The Rise of the Independent Chair

This article was originally published on LinkedIn here.

Over the past 30 years of working closely with public company boards and CEOs, we’ve had a front row seat on the debate of whether to keep the Chair and CEO roles separate or combine them. While shareholder proposals advocating the split are common (especially when CEO transition, underperformance, misalignment, or crisis occurs), US public companies have been allowed some freedom to choose what board leadership model works best for them. However, since 2020, we have seen a subtle but meaningful change in the power and influence of the Independent Chair that is different than the past several governance cycles.

The role of a public company CEO has become increasingly complex as societal issues now fall on management’s doorstep. In many cases, the role and responsibilities of the Independent Chair has increased to help the CEO and the board to confront the range of stakeholder concerns. However, much is predicated on the chemistry and dynamic between the CEO and Chair and whether this change is a positive and productive shift. Countless articles have been written about what makes an effective Independent Chair. But at the end of the day, the formal and nuanced definition of the Chair and CEO roles and relationship between them is at the core of success and failure. 

It is not a stretch for the outside world to imagine that when a CEO is not able to also assume the role of Chair (as it is easier for them to control the agenda), they would want to have an outsized vote to help select who would become the new Chair. Depending upon how the board views the CEO, they will either amplify or minimize the CEOs voice on that decision. At the end of the day, all stakeholders should seek to have a dynamic whereby the Chair is an adviser, a coach and supporter of the CEO but also provides constructive tension and accountability that pushes the CEO and management team to deliver on their strategic plan. As a result, the Independent Chair needs strong situational awareness to understand when to use their influence vs. authority.  

When digging into recent governance data on the 1000 most valuable US public companies, some statistics caught our attention this week:

During the business reset and inflection the past few years, half of the Independent Chairman positions turned over at the 1000 most valuable US public companies. As we saw firsthand with many of our clients, most of these boards had more than one potential Director who could serve as the new Chair. During previous cycles, it seemed more politically obvious who was the right person for the role. What has materially changed today is the amount of time and deliberation it takes to pick who should be Chair and the impact it will have on the CEO and its various stakeholders. ISS and Glass Lewis have recognized the value and new work requirements of the Independent Chair by counting it as 2 outside boards instead of 1 when considering over boarding. While I have more than a few differences of opinion with the proxy advisors. In this case, I feel they appropriately value their importance and responsibilities. 

The impact a great Independent Chair has on the board, management, and the company is not entirely visible or understood by the viewing public. But during a company’s most challenging and seminal moments, you will get peek behind the curtain.

We anticipate in the coming months helping shine a brighter spotlight on those Independent Chairs who have helped their companies get one step closer to their aspirational goals. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team if you want to share or acknowledge the impact your Chair has had on your organization. 

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Brett Stephens is the CEO of RSR Partners and helps lead 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.