There is no substitute for a culture of integrity in organizations. Compliance alone with the law is not enough. History shows that those who make a practice of skating close to the edge always wind up going over the line. A higher bar of ethics performance is necessary. That bar needs to be set and monitored in the boardroom.  ~J. Richard Finlay writing in The Globe and Mail.

Sound governance is not some abstract ideal or utopian pipe dream. Nor does it occur by accident or through sudden outbreaks of altruism. It happens when leaders lead with integrity, when directors actually direct and when stakeholders demand the highest level of ethics and accountability.  ~ J. Richard Finlay in testimony before the Standing Committee on Banking, Commerce and the Economy, Senate of Canada.

The Finlay Centre for Corporate & Public Governance is the longest continuously cited voice on modern governance standards. Our work over the course of four decades helped to build the new paradigm of ethics and accountability by which many corporations and public institutions are judged today.

The Finlay Centre was founded by J. Richard Finlay, one of the world’s most prescient voices for sound boardroom practices, sanity in CEO pay and the ethical responsibilities of trusted leaders. He coined the term stakeholder capitalism in the 1980s.

We pioneered the attributes of environmental responsibility, social purposefulness and successful governance decades before the arrival of ESG. Today we are trying to rebuild the trust that many dubious ESG practices have shattered. 


We were the first to predict seismic boardroom flashpoints and downfalls and played key roles in regulatory milestones and reforms.

We’re working to advance the agenda of the new boardroom and public institution of today: diversity at the table; ethics that shine through a culture of integrity; the next chapter in stakeholder capitalism; and leadership that stands as an unrelenting champion for all stakeholders.

Our landmark work in creating what we called a culture of integrity and the ethical practices of trusted organizations has been praised, recognized and replicated around the world.


Our rich institutional memory, combined with a record of innovative thinking for tomorrow’s challenges, provide umatached resources to corporate and public sector players.

Trust is the asset that is unseen until it is shattered.  When crisis hits, we know a thing or two about how to rebuild trust— especially in turbulent times.

We’re still one of the world’s most recognized voices on CEO pay and the role of boards as compensation credibility gatekeepers. Somebody has to be.

Outrage of the Week: When Subprime CEOs Dissemble Before Congress

Never in modern business has so much been given to so few for such colossally failed results.

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In just five years, these three CEOs made more than $460 million while leading their companies into the greatest losses in their history. One of them, Charles O. Prince of Citigroup, even got a bonus of $10 million, despite presiding over more than $20 billion in losses and write-downs. Stanley O’Neal left with $161 million after Merrill Lynch chalked up its largest losses ever. And Countrywide Financial‘s Angelo Mozilo, one of the highest compensated CEOs in America, has pocketed more than $400 million since 1999. The company has lost four times that amount over the past six months. Never in modern business has so much been given to so few for such colossally failed results.

To the average working person, who rarely receives a bonus even for doing an exemplary job, much less a bad one, this performance must have seemed like something of an out-of-body experience. Pay and accomplishment seldom have seemed more disconnected.

But to the past and current CEOs who testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this week, there is no disconnect at all. The universe, for them, unfolded exactly as it should. It was about as we expected.

They, and the heads of the board compensation committees which approved these deals, all offered the usual bromides: The amounts were fully approved; the money was earned; the market is king; high pay is needed to attract and keep the best talent. How it is that CEOs who preside over record losses represent the best talent was never quite explained. One claimed only to want to help homeowners live out the American dream. Another cited his grandfather being born a slave. A third trumpeted his company’s ethics and corporate governance reforms.  Mr. Mozilo ventured that the subprime meltdown had a notable culprit:  “There was a lot of fraud there.” he told lawmakers.  Many will agree, but they might not be thinking about the garden variety mortgage applicants to which Mr. Mozilo was referring.  What role more lofty figures had in pushing out subprime loans, and who benefited from the resulting torrent of fees and record bonuses, will be something regulators and legislators should be looking at more closely.

The group of CEOs and directors who appeared before the comittee managed to slice and dice their compensaton decisions so much that they looked like they came out of a boardroom Veg-O-Matic: the pay wasn’t for this year, it was for last; it wasn’t severance, it was deferred compensation; it wasn’t a bonus for this year, it was payment for previous excellent performance. They said they actually lost a lot of money when the stock went down, just like all the other shareholders. Except most other shareholders did not head the company and make the wrong decisions. Most did not run up record losses and most did not receive tens or hundreds of millions in stock options and bonuses and salaries bigger than the state of Texas. One more thing: the process, they testified, is all fully in accord with the Business Roundtable guidelines on CEO compensation. Now that’s a really high bar. The Roundtable is made up of America’s top and best-paid CEOs. The ranking Republican on the Committee, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), called the Business Roundtable guidelines the “gold standard” for corporate compensation. Is that because it makes sure the CEOs get all the gold?

Astonishing even for this group, when asked by Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) if there was any amount they would consider to be too much, there was silence, punctuated by self-serving proclamations of satisfaction with the way things are. All reassured the committee that they were not underpaid, however, and thus a sigh of relief was heard across the country.

America is experiencing one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. The brokerage and mortgage lending industries played the central role in creating this contagion. But if high CEO pay is truly linked to performance and is good for the economy, people will want to know why it is, during a period that has seen the largest transfer of wealth from investors to the boardroom in history, the result is now one of falling stock values, shrinking economic growth, galloping home foreclosures and mounting job losses.

The hearing this week gave a rare opportunity for business leaders to admit that CEO compensation has gotten out of control and that it’s time for a new reality show in the boardroom. What began with the attendance of prominent CEOs and boardroom luminaries ended with the spectacle of men twisted like pretzels, having engaged in every type of contortion to show that these compensation arrangements were reasonable and had nothing to do with decisions to pump out more fee-generating subprime loans and structured investment vehicles. They also sent a veiled warning: any change to or reduction in the way CEOs are compensated, and capitalism as we know it may not survive. Here’s a bulletin for the boardroom: capitalism may not survive the kind of leadership that permits an ever increasing gap between CEO pay and everyone else’s, rewards failure with multi-million dollar bonuses and severance, and sees CEOs spinning off with a king’s ransom while leaving everybody else in the dust.

This was an opportunity for real leaders to admit that there are serious problems between the leadership class of capitalism and those who depend upon it for their well-being. To stand up and acknowledge the trend toward excess, to take the lead in stepping back and not being the first in the lifeboat when disaster strikes, to show some meaningful sacrifice at a time when so many are hurting instead of flashing five figure watches, five thousand dollar suits and a tan direct from the winter mansion at Palm Beach (or Palm Springs) -this would have been the kind of leadership that CEOs showed during two great wars and other times that tested America. This group showed none of that. One suspects they are, regrettably, an accurate reflection of the pool of CEOs and directors of which they are a part.

Excessive CEO pay has become synonymous with what is worst about American business: crony boards where one back scratches the other; compliant compensation committees made up of past and current CEOs; and an ethical value system enabling displays of greed and over indulgence that is not something parents generally want to impart to their children. It has been associated with every scandal from Enron and WorldCom to Nortel and Hollinger and countless failures in between. It is now a contributing factor to the recession that is unraveling the world’s credit markets and crippling economic well-being for millions.

What was obvious, too, from the testimony is that none of these CEOs and business leaders is possessed of superhuman ability. All seemed rather ordinary in the insights they offered and in the information they imparted, despite being recipients of extraordinary compensation and a corporate publicity machine that makes superman look like a slacker.

Despite the number of experienced CEOs and directors who appeared before Congress this week, one voice was distinguished by its absence: that was the voice of genuine leadership. America is entitled at a time of crisis to more than the spectacle of hugely paid, decidedly self-satisfied CEOs who feel that the system is working as it should. It needs leaders who recognize there is a need to restore public confidence in capitalism and the ethics of those who steer it. And that requires shared sacrifice and an understanding that, even in the great American boardroom, there are limits to what rational people both need and deserve.

Capitalism, like any household, should be governed by values, and not just who can get the most as quickly as they can. And so the actions of the CEOs and directors who appeared before Congress this week, and the failures of their boards that produced these results, is our choice for the Outrage of the Week.

Outrage of the Week: The Directors Who Slumbered While Merrill Lynch Steered into its Subprime Iceberg

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The fact that Merrill’s risk committee did not function shows that this company was governed by a board that failed utterly in its duty to investors.

The magnitude of the losses was staggering on its own: nearly $10 billion for the final quarter of 2007. That was on top of the $2.3 billion loss for the previous quarter. Write-downs have exceeded more than $20 billion. Never in the storied history of Merrill Lynch have such figures been recorded. But the admission today of John Thain, the new CEO of the world’s biggest broker, takes all the oxygen out of the room:

“Merrill had a risk committee. It just didn’t function,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

His candid statement begs the question: Where was the board? (more…)

Time for Tough Questions about Subprime Solutions -and their Potential Dangers

When the misguided decisions of Wall Street can so radically alter the life and fate of every Main Street in America, it is time for Washington to weigh in, big-time.

Our comments about the Great American Boardroom Bailout Sweepstakes caught the attention of the ever-watchful Marketbeat column at the Wall Street Journal yesterday. We get the impression that there is some much deserved second-guessing going on about the wisdom of the solutions Wall Street –and the Fed, for that matter– have come up with to repair the damage their folly and misguided thinking have caused. The fire sale of Citigroup stock to offshore sovereign funds controlled by non-democratic regimes, for a chunk of the company at prices that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, is finally prompting some questions among investors. And this was before today’s stunning report of a larger-than-expected fourth quarter loss, more write-downs, a dividend cut and job layoffs that are just the beginning of that sorry process. (more…)

When Wall Street Gods Come Crashing Down from the Subprime Heavens

Declining bonuses this year? How about boards showing a little spine and demanding that executives give back a chunk of the oversized paychecks that were awarded in the years when these ill-fated decisions were being made.

It’s dangerous to be walking around Wall Street these days. You never quite know when another company will hit the ground with a walloping loss or some CEO will tumble out of his job. Is it not astonishing that when chief executives are elevated to god-like status, with a commensurate compensation package, sometimes they are a little light in the miracle production department? Many are appearing a bit too human in the wake of the subprime fiasco. It is not a role to which they have been accustomed.


Outrage of the Week: Subprime Hypocrites in Retreat

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The real purpose behind the Bush Administration’s plan is not to help the victims of the subprime turmoil, but rather the perpetrators of the economic crime who unleashed it in the first place.

To justify their out-of-this-world bonuses, the titans of Wall Street and the kings of the home lending business, like Countrywide Financial’s Angelo Mozilo, claimed they were merely being compensated according to the dictates of the market. No mere mortal dare challenge or question the end result where many received $40- or $50- or $100-million paydays. It was the invisible hand that decided. And it was sacred.

But now the results of that invisible hand look more like a rubble of confusion and ruin, at least as they related to the subprime mortgage industry and the unsettling economic blunders created by Wall Street on a global scale. So it is government that is expected to intervene to bring stability to the market’s jittery hand. An ever-receding Fed interest rate has been one response, along with world central bankers flooding the market with cash. One wonders how the same low interest rates, which saw the concept of risk take a very long vacation, will improve over the long run a situation that was created substantially by low interest rates.

Yesterday, President George W. Bush and Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson Jr., who are generally advocates of the free market when it is more convenient than present circumstances permit, announced a plan that purports to help distressed home owners by bringing lenders and borrowers together to solve problems. Only a fraction of those expected to need help will benefit. A more realistic interpretation of what is at work here is an effort to bring stability to Wall Street’s largest institutions, which are facing giant losses, slumping share value and increasingly nervous clients.

As much as we admire the discipline and innovations a well (and we hope fair) functioning market can produce, the case for the constructive use of government policy and influence in that market is well established. Some argue that FDR did more to save capitalism than all the J.P. Morgans combined. What is galling is that Wall Street and American business are eager to accept the idea when it is in their own narrow interests, such as now, while at other times –and especially at bonus time– government is exhorted to stay out of the market. And don’t think for one moment that the big players do not see a considerable direct benefit in government efforts, supported by Fed accommodations, that help to stabilize the effects of the housing meltdown.

The plan announced yesterday is something in the nature of saving the financial community that created the ticking time bomb of subprime loans and syndications from itself. Offensive as that may be to some, the indignation pales in comparison to the fact that those who created this mess are the ones that have benefited most handsomely from it. The sting of that image is not reduced as some, like Merrill Lynch’s Stanley O’Neal, are seen making a fast exit with piles of money to ease their pain. We set out some of our views on the public stake in CEO compensation as it relates to the subprime meltdown in a recent guest column on the corporate governance blog of Harvard Law School.

What might have restored confidence in the moral underpinnings of this system–without which it cannot continue to function– would have been a statement from President Bush or Secretary Paulson that they have also worked out a plan whereby a substantial part of the compensation and bonuses that were derived from these toxic loan concoctions would be given back and placed into a fund to assist distressed homeowners. The symbolism would have been significant and a major boost to the idea that fairness, too, is a commodity that the marketplace values.

That did not happen because the real purpose behind the Administration’s plan is not to help the victims of the subprime turmoil, but rather the perpetrators of the economic crime who unleashed it in the first place.

Falling Subprime Titans Raise Issue of Boardroom Vigilance…Again

Boards don’t just anoint an emperor CEO and remain a hapless bystander of events. Their job is to assess and oversee issues of risk, as well as the CEO’s performance.

First it was Warren Spector, co-president of Bear Stearns. Next it was Merrill Lynch’s E. Stanley O’Neal. Yesterday it was Charles O. Prince of Citigoup. In the space of a few months, the subprime meltdown that is producing calamitous losses in the banking and financial services sectors is also producing suddenly-empty corner offices. More will doubtless follow. But isn’t there an idea that maybe boards have some role in helping to prevent these disasters, too? They don’t just anoint an emperor CEO for a period of time and remain a hapless bystander of events. Their job is to assess and oversee issues of risk as well as the CEO’s performance. It seems too many boards have been a little slow to adjust to that heightened level of responsibility. (more…)