Both stakeholder theory and the modern concept of organisational governance place importance on the organisation fulfilling the needs of all of its stakeholders. The older, generally discredited ‘stockholder’ theory suggested the primary purpose of an organisation was to maximise value for its owners – generally interpreted by those in power as looking after the short-term interests of ‘those in power’ or the few with a direct investment in the organisation.
Three on-going sagas demonstrate the fallacy of taking a short term ‘stockholder’ approach to creating value.
1. The FIFA Crisis: Ignoring the alleged criminality of many of the key actors, my view is the biggest ‘governance failure’ in FIFA for the last decade or more has been the perceived method of allocating development funds to national soccer authorities. The perception is that most of these funds were distributed at the behest of Sepp Blatter, and therefore if the associations wanted to keep on receiving their development funding they needed to vote for Blatter.
There is nothing wrong with funding the development of the game – it is one of FIFA’s primary objectives. The governance breakdown was in the lack of a robust and transparent process for allocating the money to soccer associations that could make the most beneficial use of the funds and requiring accountability for the expenditure. The $billions in largely unaccounted largess distributed on a less than transparent basis is I suspect the root cause of much of the evil besetting FIFA at the present time.
Its too early to determine the damage to both FIFA and the game of soccer (football) from the breakdown in governance but one thing is already very clear, the big loser over the last decade has been the game, its players and its supporters – ultimately the stakeholders who really matter.
2. The on-going Banking Crisis: The focus of banks on employing and rewarding greedy people focused on maximising their bonuses at the expense of the Banks customers and shareholders lead to the financial crisis and a series of other failures, reviews and prosecutions in the USA, UK and Australia at least.
In Australia, the governance failure was senior managers and the Board’s Directors putting short-term profits ahead of the long term development of the bank. Front line sales people were paid to sell inappropriate products to clients – they do not get bonuses for not selling product even if it is in the best interest of the client. Middle managers were paid to ignore potential problems – their KPIs and bonuses were driven by the sales volumes of their staff, etc.
The banks and their stockholders did very well for a while, now many of the problems created by this governance and cultural failure are starting to emerge, the short term stock speculators are taking their profits and dumping bank stocks. Trust in the banking system is at an all time low (financial advisers are deemed less trustworthy then politicians). Very few of the stakeholders in the baking industry, including employees, long term investors, clients or governments are on the ‘winning side’. I’m waiting to see what game changing ‘disruptive innovation’ emerges – anyone offering a viable alternative to the banks has a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity to start up in a market looking for a viable alternative to ‘big banks’.
3. The on-going Child Abuse Crisis: The Australian Government’s Royal Commission into child abuse continues to uncover major breakdowns in governance in a vast range of organisations. The thing I find most upsetting is the abject failure of the leadership in most of these organisations to uphold the values of the organisation. Abuse was ignored, covered up, secret payments made to ‘settle complaints’, etc. The focus of the various churches, school and other institutional leaders was always a short term attempt to protect the institution from ‘bad publicity’. Hide the perpetrators of the evil and diminish the claims of the abused children (causing even more distress and harm).
The long term damage this short-sighted policy of ‘cover-up’ and ‘look-the-other-way’ will cause to the churches in particular has yet to emerge but I suspect there will be massive consequences that damage both the institution and the people the institutions serve, their congregations.
In each of these cases, the governance failure started at the very top of the organisation, the Executive Committee, Directors, and Bishops failed to develop a culture focused on achieving good outcomes for all of the respective organisation’s stakeholders and allowed corrupt cultures to develop focused on advantaging a very select group of ‘stockholders’. The resulting crises will be causing damage to the organisations and their stakeholders for decades to come. Unfortunately in the vast majority of cases the people responsible for the breakdown of governance in their organisation are still hanging on to their jobs and pretending the failures are the fault of people lower down the organisational hierarchy.
Avoiding this type of problem is not easy but it starts with the governing bodies recognising that they, and they alone, can set the cultural and ethical tone for an organisation. The functions of governance outlined in our White Paper may seem soft and fuzzy concepts but if they are not implemented effectively and rigorously the next crisis will only be a matter of time. Long term success can only be assured by governing for all stakeholders, which in turn requires an ethical framework and a culture that demands transparency and accountability (as well as technical excellence) from everyone working in the organisations hierarchy.