Risk Insider: Nir Kossovsky

Speaking Volumes When D&O Defenses are Muted

By: | May 22, 2017 • 4 min read
Nir Kossovsky is the Chief Executive Officer of Steel City Re. He has been developing solutions for measuring, managing, monetizing, and transferring risks to intangible assets since 1997. He is also a published author, and can be reached at [email protected]

The Wall Street Journal headline was arresting: “Activist Investors Have a New Bloodlust: CEOs.”

The next day in the Financial Times, activist investor Jeff Ubben criticized the methods of activist firm, Elliott Management, noting that when companies are under attack, “ … you don’t ever hear the management or board side because they’re the defense, and the defense doesn’t talk.”

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To defend, a CEO could talk about his value-protecting governance, risk and compliance (GRC) investment leadership and hopefully mitigate an activist-initiated reputation crisis.

A prudent CEO would engage a credible third party to speak to the court of public opinion proactively on his and the board’s behalf, because as Ubben further noted, “ … when you [the CEO] do strike back, you’re fired.”

There is a range of alternative defensive strategies — none of which are particularly promising. The status quo, silence, is a path to disaster today.

In an age of weaponized social media, generalized anger and boards increasingly intimidated by activists, CEOs are in the crosshairs like never before.

“CEOs face an ‘unforgiving’ business environment, fraught with social, political and technological upheavals,” Marco Amitrano, head of consulting at PwC UK, recently told the Financial Times.

Silence aside, a CEO’s other historical defenses — chairing the board, board-accorded courtesies, the old-boys network, and D&O liability insurance — are no better than the Maginot line in arresting an activist blitzkrieg.

Fewer CEOs are chairing boards. Equilar, a data analytics company, reports that an increasing number of firms are appointing an independent director to run their boards. Among S&P 500 companies, 35.1 percent now have a non-executive chairman, up from 27.7 percent in 2012.

The boards are also less courteous to the CEOs. Late last year, State Street Global Advisors railed against boards that, in the Advisors’ opinion, were buckling too quickly to activist demands materially adverse to the interest of the CEO. “Say on Pay,” threats of clawbacks, shorter tenures and long-term incentives are one-way messages adding up to “don’t screw up — deal with it.”

There is a range of alternative defensive strategies — none of which are particularly promising. The status quo, silence, is a path to disaster today.

Consider the cognitive dissonance when the head of BP’s remuneration committee, Ann Dowling, said in a letter to investors “As a result — in a year of good performance and progress – (CEO) Bob Dudley’s total single figure for 2016 has been reduced by some 40 percent compared to last year.”

For male CEOs, even the protections afforded by the aptly disparaged old boys network are slipping. Being “male, pale, and stale” is today a liability in the eyes of proxy advisory groups.

According to the consultancy firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, of 1,043 CEOs who were replaced in 2016, 18.5 percent were replaced by women. In 2010, just 12.3 percent of 943 replacements were women.

Moreover, in 2013, nearly two males replaced a female CEO for every female that replaced a male CEO. The ratio flipped in 2014, and by 2016 1.3 females had replaced a male CEO for every male that replaced a female CEO.

Not that being a woman afforded any intrinsic protections, either. The New York Times in 2015 left unanswered the question of whether activist investors — all of them men — see women as softer targets.

Prompting the question was the observation that while only 23 women lead companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, at least a quarter of them had fallen into the crosshairs of activist investors.

And while D&O liability insurance was once upon a time a badge of good governance, issued only to highly qualified companies and their management, it is today commoditized and holds no standing in the court of public opinion.

And thus, both great and the average CEOs are turning over in greater numbers. In 2016, according to the executive services firm SpencerStuart, 58 of the S&P 500’s CEOs transitioned. That the highest number since 2006, a 13 percent increase over 2015, and a 57 percent increase over the nadir in 2012. The average age in 2016 was 60, which is 2 years younger than the average age in 2015.

There are two ways to give great CEOs a voice and a means to defend themselves against activists. The first is by brilliantly navigating a firm through a great reputational crisis, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol II reprise or Rolls-Royce’s Trent 9000 engine failure. Upon appreciation by the market of their excellence in leadership, both firms went on to greatly outperform their peers.

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The other strategy is an endorsement from a credible third party, such as the life-saving blessing Warren Buffet gave the CEO and select board members at Wells Fargo.

For CEOs who are not friends-of-Warren, it is better to use a growing number of creative post-PR signaling strategies — like D&O insurance once was — to communicate loudly in unambiguous financial terms that “good governance is practiced here.”

These third-party warranties and endorsements, which do include reputation insurance products, act like security alarm signs on the front lawn — they deter and blunt attacks and protect companies and individuals in leadership if those attacks do occur.

That third party signal is something that really great CEOs need to broadcast on their behalf … when all others fall silent.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]