building the healthy corporation

  • Date:01 Sep 2005
  • Type:CompanyDirectorMagazine

Building the healthy corporation

It is difficult – but vital – for managers to strike a balance between the short and long terms, say Richard Dobbs, Keith Leslie, and Lenny T. Mendonca*
Growing numbers of organisations – including banks on both sides of the Atlantic, a global natural-resources group, and a leading UK retailer – are adding an important new “stone” to the 21st-century business lexicon.
“Performance and health” is a metaphor that derives its power from a simple comparison with the human body. Just as people may seem reasonably well today but may not have the physical condition for the rigors of a long and active life, so too companies that are profitable in the short term may not have what it takes to perform well year after year.
Managing companies for success across a range of timeframes – a requisite for achieving both performance and health – is one of the toughest challenges in business. Recently, it has been especially hard: turbulent economic conditions, for example, have concentrated the collective minds of many executives on pure survival. The fact that 10 of the largest 15 bankruptcies in history have occurred since 2001 is a strong deterrent to business building, playing up its inherent risks.
Businesses complain that financial markets increasingly focus on quarterly results and give little credit to strategies for creating longer-term value, particularly if they depress today’s profits. Empirical evidence largely contradicts such claims. But some noisy analysts undoubtedly do focus on short-term performance and thus unwittingly drive wedges between managements, boards, and investors.
Management teams must urgently take the lead in showing their boards and the capital markets that they are nurturing the long-term health of their companies. They must act not only to improve corporate performance in the near term but also to lay the foundations today for consistent and resilient growth in years to come.
Tools intended to encourage a more balanced approach and to promote “systems thinking” have been available to managers for some time. But our experience suggests that these tools are either being applied too mechanically (and therefore ineffectively) or being squeezed out by the focus on survival and by perceived pressure from investors. And that’s to say nothing of the increased near-term demands created by new regulations on financial reporting.
Good short-term results are important, of course; only by delivering them will management build confidence in its ability to realise longer-term strategies. But companies must also act today to ensure that they can convert their growth prospects, capabilities, relationships, and assets into future cash flows.
One major European financial-services company recently discovered how easy it is for performance and health to get out of balance. After the company had achieved an impressive turnaround in its short-term financial performance in the three years to 2004, it found to its dismay that falling customer service levels, a huge increase in staff turnover, and a fall in its share price had accompanied this success.
Management complained that the financial markets didn’t understand what the company had achieved. But in reality they understood, all too well, that its short-term success had been purchased at the expense of its underlying health.
Such shortsighted behaviour is widespread. In one recent survey a majority of the managers polled said that they would forgo an investment offering a decent return on capital if it meant missing their quarterly earnings expectations.
Indeed, more than 80 percent of the executives responding said they would cut expenditures on R&D and marketing to ensure that they met their quarterly earnings targets – even if they believed that the cuts were destroying long-term value.
This survey shows that even if more organisations are now talking the language of health, many address the issues only at a superficial level. For instance, “scorecards” – a favourite approach of many companies to balancing near – and long-term considerations – too often consist of disconnected metrics that confuse the organisation and lack any real impact.
The chief executive of an international bank was recently shocked to find that members of his senior-management team were responding only to revenue targets and deliberately ignoring broader metrics of performance and health.
What underlies the breakdown of many long-term initiatives is the tendency of managers to defend the performance of their own silos instead of debating and helping to shape action across the whole organisation. In silo-structured companies, managers typically argue about the virtues of one metric as opposed to another (especially if transfer prices are involved), deflect debate to other parts of the organisation, and set up barriers to change.
This kind of behaviour isn’t deliberately malevolent; it is driven by deeply held beliefs about a manager’s roles and boundaries and reinforced by the idea that the body corporate is the sum of many discrete units, each with independent characteristics, that should be monitored with a battery of metrics.
Unfortunately, this mind-set undermines any systemic understanding of how to manage activities coherently, across the whole organisation, to underpin healthy growth.
The good news is that a clear health consciousness is developing after the startling corporate-health failures of recent years, and convincing prescriptions for change are emerging.
In responses to a McKinsey survey, conducted in early 2005, of more than 1000 board directors, most of them made it clear that they want to devote less time to discussing the latest financial results and much more to setting strategy, assessing risks, developing new leaders, and monitoring other issues that underpin a company’s long-term health.
Fully 70 percent of the directors want additional information about markets: a more detailed analysis of customers, competitors, and suppliers, for example. Upward of half want additional information about organisational issues, such as skills and capabilities. Two in five are eager for the facts about relations with outside stakeholders, such as regulators, the media, and the wider community.
Above all, boards want to help their companies seize prospects for long-term growth and avoid exposure to risks from organisational blind spots or from any unwillingness to acknowledge external change. Thinking deeply about performance and health helps executives to address both aspirations.
Companies that attend to five different aspects of performance and health can build the resilience and the organisational capacity not only to deliver but also to sustain both.

Strategy
First, a company’s strategy should be reflected in a portfolio of initiatives that consciously embraces different time horizons. A typical large company does, of course, include business units with distinct strategies, but few of them could really help it adapt to events or capitalise on new opportunities.
Some initiatives in the kind of portfolio that we recommend should bolster a company’s short-term performance. Others should create options for the future – new products or services, new markets, and new processes or value chains. A key management challenge is to design and implement initiatives that balance the company’s performance and underlying health on a risk-adjusted basis.
Such a portfolio of initiatives helps companies overcome certain traditional shortcomings of strategy, such as its episodic nature and a tendency to ignore the resources and capabilities needed for execution and to plan the future instead of for the future. By developing and managing a portfolio of initiatives – rather than a single approach to strategy – companies can lower the risk that unpredictable events will place them on the wrong foot.

Metrics
A robust set of organisational metrics allows executives to monitor a company’s performance and health. What’s needed is a manageable number of metrics that strike a balance among different areas of the business and are linked directly to whatever drives its value. A vast assortment of metrics is self-defeating.
Companies should identify the health and performance metrics most important to them: product development, customer satisfaction, government relations, or the retention of talent, for example. (The answer will of course depend on a company’s industry and strategy.)
Most organisations track standard financial metrics. But we would also expect some metrics to cover operations (the quality and consistency of key value-creating processes), organisational issues (the company’s depth of talent and ability to motivate and retain employees), the state of the company’s product markets and its position within them (including the quality of customer relationships), and the nature of relationships with external parties, such as suppliers, regulators, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).
Systematically identifying and tracking health metrics that reflect the strategy of a business – and the forces driving its value – is difficult. A useful framework is to think of value creation in the short, medium, and long term.
A consumer products company must know whether it raised its profits by raising prices or by increasing its market share
Short-term health metrics show how a company achieved its recent results and thus indicate its likely performance over the next one to three years.
Another set of metrics should highlight a company’s prospects for maintaining and improving its rate of growth and returns on capital over the next one to five years. Other medium-term metrics should be monitored as well – for example, metrics comparing a company’s product launches with those of competitors (perhaps the amount of time needed to reach peak sales).
For the longer term, companies should develop metrics assessing their ability to sustain earnings from their current activities and to identify and exploit new areas where they could grow. They must monitor any threats – new technologies, new customer preferences, new ways of serving customers – to their current businesses. And to ensure that they have enough growth opportunities to create value when those businesses inevitably mature, they must monitor the number of new initiatives under way (as well as estimate the size of the relevant product markets) and develop metrics that track the initiatives’ progress.
Ultimately, it is people who make companies deliver, so metrics should show how well a business retains key employees and the true depth of its management talent. Again, what’s important varies by industry.
Constant fine-tuning is needed to come up with the right mix of metrics. For a typical business unit, top management and the board should monitor no more than three to five metrics, representing different areas of the business for each time frame. To make sure that the metrics are appropriate, the finance department or the performance-management group should regularly reexamine the way the company creates value.
Companies must avoid the erroneous thinking that too often juxtaposes “hard” metrics for performance with “soft” ones for health. They can and should attach hard numbers to health metrics, such as the motivation and capabilities of their employees. Similarly, they can and should track their current performance with softer metrics, such as the quality of their latest earnings or of their relationships with opinion formers.
The next step is for companies to change the nature of their dialogue with key stakeholders, particularly the capital markets and employees. For the capital markets, that means first identifying investors who will support a given strategy and then attracting them. Talking about corporate health to court hedge fund managers pursuing the next bid, for example, is pointless.
Management teams should also spend serious time with analysts who follow their companies, in order to explain their views on the industry and to show how strategies will create sustainable advantages. It may also be necessary to highlight metrics tracking performance and health. Vague talk about shareholder value, without a time frame or without addressing the specifics of a business, just isn’t meaningful.
Companies might also be wise to separate discussions of quarterly results from those focusing on strategy, as several major international businesses have recently done. And they should ensure that analysts spend time with operational managers, whose effectiveness is often the crucial factor in attempts to estimate a company’s ability to sustain its performance.
Reaching out to employees is just as important. The complaint that “we don’t know what’s going on” often indicates that a company’s leaders are communicating results rather than long-term intentions.
Corporate leaders should remember their obligation to manage both performance and health. Thinking about health typically requires a range of new skills and characteristics – not necessarily those that worked well in the past. One hallmark of great, enduring companies is a willingness to involve future generations of leaders in their own development.
Those who casually or randomly articulate themes for action run a risk of making the organisation schizophrenic. The combination of “initiative overload” and a reluctance on senior management’s part to produce a simple and coherent agenda can be particularly damaging.
Focusing the leadership on personal behaviour is also crucial to maintaining a company’s health. We know of a public-sector body, a financial institution, and a natural-resources group that all refer to the leaders of business units as “princes” rather than “barons.” This terminology resonates with the three organisations because princes are concerned for the whole, while barons protect their own turf – if necessary at the expense of the other parts.
Companies can likewise encourage a wider perspective on the business, and stronger linkages across boundaries, by giving senior managers a portfolio of roles. Alternatively, some companies have successfully developed peer groups of business unit leaders who share a collective responsibility for their businesses.
To create this kind of leadership, companies must take a longer-term view of the way they manage talent and career tracks and of the incentives created by money, recognition, and promotion.
The growing demand for corporate probity and better governance has reinforced the CEO’s pivotal leadership role. Board meetings therefore represent a useful opportunity – and discipline – for testing the organisation’s resilience to pressure and change over time.
The need for resilience is greatest when investments take a long time to pay off, as they generally do for natural-resource and pharmaceutical companies and public-sector bodies. CEOs and boards lack rapid performance feedback in such cases and thus need to keep a close eye on a range of considerations: regulatory influence, marketing and supplier partnerships, and organisational skills.
Given the current economic and regulatory environment, a focus on short-term performance is understandable, but it is nonetheless unbalanced. Companies must again learn how to meet next year’s earnings expectations while at the same time implementing the platforms needed to deliver strong and sustainable earnings growth year after year.
Achieving this dual focus involves thinking about strategy, communication, and leadership in new ways. And it calls for the creation of a carefully designed set of metrics – balanced across the business and linked to the creation of value over the short, medium, and long term – that can help management teams and boards monitor their ability to stay on course.

* Reprinted from The McKinsey Quarterly, 2005 Number 3. Richard Dobbs is a director and Keith Leslie is a principal in McKinsey’s London office; Lenny Mendonca is a director in

 

 


The share market values health as well as performance


The fixation of a few analysts on the short-term results in next quarter’s earnings announcements shouldn’t blind management to the reality that these announcements also contain objective and reliable information about long-term performance. And that is why most investors pay attention to them.
However, an examination of share prices shows that expectations of future performance are the main driver of shareholder returns: in almost all industries and almost all stock exchanges, cash flow expectations beyond the next three years account for 70 to 90 percent of a share’s market value. These longer-term expectations in turn reflect judgments on growth and long-term profitability – a lesson relearned after the dot-com bust.
Long-term expectations vary from one industry to another. Cash flows in the global semiconductor industry, for example, must grow by more than 10 percent a year during the next ten years to justify current market valuations. In retailing and consumer packaged goods, the required growth rate ranges from 3 to 6 percent; in electric utilities, it is around 2 percent.
Future expectations also clearly drive the stock price of individual companies, thus explaining the often widely differing P/Es or market-to-book ratios of companies with similar reported earnings.
Even the private equity sector, renowned for its focus on short-term operational improvements, believes that health matters. Most private equity firms look to realise their investments in a five-year time frame, but they must still have a credible proposition for future earnings and cash flow growth to underpin a sale or IPO.the San Francisco office.


“When we moved to stop quarterly reporting it was considered radical, but we did not and have not received any negative comments. No institution has told us it is necessary for us to report quarterly. We believe it breeds an atmosphere of short-termism.” – Michael Chaney, former Wesfarmers CEO and current NAB chairman commenting on the reason why Wesfarmers dispensed with quarterly reports

“I don’t think quarterly reports are helpful one way or the other. They either raise or lower expectations in a very short cycle. People who don’t achieve the targets they have forecast are punished when they might actually be doing something quite constructive. Equally if you exceed your forecast you can also get into trouble. We don’t really want boards to fall into the trap of judging their CEO performance on quarterly targets. They would say they don’t but it is inevitable that if you have the figures you look at them. There is such a fuss about short-termism in the market now that it is a good time to take up this issue. You just need some people to break from the pack. Quarterly reports are no great use to us as superannuation trustees. What we must also look at is the reward structure of fund managers which is geared to short-term results.”
– Michael Sullivan president of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors