How Boards Work – Really?

Dambisa Moyo has written a book that fails to deliver on a great title: “How boards work and how they can work better in a chaotic world”[1].   Her own website describes her as “a pre-eminent thinker, who influences key decision-makers in strategic investment and public policy…respected for her unique perspectives, her balance of contrarian thinking with measured judgment, and her ability to turn economic insight into investible ideas”.  Her book is not the place to test the final claim.  However, the bold title of this book suggests that it might provide some evidence for the other claims but there is precious little.

Despite having served on the boards of SABMiller, Barclays Bank, Barrick Gold, Seagate Technology, 3M, Chevron, and a couple of charity boards, her account of board operation is pedestrian and, possibly because she is reluctant to bite the hand that feeds her, is merely descriptive but without providing either light and shade or texture.  It is frustrating that with a CV that suggests that she might actually be quite smart, her account of corporate governance is pitched at the level of a US college freshman, without any discussion of alternative models of board structure and board purpose (not even of the Anglo Saxon model on the other side of the Atlantic with its unitary model including substantial executive presence and the statutory obligation to consider all stakeholders under Section 176 of the UK Companies Act).

For someone who bills herself as a contrarian with unique perspectives, the changes in society that she suggests are evidence of a “cultural revolution” entering the boardroom have been mainstream for a generation (once again, little recognition of the progress made in increasing the representation of women in the board room or the degree to which changes in wider society have entered into boardroom debate – notwithstanding the survival of some dinosaurs and dinosaur attitudes).  Her account might have been a cultural revolution had she been writing in the time when Young Pioneers were waving copies of the Little Red Book, but she does not appear to be on the bleeding edge of change in the third decade of the 21st century.  Likewise, as increasing numbers of corporate leaders are signing up to environmental responsibility and addressing climate change and the Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation has been around for eighteen months, her prescriptions, though sound, are hardly earthbreaking.

One of the corporate leaders who has provided an endorsement on the dustcover describes this as “not only a must-read for the most tenured and experienced board member, but it also provides critical context for those who one day hope to have a seat at the table.  CEOs and corporate leaders everywhere would also be wise to pick up this book.”  I can only assume that this individual didn’t read the book herself – probably quite a sound move had she not chosen to perjure herself by writing such a ringing recommendation.

[1] Moyo D. (2021) How Boards Work London: The Bridge Street Press