Sunday, March 10, 2013

I'm only a director ... Yeah, right.

Recent focus on the role of 'trophy directors' ('Directors require skills, not a high profile') prompts me to re-publish this piece I wrote in 2010, when the matter came up before. I think it's still relevant today ...

[Then] Auckland mayor John Banks was quoted recently as dismissing his involvement in one company’s troubles with the explanation, “I’m only a director.”

How much should a director know? How responsible should he or she be for what goes on in the company?

It's quite reasonable that non-executive directors (who by definition don’t work in the company day-to-day) don’t have the detailed operational knowledge that we would expect of the chief executive and senior management.

I’m no lawyer, but the Companies Act seems quite clear: the board is responsible for management of the company. Even when the board delegates management to the chief executive, as normally happens in larger companies, the board remains responsible. So it’s understandable that, when a company runs into difficulties, all directors - including the non-executives - come under the microscope.

It may come as a surprise, but the courts won’t normally try to second-guess the commercial decisions a board makes: it’s not a crime to make poor decisions - we’ve all done that - or sometimes even to go broke. However, what the judges will consider is whether, in making those decisions - good or bad - the directors complied with their legal obligations.

In most cases, the main test for directors (section 137) is whether they have acted with “the care, diligence and skill that a reasonable director would exercise in the same circumstances.” Where I think that bar has been lifted a little in recent years is in what we expect a reasonable director to do. At the very least, the days of what we used to refer to as a “sleeping director” (the one who lends his or her respected name to the company’s letterhead and shows up for the annual general meeting, but makes little further contribution) are - or should be - past.

More positively, thanks to some recent cases, we have a few pointers about how the courts define a “reasonable director.” Among these,
  • A “reasonable director” is one who turns up at board meetings - anyone who’s been around for a while will know that this is not a universal attribute of all directors. It’s no defence that you missed the meeting where the board took a bad decision. The logic here seems to be that the company has a right to the wisdom of its directors, so they in turn have a responsibility to show up. We can all applaud that one.
  • A “reasonable director” is one who takes an active interest in the affairs of the company, and asks for the information he or she needs, to understand the company’s business and financial position. They have a duty of diligence and care to make sure - within reason - that the information they receive is complete and accurate. The longer I sit at board tables, the more I realise that one of the most important skills of a good director is the ability to ask good, thoughtful, questions, and to understand the issues well enough to ask the follow-up, “So, if that’s the case...”

From what I understand of directors’ duties, and of the courts’ attitude, I don’t think Mr Banks’ alleged comments would provide him much legal defence... Or even whether they’d sway that other jury, public opinion.