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Rice University research finds executive board members are driven by incentives

In a recent study, a Rice Business professor found that board members actually need incentives — both short- and long-term — to act in stakeholders' best interests. Getty Images

If you're a stockholder, you may envision your investment helmed by a benevolent, all-knowing board of directors, sitting around a long finely-grained wooden table, drinking coffee, their heads buried in PowerPoint charts as they labor to plot the best course for the company. Too often, however, you can't take for granted that a company's board will steer it wisely.

Companies choose directors because they offer rich and varied experience in the business world. Many who serve on boards, moreover, are CEOs of other corporations, or have headed big companies in the past. As of October 2018, for example, six of the 11 directors on Walmart's board and eight of 13 on AT&T's board hold CEO or CFO positions in other firms. So it's easy to assume that board members will act in the best interests of stockholders.

But in a recent study, Rice Business professor Shiva Sivaramakrishnan found that board members actually need incentives — both short- and long-term — to act in stakeholders' best interests.

Corporations usually compensate board members with stock options, grants, equity stakes, meeting fees, and cash retainers. How important is such compensation, and what sort of incentives do board members need to perform in the very best interests of a company? Sivaramakrishnan joined co-author George Drymiotes to trace how compensation impacts various aspects of board performance.

Recent literature in corporate governance has already stressed the need to give boards of directors explicit incentives in order to safeguard shareholder welfare. Some observers have even proposed requiring outside board members to hold substantial equity interests. The National Association of Corporate Directors, for example, recommended that boards pay their directors solely with cash or stock, with equity representing a substantial portion of the total, up to 100 percent.

To the extent that directors hold stock in a company, their actions are likely influenced by a variety of long-and short-term incentives. And while the literature has focused mainly on the useful long-term impact of equity awards, the consequences of short-term incentives haven't been as clear. Moreover, according to surveys, most directors view advising as their primary role. But this role also has received little attention.

To scrutinize these issues, the scholars used a simple model, which assumes the board of directors perform three roles: contracting, monitoring and consulting. The board contracts with management to provide productive input that improves a firm's performance. By monitoring management, the board improves the quality of the information conveyed to managers. By serving in a consulting role, the board makes managers more productive, which, in turn, means higher expected firm output.

This model allowed the scholars to better understand the relationship between the board of directors and the company's managers, as well as with shareholders. The former was particularly important to take into account, because conflict between a board and managers is typically unobservable and can be costly.

The results were surprising. Without short-term incentives, the researchers found, boards did not effectively fulfill their multiple roles. Long-term inducements could make a difference, they found, but only in some aspects of board performance.

While board members were better advisors when given long-term motivations, short-term incentives were better motivators for performing well in their other corporate governance roles, according to the research, which tied specific aspects of board compensation to particular board functions.

Restricted equity awards provided the necessary long-term incentives to improve the efficacy of the board's advisory role, the scholars found, but only the short-term incentives, awarding an unrestricted share or a bonus based on short-term performance, motivated conscientious monitoring.

The scholars also examined managerial misconduct. Board monitoring, they concluded, lowered the cost of preventing such wrongdoing — but only if the board had strong short-term incentives in place.

Even at the highest rungs of the corporate ladder, in other words, short-term self-interest is the greatest motivator. Maybe it's not surprising. In the corporate world, acting for one's own benefit is a given — so stockholders need to look more closely at those at the very top. Like everyone else, board directors need occasional brass rings within easy reach to do their best.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Shiva Sivaramakrishnan is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor in Accounting at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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From software and IoT to decarbonization and nanotech, here's what 10 energy tech startups you should look out for. Photo via Getty Images

This week, energy startups pitched virtually for venture capitalists — as well as over 1,000 attendees — as a part of Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's 18th annual Energy and Clean Tech Venture Forum.

At the close of the three-day event, Rice Alliance announced its 10 most-promising energy tech companies. Here's which companies stood out from the rest.

W7energy

Based in Delaware, W7energy has created a zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicle technology supported by PiperION polymers. The startup's founders aim to provide a more reliable green energy that is 33 percent cheaper to make.

"With ion exchange polymer, we can achieve high ionic conductivity while maintaining mechanical strength," the company's website reads. "Because of the platform nature of the chemistry, the chemical and physical properties of the polymer membranes can be tuned to the desired application."

Modumetal

Modumetal, which has its HQ in Washington and an office locally as well, is a nanotechnology company focused on improving industrial materials. The company was founded in 2006 by Christina Lomasney and John Whitaker and developed a patented electrochemical process to produce nanolaminated metal alloys, according to Modumetal's website.

Tri-D Dynamics

San Francisco-based Tri-D Dynamics has developed a suite of smart metal products. The company's Bytepipe product claims to be the world's first smart casing that can collect key information — such as leak detection, temperatures, and diagnostic indicators — from underground and deliver it to workers.

SeekOps

A drone company based in Austin, SeekOps can quickly retrieve and deliver emissions data for its clients with its advance sensor technology. The company, founded in 2017, uses its drone and sensor pairing can help reduce emissions at a low cost.

Akselos

Switzerland-based Akselos has been using digital twin technology since its founding in 2012 to help energy companies analyze their optimization within their infrastructure.

Osperity

Osperity, based in Houston's Galleria area, is a software company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and monitor industrial operations to translate the observations into strategic intelligence. The technology allows for cost-effective remote monitoring for its clients.

DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy — based in San Francisco and founded in 2013 — has raised over $92 million (according to Crunchbase) for its cloud-based drone mapping and analytics platform. According to the website, DroneDeploy has over 5,000 clients worldwide across oil and gas, construction, and other industries.

HEBI Robotics

Pittsburgh-based HEBI Robotics gives its clients the tools to build custom robotics. Founded 2014, HEBI has clients — such as NASA, Siemens, Ericsson — across industries.

CarbonFree Chemicals

CarbonFree Chemicals, based in San Antonio and founded in 2016, has created a technology to turn carbon emissions to useable solid carbonates.

SensorUp

Canadian Internet of Things company, SensorUp Inc. is a location intelligence platform founded in 2011. The technology specializes in real-time analysis of industrial operations.

"Whether you are working with legacy systems or new sensors, we provide an innovative platform that brings your IoT together for automated operations and processes," the company's website reads.

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