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3.6 Board Leadership: Should We Separate the Chairman and CEO Positions?

Few issues in corporate governance are as contentious as the question of whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separated or combined. In the United Kingdom, about 95% of all Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 350 companies adhere to the principle that different people should hold each of these roles. In the United States, by contrast, most companies still combine them, although the idea of splitting the two roles is gaining momentum. In the last 2 years, Boeing, Dell, the Walt Disney Company, MCI, Oracle, and Tenet Healthcare all have done so, and a new study finds that roughly one third of U.S. companies have adopted such a split-leadership structure, up from a historical level of about one fifth.This finding is reported in a September 2004 study of more than 2,500 companies across the world by Governance Metrics International, the New York–based corporate governance ratings agency.

Arguments for splitting the two roles, emanating chiefly from the United Kingdom—and other countries that overwhelmingly embrace the idea of separate roles (particularly Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, Canada)—reflect four schools of thought.Coombes and Wong (2004).

The first is that the separation of the chairman and CEO positions is a key component of board independence because of the fundamental differences and potential conflicts between these roles. The CEO runs the company—the argument goes—and the chairman runs the board, one of whose responsibilities it is to monitor the CEO. If the chairman and the CEO are one and the same, it is hard for the board to criticize the CEO or to express independent opinions. A separate chairman, responsible for setting the board’s agenda, is more likely to probe and encourage debate at board meetings. Separating the two roles is, therefore, essentially a check on the CEO’s power.

A second argument is that a nonexecutive chairman can serve as a valuable sounding board, mentor, and advocate to the CEO. Proponents of this view note that CEOs today face enough challenges without having to run the board and that a relationship with the chairman based on mutual trust and regular contact is good for the CEO, shareholders, and the company. For this to happen, however, it is essential that, from the outset, the two roles be clearly defined to avoid territorial disputes or misunderstandings.

A third reason for supporting the two-role model is that a nonexecutive chairman is ideally placed to assess the CEO’s performance, taking into account the views of fellow board directors. Advocates maintain that the presence of a separate, independent chairman can help maintain a longer term perspective and reduce the risk that the CEO will focus too much on shorter term goals, especially when there are powerful incentives and rewards to do so. They add that he is also in a good position to play a helpful role in succession planning. And when a CEO departs, voluntarily or otherwise, the chairman’s continued presence in charge of the board can reduce the level of trauma in the business and the investor community.

A fourth and final argument concerns the time needed to do both jobs and do them well. It can be argued that as companies grow more complex, a strong board is more vital than ever to the health of the company, and this requires a skilled chairman who is not distracted by the daily pull of the business and can devote the required time and energy. This may take one or more days per week and involve such tasks as maintaining contact with directors between meetings, organizing board evaluations, listening to shareholder concerns, acting as an ambassador for the company, and liaising with regulators, thereby allowing the CEO to concentrate on running the business.

Although these arguments increasingly resonate with U.S. directors and shareholders, many CEOs resist the change. Why, they ask, should corporate wrongdoing at a small number of S&P 500 companies be a compelling reason for changing a system that has worked well for so long? Moral and ethical failures are part of the human condition, they note, and no rules or regulations can guarantee the honesty of a leader. Some allow that, at times, a temporary split in roles may be desirable or necessary—when a company is experiencing a crisis, for example, or when a new CEO is appointed who lacks governance and boardroom experience. But they maintain that such instances are infrequent and temporary and do not justify sweeping change. Overall, they argue, the combined model has served the U.S. economy well, and splitting the roles might set up two power centers, which would impair decision making.

Critics of the split-role model also point out that finding the right chairman is difficult and that what works in the United Kingdom does not necessarily work in the United States. Executives in the United Kingdom tend to retire earlier and tend to view the nonexecutive chairman role (often a 6-year commitment) as the pinnacle of a business career. This is not the case in the United States, where the normal retirement age is higher.

To allay concerns that combined leadership compromises a board’s independence, opponents of separation have proposed the idea of a “lead directorA nonexecutive who acts as a link between a corporation’s chairman-CEO and its outside directors.”: a nonexecutive who acts as a link between the chairman–CEO and the outside directors, consults with the chairman–CEO on the agenda of board meetings and performs other independence-enhancing functions. Some 30% of the largest U.S. companies have taken this approach. Its defenders claim that—combined with other measures, such as requiring a majority of independent directors and board meetings without the presence of management—this alternative obviates the need for a separate chairman.

On balance, the arguments for separating the roles of chairman and CEO are persuasive because separation gives boards a structural basis for acting independently. And reducing the power of the CEO in the process may not be bad; compared with other leading Western economies, the United States concentrates corporate authority in a single person to an unusual extent.Coombes and Wong (2004). Furthermore, rather than create confusion about accountability, the separation of roles makes it clear that the board’s principal function is to govern—that is, to oversee the company’s management, and hence to protect the shareholders’ interests—while the CEO’s function is to manage the company well.

Separating the two roles, of course, is no guarantee for board effectiveness. A structurally independent board will not necessarily exercise that independence: Some companies with a separate chairman and CEO have failed miserably in carrying out their oversight functions. What is more, a chairman without a strong commitment to the job can stand in the way of board effectiveness. The separation of roles must therefore be complemented by the right boardroom culture and by a sound process for selecting the chairman. The challenge of finding the right nonexecutive chairman who must not only have the experience, personality, and leadership skills to mesh with the current board and management but also must show that the board is not a rubber stamp for the CEO, should not be underestimated. The ideal candidate must have enough time to devote to the job, strong interpersonal skills, a working knowledge of the industry, and a willingness to play a behind-the-scenes role. The best candidate is often an independent director who has served on the board for several years.