The Case for Professional Boards

If you want to improve governance at a corporation, do you need professional directors? Did SOX merely add a layer of legal obligations of board, and do little to improve the quality of those serving as directors?

Robert C. Pozen makes the case in The Case for Professional Boards in the December issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Pozen starts by limiting the size of the board to seven people: the CEO plus six independent directors. He points to research that groups of this size are optimal for decision-making. Bigger groups can result in “social loafing”, relying on others to take the lead and ceding decision-making. Six also gives you enough people to populate the three key committees: nominating, compensation and audit.

The greatest need in a board is expertise. Pozen expects an accounting expert to head the audit committee. He also allows for one generalist to provide a broad perspective on the company’s strategy. But the rest should be experts in the company’s main line of business. That is not easy. Independent experts are most likely working for company’s competitors. He expects that most professional directors would be retired executives in the company’s industry. That would also lead to the elimination of mandatory retirement ages for directors.

Pozen makes a strong case. “To improve corporate oversight we need not more legal procedures but a culture of governance in which directors commit to the role as their primary occupation.” It’s just very radical strategy for companies who have grown and gathered their directors organically.