Why Leaders Must Adapt To Evolving ESG Demands

By Helle Bank Jorgensen, CEO of Competent Boards

Earlier this year, I took part in a fascinating session with the World Economic Forum as part of the New Champion Dialogues 2022 series. Hosted by Olivier Schwab, Managing Director at WEF, I was joined by Anushka Bogdanov, Chair and founder of Risk Insights and Jason Jay, Senior Director at MIT Sloan School of Management. 

The discussion focused on the rapidly changing picture of environmental, social and governance (ESG) requirements for companies as they come under increasing pressure from stock markets to provide transparent, measurable and comparable data on their activities. 

And let’s not forget pressure from employees, suppliers, customers and other societal stakeholders. ESG risks and opportunities are a fast-moving field, with new regulations and expectations coming thick and fast. 

It starts and ends with the board of directors

For companies that want to effectively adapt to these evolving ESG requirements, including climate change, that process must start and end with the board of directors. ESG and climate change are areas where board directors cannot provide oversight if they don’t have the insight.

Allow Japanese Citizens to Sponsor Foreign Domestic Workers

Prime Minister Abe’s requests to close schools nationwide, tele-work from home, and cancel sports events and public gatherings, have caused a great deal of strain on working mothers. More than ever before, now is the time when the Government of Japan (the GOJ) should be accelerating its stated policy to allow Japanese households to sponsor Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs).

Women are being encouraged by the government to enter the labor force, with the expectation that they will become executives and join Boards of Directors. If the government expects to reach its own goal for women to constitute 10 percent all corporate directors during this year (2020), it will need to rapidly increase the range of “options” that women have for childcare and elderly care.

Memo to Shareholders of Kirin HD, from a Director Candidate

Independent Franchise Partners (IFP) has submitted a shareholder proposal nominating Kanako Kikuchi (an experienced global pharmaceutical executive) and myself as independent directors. Glass, Lewis supports electing both of us, but it seems that ISS has “split the baby” and only supports me. If investors could vote for Ms. Kikuchi as well, it would greatly help ensure that the board makes a fully informed, objective and independent assessment of the strategy on an ongoing basis.

Both of us have no past relations with IFP, and take an approach that is completely agnostic and independent of IFP’s dividend proposal. We both believe that if shareholders do not opt for that proposal, – or in any case – it is most prudent to withhold any decisions about the strategy until such time as when we are on the board and can ask questions and are privy to all internal analysis and confidential information. Therefore, we would both join the board with no pre-decision(s) made before knowing all the facts. This is the only logical position to take as a truly independent director. I have informed IFP in no uncertain terms that my philosophy and legal duty is to answer to all shareholders, and that I may well not agree with positions that IFP has taken or may take in the future. IFP has no problem with this.

Many investors may not realize that unless Ms. Kikuchi is elected, there will be no one with global biopharma experience on this board just at the time when that skill set is most needed. Given the company’s proclaimed strategy to “bridge” into health science products (which could be a good one for all I know), this is not wise and is of great concern to me.

Metrical:”Ex-CEO advisors”

This month METRICAL shows how the disclosure about ex-CEO advisors has progressed from a year ago. As shown the table below, in October 2018, 829 companies on METRICAL’s research universe disclosed the number of ex-CEOs (ex- Representative Directors) who retained positions as “advisor” in the company after stepping down as CEO. Of these companies that voluntarily disclosed, 474 companies had ex-CEO advisors. A year later in October 2019, a total of 894 companies disclosed the number of ex-CEOs who retained such advisory positions seat in the company after stepping down from the top management position. Of these 894 companies, 503 companies had ex-CEO advisors in October 2019.

Vision with Core Values and Ideologies enhances a company’s life cycle

We have been observing that life cycles of the companies are shortening every 5 years. The visionary companies are time tested and standing tall and withstanding the headwinds and adversaries in the journey of the Company Life Cycle of even 100 years! Who are such visionary companies? What they do and How they do? What is that core substance which get them glued from “Top to Bottom” with the same mission? How a company can be distinguished as a “VISIONARY COMPANY” from other peer following company?

Correlations Between Governance Factors and Foreign Ownership

While overseas investors’ ownership decreased a year ago, activist investors are now likely to focus on Japanese companies. Corporate governance in Japan has improved since the Corporate Governance Code was introduced in June of 2015, but progress is much slower than foreign investors hoped. At this time, we analyze the relationship between % ownership held by overseas investors and key governance criteria. The following table shows the result of our regression analysis of the 13 governance factors that METRICAL uses as criteria and two performance measures, ROE and ROA. Of the 15 factors, 14 factors are significantly correlated with level of ownership by overseas investors.

Discussion in Japan About “Clawback Clauses”

In Western countries, many companies have introduced “clawback clauses” that require executives to return performance-linked compensation to the company in certain cases. In Japan, very few companies have such clauses. There are dissident voices saying things like “compensation of Japanese executives is less than in Western companies, so there is no need to do that,” or “if you want to demand the return of paid compensation, you can file a derivative lawsuit.” In this article, I would like to review the arguments that have been made so far about clawback clauses, and consider the arguments that should be made in the future.

Disclosure of Executive Compensation Required by New Cabinet Office Order… and Companies’ Responses

On January 31, 2019, the Cabinet Office Order on Disclosure of Corporate Affairs was amended, and the format of for securities reports was changed. With regard to the securities reports for the fiscal year ending March 2019, it is said that the employees in charge of dealing with the new format were put under considerable stress and extra work. The most troubling item was probably the section on executive compensation.

The revision of the Cabinet Office Order was made in response to the Financial Council Disclosure Working Group (DWG) report published on June 28, 2018. Mr. Carlos Ghosn was arrested in November of the same year, and executive compensation, which has been a subject of much debate for some time, once again disturbed the public mind. The new format, modified under these circumstances, calls for broader and detailed information disclosure. However, the top executives of many companies view disclosure of compensation as undesirable, because it has carries the potential for divisiveness or embarrassment. Mr. Ghosn’s false statement of compensation was attributable to this sense of aversion. Not only him, but also many other executives, desire as a basic human emotion to avoid disclosure of the amount of their compensation.

What were these two contradictory vectors, – requirements from Cabinet Office Order, and the company leaders’ intentions – reflected securities reports? Although we should wait for the thorough analysis on many securities reports published at the end of June 2019, in this article I would like to convey the initial impression that I obtained by surveying a few of them.