The Ancient Agora Museum in Athens houses a host of artifacts related to Athenian democracy, including a clepsydra, or water clock, which was used to impose time limits on speeches before tribunals and in political discourse in late fifth century B.C.
I became transfixed by the piece on a trip to Greece with my family a few years back, and joked with my kids about setting up a similar clock at home so we could keep their teen-aged pleas to a minimum.
Recently, I thought about the clock as we pulled together our Annual Report issue on “The State of Corporate Democracy.” The focus of the cover package is on the evolving shareholder meeting, and a theme that kept coming up over and over again was voice — the voice of individual shareholders in particular.
We debated among our editorial staff the differences between political and corporate democracy, and whether public companies are an economic extension of political democracy or not. We pondered whether it was a legal obligation, or just fair, to give shareholders of all sizes the same voice.
The water clock, it can be argued, limited voice. It’s very invention, however, shows how important a part of democracy, going back to ancient times, individual voices have been.
In this issue, we look at one significant part of corporate democracy, the shareholder meeting. We delve into the growing corporate trend toward virtual shareholder meetings, and the pushback against this by some investors. Are virtual meetings just like the water clock, limiting voices so that the process is more efficient? Or do they deny shareholders a true voice?
Clearly shareholders can make their voices heard through the proxy process, but speaking out and being face to face with management has been part of the corporate landscape for hundreds of years, as you’ll see in our article on the history of the shareholder meeting.
We also share examples of those extremes among corporate leaders who still appreciate in-person annual meetings, including the Woodstock of shareholder gatherings, Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting. And we take on the issue of corporate gadflies, the bane of many directors and executives, and the heroes of many seeking stronger shareholder rights for smaller investors.
Also in this issue are the top corporate governance stories that gripped the headlines this past year, including Wells Fargo’s massive fraud and the ever-escalating threat of cyber breaches. We look back to look forward and hopefully get all of us thinking about how to approach key challenges with new strategies.