Manual The New Boardroom Leaders: How Todays Corporate Boards Are Taking Charge

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They also need faster, more effective ways to engage the organization and operate as a governing body and, critically, new means of attracting digital talent. Otherwise, CEOs may be tempted to pass on to their successors the tackling of digital challenges. At the very least, top-management teams need their boards to serve as strong digital sparring partners when they consider difficult questions such as investments in experimental initiatives that could reshape markets, or even whether the company is in the right business for the digital age.

Here are four guiding principles for boosting the odds that boards will provide the digital engagement companies so badly need. Few boards have enough combined digital expertise to have meaningful digital conversations with senior management. Digital directors were defined as nonexecutive board members who play a significant operating role within a digital company, play a primarily digital operating role within a traditional company, or have two or more nonexecutive board roles at digital companies. More to the point, digital is so far-reaching—think e-commerce, mobile, security, the Internet of Things IoT , and big data—that the knowledge and experience needed goes beyond one or two tech-savvy people.

PwC’s 2016 Annual Corporate Directors Survey

To address these challenges, the nominating committee of one board created a matrix of the customer, market, and digital skills it felt it required to guide its key businesses over the next five to ten years. Doing so prompted the committee to look beyond well-fished pools of talent like Internet pure plays and known digital leaders and instead to consider adjacent sectors and businesses that had undergone significant digital transformation.

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The identification of strong new board members was one result. Special subcommittees and advisory councils can also narrow the insights gap. Today, only about 5 percent of corporate boards in North America have technology committees. For example, some boards have begun convening several subject-specific advisory councils on technology topics.

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After brainstorming how IoT-connected systems could reshape the consumer experience, for example, the technology council landed on a radical notion: What would happen if the company organized the business around spaces such as the home, the car, and the office rather than product lines? While the board had no set plans to impose the structure on management, simply exploring the possibilities with board members opened up fresh avenues of discussion with the executive team on new business partners, as well as new apps and operating systems.

Many boards are ill equipped to fully understand the sources of upheaval pressuring their business models. Consider, for example, the design of satisfying, human-centered experiences: Yet few board members spend enough time exploring how their companies are reshaping and monitoring those experiences, or reviewing management plans to improve them. One way to find out is by kicking the tires. At one global consumer company, for instance, some board members put beta versions of new digital products and apps through the paces to gauge whether their features are compelling and the interface is smooth.

Those board members gain hands-on insights and management gets well-informed feedback.

Understand how digital can upend business models

Most companies underappreciate the potential of pattern analysis, machine learning, and sophisticated analytics that can churn through terabytes of text, sound, images, and other data to produce well-targeted insights on everything from disease diagnoses to how prolonged drought conditions might affect an investment portfolio. Companies that best capture, process, and apply those insights stand to gain an edge. Our colleagues have described how boards also need to develop a shared language for evaluating IT performance.

The competitor was offering similar parts at lower prices, as well as offering more customer-friendly features such as instant online quotes and automated purchasing and inventory-management systems. That prompted the board to push the CEO, chief information officer, and others for metrics and reports that went beyond traditional peer comparisons. By looking closely at the cycle times and operating margins of digital leaders, boards can determine whether executives are aiming high enough and, if not, they can push back—for example, by not accepting run-of-the-mill cost cuts of 10 percent when their companies could capture new value of 50 percent or even more by meeting attackers head-on.

In this environment, meeting once or twice a year to review strategy no longer works. Regular check-ins are necessary to help senior company leaders negotiate the tension between short-term pressures from the financial markets and the longer-term imperative to launch sometimes costly digital initiatives.

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Some directors now work in a tag team with a particular function and business leader, with whom they have a natural affinity in business background and interests. Over time, such understanding has also generated greater board-level visibility into areas where digitization could yield new strategic value, while putting the board on more solid footing in communicating new direction and initiatives to shareholders and analysts.

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And how will you ramp up customer adoption and decrease the cost of customer acquisition when that happens? Such dialogue also can instill a sense of urgency as managers seek to answer tough questions through rapid idea iteration and input gathering from customers, which board members with diverse experiences can help interpret.

Risk discussions need rethinking, too. Disturbingly, in an era of continual cyberthreats, only about one in five directors in our experience feels confident that the necessary controls, metrics, and reporting are in place to address hacker incursions. Using survey data, it discovered that anything beyond two minutes of customer downtime each month would significantly erode customer confidence.

The board charged IT with developing better resilience and response strategies to stay within the threshold. Robust tech tools, meanwhile, can help some directors get a better read on how to confront mounting marketplace risks arising from digital players. The dashboard provides important markers beyond standard financial metrics for directors to measure progress toward the digitized delivery of banking services often provided by emerging competitors.

Additionally, we offer board evaluations and board retreats for those in search of professional services.

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