Inside Financial Services

Splitting The CEO’s Job From The Chairman’s Is Still A Bad Idea

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It’s proxy time, which means that a bunch of companies are getting ready to hold shareholder votes on one of the dumbest ideas good-governance types never fail to put forth: proposals to split the CEO’s role from the chairman’s.

Please. As I far as I can tell, the main reason the split-the-two-jobs issue keeps appearing is that it’s a way for the governance scolds to keep feeling morally superior to the rest of us. Beyond that, I’m at a loss. If there’s any empirical evidence that companies run by a separate CEO and chairman produce better governance (or higher returns) than companies run by a single individual, I have yet to see it. And my own anecdotal experience hints that just the opposite is true. This, year for example, shareholders of two banks I know well, CoBiz Financial and U.S. Bancorp., are being asked to consider separating the two roles. Not to put too fine a point on it, but any shareholder at either company who votes yes on the matter needs to have his head examined. CoBiz and U.S. Bancorp are two of the best-managed banks in the business, and are run by individuals of exceptional ability and integrity. There is absolutely no reason (other than, say, useless moral preening) to strip either man of the chairman’s title.

As far as that goes, if shareholders of a given company do strip its CEO of the chairman’s title, they might want to wonder why that CEO has the job in the first place. If he’s not to be trusted to do his job competently without outside adult supervision, one might wonder if he can be trusted to do his job competently at all.

I’ve followed and invested in public companies for over 30 years and concluded long ago that the governance question doesn’t lend itself to blanket formulas or checklists. Rather, in my experience, at any given company you know good governance when you see it. I have no problem with a board opting to have a separate chairman and CEO. Some truly great companies have gone that route. Others, obviously, combine the rjobs. Either choice is fine. Just don’t believe that decisionmaking-by-rote can automatically improve how a company is managed and governed. It can’t.

What do you think? Let me know!

4 Responses to “Splitting The CEO’s Job From The Chairman’s Is Still A Bad Idea”

  1. SWPilgrim

    An unusually experienced non-golfer might, via 80 hour weeks, be able to manage a high yield organization. Regardless of the title, he or she is the chief risk officer and responds directly to the supervisory authorities for compliance! Good luck!

  2. Bill Bruss

    Spot on. The “split the Chairman/CEO” movement is much like the ISS corporate governance quickscore, which “grades” governance based on strictly quantitative factors without any qualitative assessment of a company’s board or management.

  3. Fred the Shred

    The British governance pooh-bahs decided that splitting the chairman from the CEO was good corporate governance in the wake of the Robert Maxwell scandal(s). So, UK PLCs all have nonexecutive chairmen and women. This includes all the British banks including RBS, Lloyds and Barclays. And it didn’t make any difference, they all imploded just like Lehman, Bear, Wachovia et al. It made no difference at all.

  4. Nick Ruffin

    The role of a Board of Directors is to represent the interests of the shareholders of a company. A Board’s key tasks are to select the CEO, to evaluate ther perfomance of the CEO, and to set compensation for the CEO and senior mangement. In addition, the Board of Directors nominates new directors.

    If the CEO is also the Chairman of the Board, the CEO answers to a Board which he or she leads and influences. Sometimes this works well; somtimes it does not.

    if you look at the BOD of Walmart or other companies in which the founding family is a major shareholder, the Chairman is usually a member or representative of the family or an independent director. In these cases, there is no question that the voice of shareholders is heard.

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