May 15, 2021 / VOLUME NO. 157
A Question of Courage

Not a lot of Republicans seem to agree with Liz Cheney these days.

On Wednesday, Cheney was ousted from her leadership position by party members in the House of Representatives. The Wyoming congresswoman, it seems, fell out of step with her peers due to her vocal opposition to former President Donald Trump.

“I have tremendous affection and admiration for many of you in this room,’’ she told colleagues immediately before her ouster, reports Fox News. “I know we all came to Washington to do important work for the nation.” However, “[w]e cannot let the former president drag us backward and make us complicit in his efforts to unravel our democracy. Down that path lies our destruction, and potentially the destruction of our country.”
You may not agree with Cheney. But it takes courage to respectfully express a view that doesn’t align with a group’s norms.

Earlier this year, as we were drafting the questions for Bank Director’s 2021 Governance Best Practices Survey — which we published earlier this week — we spent an inordinate amount of time on one question that digs into a board’s culture: How does your board value collegiality (cooperation) versus the freedom to disagree?

It’s a fairly cut-and-dry concept, right? But we struggled to articulate precisely what we wanted to encapsulate. (You can review how directors responded to this question in our survey report.)

Specifically, we wrangled with the phrase “freedom to disagree.” We initially termed this as “dissent” — but would respondents view that as being more in opposition to one another, rather than expressing a healthy difference of opinion? We also considered “candid discussion” — but was that a strong enough concept? 

Words matter, especially in a short and seemingly simple survey question. 

Boards should of course exhibit a degree of collegiality, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the cooperative relationship of colleagues.” Directors should work respectfully with one another, and they should all be working toward the same strategic vision for their institution.

But collegiality shouldn’t yield to complacency; directors shouldn’t merely “go along to get along.” Serious decisions require serious discussion — with everyone moving in the same direction once the discussion ends. 

While serving on a corporate board differs from political leadership, both have one thing in common: Courage helps make them stronger.

We talk a lot about diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and skills, which are all attributes that should be reflected in the boardroom. In the survey, most respondents tell us that new and varied perspectives enhance board deliberations. 

Your board can measure these attributes through tools like board evaluations and matrices. But you can’t quantify courage. 

Ask yourself whether courage is an attribute that's rewarded in the boardroom. 

• Emily McCormick, vice president of research
Uncover how boards view strategic planning, governance practices, board composition and their relationship with management.

“Strategic discipline starts with a bank’s leadership team — and the board should play an important role in developing the strategy and monitoring its execution.”

• Emily McCormick, vice president of research
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