No time for the timid: it isn't easy seeing into the future, and certainly not easy doing the right thing by shareholders in the long run--but that is what the board is supposed to do.

Author:Weiner, Edie
Position::ENDNOTE
 
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WE HAVE ALL HEARD the caution that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in one part of the world can eventually have a domino effect that leads to a hurricane in another part of the world. There are people who don't, and won't, believe that. But consider this: a college student (Mark Zucker-berg) is dumped by his girlfriend in Boston. In order to vent his frustration and get revenge, he designs a girl rating site that eventually becomes Facebook--which eventually plays a significant role in bringing down governments in the Middle East. A girl rejects a boy, and a few years later the entire world reels from higher energy prices and political instability.

This same effect happens time after time. Boards today are presented with a host of issues and their consequences that are not adequately addressed in the course of normal operations. Competition is coming from completely unanticipated sources:

* It was not the putting of news on the Internet that dealt a fatal blow to many newspapers, but rather the advent of Craigslist, which eliminated the income from want ads.

* Blockbuster was the darling of the stock market until Netflix introduced an entirely new distribution channel for rentals, and now online movies threaten to disintermediate even that channel.

* Consider Sony, the company that breathed life into the vision that the future would be about portable, personal and programmable listening entertainment. By introducing the Walkman, Sony changed the music business forever. But when the next version of Sony's own vision, Napster, came along, it was Apple that was quicker to see the revenue possibilities. What should have been a Sony iPod was Apple's reinvention.

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Too often management traps boards into focusing on short-term strategies, when the real work of governance is de-fining and maintaining an overarching vision. The strategies are only a means to an end, and too often we protect the means without considering what we have to do in order to achieve the larger goal.

Not an easy thing

It is not always easy to raise the possibility of unintended consequences or long-term vision when many on the board are focused on next quarter's earnings.

In the 1980s, I served on an insurance company board that spent much of its time considering investment portfolios. It was the very beginning of cable television, and none of the directors wanted to invest in such a risky industry. I was the lone voice in attempting over and over...

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