Perspectives From the Chair: Impact from the Universal Proxy Card

This article was originally published on LinkedIn here.

UPC Will Have Significant Impact on Boardroom Composition and Director Succession

Nelson Peltz is running for a seat on the Disney Board and Elliott Management is seeking seats on the Salesforce Board. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Both will be using the new SEC rule requiring Universal Proxy Card (UPC) for contested elections. Many observers believe the UPC will make it easier and less expensive to run an activist campaign to gain board seats. All nominees, both company and activist, are now on a single card and a shareholder can easily split their votes for the first time. Thus, shareholders can vote for one or more of the activist candidates. 

However, this new rule may assist in getting better alignment on the required skills and experiences that independent directors need to execute the company’s strategy, oversee the CEO’s performance, and build effective governance structures. With the UPC, shareholders will have a greater say on the board’s composition as they can more readily compare the board’s nominees with the activist slate and focus on existing performance gaps. In addition, some commentators say that Proxy Advisers will even be more influential as they will need to compare the board’s candidates with the activist candidates. 

The board’s independent chair/lead director and the Nom/Gov committee have the urgent task to address their most uncomfortable duty – asking directors to leave prior to retirement which now is often 75 years old. To avoid making an activist campaign personal to individual directors, the board needs “to avoid defaulting to renomination rather than undertaking tough decisions. (NACD: A Framework for Governing Into the Future report).”

What should nominating and governance committees do? 

One immediate solution is to consider expanding proxy director biographies with more specificity on why each director should be on the board.  The current skills matrix is often of no use as it does not specify the strength of the skills and experiences using a 1, 2 or 3 rating. Also, the committee should improve the board leadership, committee chairs, and individual director evaluations. These evaluations need more rigor on improving board performance. For example, look at long tenured directors and justify in the proxy their contributions and continued value serving on the board.  

From recent conversations with several notable Nom/Gov Chairs about how they are viewing the situation, the feedback has been consistent that it will have an impact on how boards view director succession and board recruiting in the future. The reaction is that boards will take less risk when adding director candidates and focus more on those who have overtly relevant industry or functional expertise. While we hope this will not have an impact on the recent boardroom trend for younger, more diverse, and outside-the-box candidates, we have our concerns.

For future board searches, the candidate success profile must be more granular on the skills and experiences required, and how candidates can impact board and committee leadership succession and improved board oversight.  Nom/Gov committees will need to have a strong grasp of the immediate and longer-term capability gaps that need to be addressed along with a sense of what the stakeholders expect to ensure there is no misalignment on future actions.

Activist shareholders have and always will use board composition as a trojan horse to ensure that their perspective and agenda is considered or acted upon in boardrooms.  The best defense for corporate boards is to ensure company performance is meeting or exceeding its industry peers. As the stakes continue to intensify, it is paramount for boards to move quickly on any lingering issues that will affect boardroom effectiveness. 

We would love to hear your perspective on the ripple effects of the UPC. Similar to the implementation of SOX, this story will be with us for the foreseeable future. As we have the past 30 years, we are here to help to boards navigate through changing tides. 

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Greg Lau leads the Board Advisory Practice and Brett Stephens helps lead the Board & CEO Services at RSR Partners.

RSR Partners is a boutique professional services firm headquartered in Greenwich, CT, that specializes in helping Boards and CEOs with their most critical recruiting, selection, and succession needs. The firm was founded in 1994 by industry icon, Russell S. Reynolds, Jr. The firm has conducted thousands of projects for Boards and CEOs at public, private equity backed, and family-owned businesses across a range of industries including asset management, consumer goods and services, industrial, technology, and healthcare. To learn more about RSR Partners, click here.