The following essay, which I wrote for a book with Hank Greenberg about AIG, laments recent decades of changes in corporate governance and is excerpted from the current issue of Directors & Boards, as adapted by its editor, Jim Kristie.
AIG’s founding corporate board in 1967 included luminaries who made AIG into the largest insurance company in the world. In the ensuing decades, AIG enlisted some of its most distinguished corporate officers to serve on its board of directors. Those traditional officer-directors not only knew the company and the insurance business well but were world travelers who understood the demands of building a global financial services company.
The early board appreciated the appeal of nominating some directors from outside AIG for election by shareholders. Such nonemployee directors offered fresh perspectives, opened doors to business opportunities and made decisions when employee directors faced conflicts of interest.
Outside directors who served during the 1970s through the 1980s included former cabinet officials, international business executives, foreign service officers, central bankers and financial accountants. In general, these outside directors served as senior advisors, without intending to second-guess managerial judgments, particularly concerning arcane insurance industry matters beyond their expertise. Outside director Dean P. Phypers (1979–1999), chief financial officer of IBM, noted that this was the standard corporate governance model of the period, at AIG and elsewhere: a collegial body operating in an atmosphere of trust and informality.
A changing model
That model began to change in the 1970s—just as American Home launched its thriving directors and officers (D&O) insurance business. Routinely ever since, in response to national scandals involving corporate misconduct, Congress passed new legislation and the New York Stock Exchange—where AIG listed its shares in 1984—adopted rules that increasingly required corporations to add outside directors to the board. The authorities also first suggested and later required increasing numbers of committees whose membership was limited to outside directors.
These changes were aimed at checking management shirking and enhancing corporate performance, though empirical research never provided much support that such reforms achieved such objectives. Legislators, regulators, and judges seemed to believe that, at the very least, outside directors would be able to exercise independent judgment. On that basis, as a “reform” to respond to crisis, elevating the number and power of outside directors helped forge political consensus. It did not matter whether directors had knowledge of a company’s operations or industry or any other expertise.
Letting political expediency dictate business practice is always dangerous and such universal regulation necessarily overlooked variation among companies. Concerning AIG, its roots as a private company, its long-standing entrepreneurial culture and engagement in the complex field of international insurance all pointed in favor of an inside board. Nevertheless, throughout this period of increased enthusiasm for outside directors on corporate boards, AIG successfully recruited capable people who added the value of their business judgment and experience and put the interests of AIG and shareholder prosperity first. Read More