The Elephant in the Boardroom

LONDON – Business and government leaders worry about a multitude of issues these days. Climate change, weapons of mass destruction, water scarcity, migration, and energy are the greatest threats we face, according to the 750 experts surveyed for the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2016. And at the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos this year, the sheer number of unsettled issues – the Middle East meltdown, the European Union’s future (particularly given the possibility of a British exit), America’s presidential election, the refugee crisis, China’s economic slowdown, oil prices, and more – was itself unsettling.

But consider this: None of the risks highlighted in the WEF report caused the recent spike in debt crises or the wave of scandals that engulfed – just in the last year – Volkswagen, Toshiba, Valeant, and FIFA. These developments (and many more) are rooted in a more pedestrian – and perennial – problem: the inability or refusal to recognize the need for course correction (including new management).

As anti-establishment parties and candidates gain ground with voters throughout Europe and in the United States, political leaders who continue to pursue a business-as-usual approach could find themselves looking for new jobs. And the same is true of business leaders: Activist investors are fed up and determined to force change, either with a hands-on approach or by voting with their feet and divesting from companies that don’t meet their criteria.

As Barbara Novick, a vice chair of BlackRock, noted on a panel on corporate governance and ethics at this year’s Davos gathering, her firm looks carefully at whether the boards of companies in which BlackRock invests include people who are engaged and asking hard questions consistently throughout the year.