NOTABLE PEOPLE: Bob Monks and the Battle to Change Corporate America

The TakeAway: Bob Monks believes new corporate governance reforms fall short, but digital tools can help advance accountability goals.

Robert A.G. Monks has a long history of pioneering work on corporate accountability.  From his tenure as first Department of Labor pension administrator (ERISA) during the Reagan administration, to his controversial 1991 campaign for a seat on the board of Sears, Roebuck, to co-founding (with Nell Minow) Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) in 1985, to co-founding LENS (1991), The Corporate Library (1999), and co-authorship (with Minow) of the foundation text, Corporate Governance (1985, with 5th edition forthcoming), as well as many related books, Monks has helped elevate corporate governance to the level of a profession.

We checked in with him about recent regulatory changes, and their implications.

Marcy Murninghan: What’s your perspective on the corporate governance reforms enacted at the Federal level?

Bob Monks: The year 2010 has been a very confusing one for corporate governance because it started in a very auspicious way.  The White House was talking about “no good crisis should be wasted”.  For people who wanted to see reform steps made in corporate governance, this gave the impression that it was going to be a year of massive change and hopefully to fulfill the wishes that we’d had for really many years.…

My surmise is, that [in April] the business community came to the conclusion that the recovery was not going to be as strong as everyone was trumpeting, that there were going to be real problems with unemployment, and a continuation of a recession.  Therefore, attention to any reform had to take second place to the real problems in the economy.  The business community took the opportunity, then, to turn on corporate governance, and to abort most of the [proposed] changes.  I think that the, at the moment, you’d have to say that the [corporate governance reform] effort of the last 30 years has been aborted

MM: Why do you say that?

BM: Because the business community appears to feel quite comfortable about its ability to influence legislation, to influence the drafting of regulations, to influence enforcement. … They’re increasingly concerned by the prospect of being meaningfully accountable in a legitimate governance system to shareholders.

MM: You’re referring to proxy access – namely, shareholder rights to nominate board candidates?

BM: Yes.  It’s quite difficult to understand in advance what the impact of that is.  I can just tell you my experience.

MM: You’re referring to the 3 percent ownership threshold in the new SEC proxy access rule?

BM: Yes.  My experience is, it is very difficult to get institutional investors to act in concert.  Mainly because all trustees, with an obligation as fiduciaries to their own beneficiaries, are extremely allergic to appearing to be delegating or diminishing in any way the purity of that commitment.  And for a trustee to cooperate with other trustees, and give up some sovereignty of the control, means putting themselves in a position where something may happen – that might marginally differ from what they would have done if it was entirely up to them.  This creates a level of anxiety in the trustees, as to whether they’ve created liability for themselves.  They subject themselves to criticism.  Therefore, it’s very unlikely to be able to put together a coalition of trustees.

You have the problem of, How do you get 3 percent? A few of the index funds, who are among the least likely to be proposing directors, might have 3 percent.  But very few of the “active investors” do — I don’t believe CalPERS has 3 percent of any of the top 100 companies.  So, it may be that once again the apparent reasonability of a goal like 3 percent, in fact, is not [easily] met, and therefore the provision is dead on arrival.

MM: So you dispute the viability of these thresholds, and believe there’s a problem with fund collaboration – large funds, particularly – on who would be a good candidate to nominate, or what the optimal criteria might be, for board membership.

BM: You know, it’s a lot easier to get a group of institutions to agree that they want to change a board, than it is to get a group of institutions to agree on a particular individual to be selected as their candidate.  … And in the public fund area, if you’re putting up a person as a nominee, you are making a political statement.  …  Reasonable people can disagree.  The recent Supreme Court nomination hearings are an example, that people can disagree about people, even people who on their face seem to be overwhelmingly qualified.  Nevertheless, reasonable people can think that they’re not appropriate for the particular position.  …  If you’re a public fund trustee, and you have to get reelected by the membership to your position, are you going to take that chance?

MM: That’s a pretty discouraging picture.  Where are the bright spots?  What about the impact of interactive technology on corporate governance and board elections?

BM: Well, this certainly is part of the good news, because it is now possible to deal with all of the theoretical conflicts of interest, and to allow for meaningful participation by all those with a beneficial interest, who represent about 70 percent of the holdings.  Modern technology provides the realistic prospect that you can be in touch with the beneficial owners – who are the ultimate owners of securities – at no cost, and that they can communicate, again, at no cost, timely instructions to vote.  So, the whole problem of legitimacy can be solved today.  And that’s an enormous step.  So, in theory, we’re in a position where it actually is possible to think of a solution that is really elegant, and that, in time, can be very good.

But, having said that, I don’t want to obscure the rather unhappy note that one shouldn’t be confused by the theoretical possibility of a correct solution, and the absolute absence of libido, by those with power to accomplish it.  And indeed, it would appear worse than that because, by the middle of 2010, the business community appears to have made a decision that they would oppose advances in corporate governance and they would prefer to take their chances with governmental regulations and the courts.


You can hear more of Bob’s thoughts by following him on FacebookTwitter, and his YouTube channel.)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in our Notable People interview series here at The Murninghan Post, featuring  in-depth conversations with thought leaders and doers in the broad field of sustainability policy and practice, corporate governance, and investing.

–Bill Baue

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5 Responses to NOTABLE PEOPLE: Bob Monks and the Battle to Change Corporate America

  1. Marcy – This is great! I started a series of interviews back in 1996. Unfortunately, I got distracted after two. I hope you have more perseverance. Excellent choice for your first “notable” person.

  2. Doug Chia says:

    Nice interview, Marcy. Just one point I’ll make here. It’s interesting that Mr. Monks surmises “the business community appears to feel quite comfortable about its ability to influence legislation, to influence the drafting of regulations, to influence enforcement.” If that were the case, the Dodd-Frank Act would never have been passed and signed into law. In the next breath, Mr. Monks observes “it is very difficult to get institutional investors to act in concert.” I think it is just as difficult to get the business community to act in concert, for many of the same reasons institutional investors eventually back away from doing so, as Mr. Monks goes on to summarize. I find it interesting how each side views the other as the vast conspiracy when we all understand the diversity of thought on both sides. I think it’s time we each make a conscious effort stop making these broad generalizations (of which I, too, am from time-to-time guilty) and work along a more constructive path of finding those who believe in pragmatic consensus-building. Electronic media (such as this blog) and other modern technologies can help us find one another and facilitate this work.

  3. Marcy Murninghan says:

    Thanks to both of you, Jim and Doug, for your comments!

    Jim, I’d love to see / hear the interviews you conducted; they’re part of an oral history legacy that should be preserved. I’ve known Bob since 1985, and have interviewed him for several projects over the years, but don’t have all the tapes. As you think of them, please forward ideas for other candidates for “Notable Person”.

    And Doug, thanks for a typically thoughtful response. Bob’s not your average Republican business person, and is prone to make controversial statements in an effort to draw attention to issues that often get overlooked. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a point: there was terrific pressure on the reconciliation process, particularly concerning proxy access (the initial threshold was 5 percent, which as Bob told me earlier, was equivalent to a man with eight-foot long feet: There ain’t any), which is why that issue was punted back to the SEC. In the midst of all that, it was hard to see where the public interest was being served. We need more business and political leaders who are able to do that–indeed, some are in the wings, but we’ll have to see….

    Yet, to say he’s colorful is an understatement (and he’s pretty tall, too!). Your point about the polarization is excellent, though, and worth pondering. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together, and rising temperatures, more frequent weather-related catastrophes, a disturbing income gap within our own country that increases our vulnerability to demagogy,and other exogenous forces impact our lives in powerful ways. We need to be mindful of these, and where our overlapping interests call us to constructive action, aside from our ideologies and beliefs, but in service to what we might call a greater good. This, I believe. (And interactive technology can help us, enormously.)

    Thanks again, to you both.


  4. David Levy says:

    thanks for the interview, I agree that management tries to protect its autonomy, and the window of opportunity to use the financial crisis to leverage real reform has passed. I do find it strange that proponents of governance reform put so much energy into accountability to shareholders – true, this helps prevent Enron-style fraud and mismanagement, but in my view, the bigger issue for corporate governance is the need to make companies accountable to multiple goals and stakeholders – environmental, community, labor, etc. I’ll be talking about this at a workshop on “global governance for sustainability” this Friday at the Boston University’s Pardee center.

  5. eric oddleifson says:

    I’ve known Bob since age 12 – a remarkable person! I have the honor of acting as a senior adviser to The Corporate Library, helping to identify non-financial or extra-financial factors that might lead to corporate out-performance. Money mangers have a difficult time finding alpha – adding value- these soft factors are a useful place to be looking.

    I write only to identify another hugely contentious field that demands communication and collaboration – namely public education.

    I am working with EducationEvolving in Minneapolis, the group that got the charter movement off the ground in the late 1980’s. They now propose teacher -led schools, organized as professional partnerships, and housed in Innovation Sectors within districts- a different idea than charters. These schools can be/are union compatible (they exist already in a number of locations).

    Both the NY Times and the Christian Science Monitor had articles on teacher-led schools the same day – September 6.

    Ted Kolderie, Curt Johnson and Joe Graba are the individuals behind this. We are engaging unions, who support the concept, and are creating dialogue through conferences/symposium for teachers interested in starting such schools, and superintendents and school boards that wish to encourage the idea as well (we have legislation in MA to enable this, as does MN.)

    The whole concept is to invert the top down structure of public education, putting the responsibility for outcomes with the teachers themselves by giving them control over what matters (budgets, curriculum, schedules, staffing).

    William Ouchi (Theory Z) writes persuasively about decentralization

    I suggest a great interview on this subject would be Ted Kolderie, co-founder, along with Joe Graba, of EducationEvolving ( They were both visiting with Arnie Duncan a couple of months ago on the subject.

    Joe is a member of TURN, the Teachers Union Reform Network, which is getting behind this idea.

    Eric Oddleifson.

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