United States

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We’re in a new world — one that requires a new paradigm of management leadership and board oversight.   


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After the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, many companies announced that they would halt political contributions, either permanently or for a defined period. Some discontinuations involved a particular political party, some individual legislators and some were complete stops on all contributions.


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In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court gave corporations relatively unlimited free-speech rights to spend corporate funds for political causes and candidates. A part of the majority’s reasoning was that if corporate media entities — for example, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and CNN — have undeniable First Amendment rights to endorse causes and candidates, why should non-media corporate entities be denied the same rights?


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If boards of directors and senior managers have not already examined their relationships with government entities from a “big picture” perspective, now is the time to get serious about the endeavor, and I don’t just mean laws and regulations that might fall under a compliance rubric. In an environment where societal and even judicial expectations of corporations have gone beyond maximizing profits, corporations need to reexamine their relationships with government entities to move closer to a form of partnership with government, rather than seeing government as an adversary.


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My three careers have been in business, government and academia. I have found each to be populated with many extremely talented and dedicated individuals. But these key elements of America’s economy seem to have evolved a relationship that resides somewhere between disconnected and adversarial. As a result, the nation finds itself with a competitive machine wherein the whole is less than the sum of its parts. This matters.


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When the nation was riveted by protests over police killings, should companies have added their voices to the discussion? Should every company have an official and public position on sustainability?

Questions like these are arising with increasing frequency, as companies find themselves under pressure — from employees, customers and the community at large — to speak out on issues that some might consider political. To answer them, companies need to evaluate whether to respond to an issue, what form the response should take, and who should deliver it.


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Short-term bias in corporate thinking is still the “elephant in the boardroom.” Everyone knows it is there. And everyone knows that, in the post-COVID world, short-termism in corporate decision making is as problematic as relying on a 3-mile radar for a supertanker. Yet most corporations have a strategic focus of three to five years at the most.

However, several major trends are converging that could finally provide strong reason to confront this elephant:


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The use of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) has become an increasingly popular route to the public markets, and there appears to be no sign this will slow down. In 2020, SPACs netted record-breaking IPO proceeds of over $50 billion, and the more than 60 completed and announced SPAC mergers dwarfed the 21 and 22 seen in 2018 and 2019, respectively, based on public filings and assumed transaction sizes. If this trend continues, active and filed SPACs could result in more than 200 new public companies worth over $300 billion.


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The position of CEO has always been stressful. However, today (and tomorrow and tomorrow and…) that stress is compounded by a seemingly endless pandemic and social unrest. Directors and boards would do well to pay attention and check in with their top executives.


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The American national anthem is the only one that begins with a question: “Oh, say can you see…?” Other anthems are more assertive and less enquiring. For example, “La Marseillaise” is a call to arms, without any questions asked. The American anthem also ends with a question: “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?”