully engage, because we all know that boards can move forward effectively only if everyone contributes.

The challenges of 2020 continue. And as we navigate our way forward, we all must realize that we cannot actually manage this crisis. There simply are too many things beyond our control. But we can manage our way through it.

And NACD will be here for you and your boards as you do so. If there ever was a time to lean into change, it would be now. Directors must be the example for the companies they lead—adapting, problem-solving, collaborating, and resourcefully innovating for the times at hand.

We are a different and changed NACD—for the better. We are the most responsive we have ever been, providing the essential intelligence and services you need for your survival now and for your success and growth in the future. Thankfully, we are seeing a tremendously positive response from our members, with our retention rate at over 90 percent—an indicator that NACD serves a critical role in corporate governance in both good times and bad.

So please make the most of the NACD 2020 Summit. And realize that the silver lining of our need to reimagine this annual event is that you will be able to attend all of our sessions over five weeks—no either/or choices are needed this year. What’s more, with the all-virtual programming, we have been able to open up Summit to nonmembers for a fee while making it completely complimentary to members.

The new, all-virtual setting means that even more of the greatest minds in corporate governance can convene to take on the critical issues facing boardrooms today. We all are here together to collectively shape the future of exemplary board leadership.

So, in closing, I ask you to keep the faith. Be courageous. Remain inventive. Hold your standards high. Elevate your performance. In short, adapt, nurture resilience, and be well.

Enjoy the program. And thank you for joining us.

Peter Gleason
Peter R. Gleason is president and CEO of NACD.