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The four approaches of “superaccelerator” boards

Subscribe to Leadership Consulting 2/1/2018 Bonnie W. Gwin, Andrew LeSueur and Jeffrey S. Sanders

The four approaches of “superaccelerator” boards

Elite companies succeed not just for a few quarters or years but over an extended period of time despite fast-changing conditions. Research that our firm has conducted demonstrates that what sets these organizations apart is their ability to accelerate performance—to reduce time to value by building and changing momentum more quickly than competitors—and thus profitably grow revenues year after year.1 In the course of that research, we identified four overarching strategies that companies use to accelerate performance, as well as the style or type of board that is most associated with each strategy:

  • Portfolio Investor strategy → Working Board
  • Customer Intimate strategy → Thinking Board
  • Execution Engine strategy → Responsive Board
  • Talent Magnet strategy → Inspiring Board

Though it’s possible for a board to embody more than one style, each is quite distinct, and understanding them can help any board clarify how their dynamics potentially enhance or impede a range of strategies.

What makes a “superaccelerator”?

Before exploring the four types of boards that our research examined, it’s useful to begin with a quick explanation of how we identified high-performing companies. To determine those that are genuinely elite, we applied four stringent criteria to the 500 largest companies in the world by market capitalization. To qualify, a company must 1) place in the top 20% for revenue growth in both the previous three and seven years, 2) generate no more than 20% of its growth inorganically (through acquisitions), 3) receive no more than 20% of its revenue from its home government (eliminating state-sponsored behemoths such as Saudi Aramco and some of the Chinese banks), and 4) not see its profit margin reduced by more than 20% as a percentage of revenue as the company grows. In 2016, only 23 companies passed all four of those tests, and in 2017, only 25 made the cut.

These “superaccelerators” include some familiar names, such as Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet, along with some more surprising names.2 Overall, the companies come from a wide range of industries, not just high tech. Nor are the companies all from the United States or any other specific region; they span the globe. But all are indeed high performers. For instance, the companies on the 2016 list grew their revenues 20% a year, on average, over the seven-year period 2009–2015—four times the average growth rate achieved by the entire 500 companies over that span. 

A question of board composition?

In our initial research, in 2016, we found some intriguing differences in board composition among superaccelerators and other companies. These so-called “superboards” were smaller, averaging less than 11 members versus almost 13 members for other boards. Median tenure on the superboards averaged more than nine years versus less than seven years for nonaccelerators. (Our hypothesis: the smaller number of members may help these boards to make decisions more quickly and, combined with the continuity provided by longer tenures, to do so over time.) More recently, the differences in size have narrowed, to an average of 11 members for superboards and only slightly more than 12 for the nonaccelerators. Meanwhile, median tenure for superboards is 7.6 years versus 4.8 years for nonaccelerators. Although there is not enough data to declare a trend, these numbers are worth watching in the coming years.

Acceleration strategies and the boards that support them

Beyond the numbers lie the four formulas for acceleration and the type of board that helps create value in a way that is consistent with the company’s strategy. While our descriptions of the types are necessarily reduced to thumbnail sketches here and the data behind them are largely invisible, they do suggest the roles boards can play in pushing companies into the charmed circle of the elite.

Portfolio Investor/Working Board

Portfolio Investors, as the name suggests, approach business opportunities and allocation of resources almost as a venture capitalist would (think Alphabet). They aggressively divest and acquire businesses, without regard to tradition, and they are as quick to adopt new initiatives as they are to abandon old ones. Because they often operate in volatile environments, where disruption is common, their resource-allocation processes are flexible, fast, and unbound to hierarchy. This includes resources devoted to innovation, a capability that is valued throughout the organization and integral to talent management.

The Working Board encourages management to be uncompromisingly objective about opportunities, the allocation of resources, and “make or buy” decisions. Directors shoulder a heavy workload, typically committing several hundred hours a year. That’s because Working Boards tend to rely on numerous ad hoc committees to consider the many acquisition and divestment opportunities that arise. While many boards take the position that management can hire functional expertise, Working Boards prefer to have such expertise on the board to provide fine-grained insight into opportunities. In addition, a subset of directors often forms a working council with the CEO, who welcomes their involvement and establishes a regular cadence of strategic discussions with them. In sum, the Working Board is both nimble, like the company it oversees, and attuned to longer-term strategic planning, much like the boards of private equity firms.

Customer Intimate/Thinking Board

Customer Intimate companies put customers at the center of everything they do. (Tata Consultancy Services is a good example.) They immerse themselves in the customer experience and co-innovate with customers. In performance management, they give metrics such as customer turnover pride of place over financial measures. Because they typically operate in environments where customer needs evolve rapidly and customer loyalty is hard to keep, they regularly convene user groups and establish customer advisory boards.

The Thinking Board keeps the customer at the center of critical discussions and decisions. Directors are adept at representing the perspectives of stakeholders; they know the industry and its customers, and they see customer intimacy and loyalty as the royal road to accelerating revenue growth. Board members typically have a genuine passion for the company’s product, and they often go to great lengths to appreciate the customer experience. For instance, we know of a retailer’s board whose members spend part of a day working in a company store as part of the onboarding process. These boards typically include among their members chief commercial officers, chief marketing officers, and executives who understand digital disruption. And all directors share a customer-first ethos that reflects the company’s ability to accelerate performance in time with—or ahead of—customer needs.

Execution Engine/Responsive Board

Companies that pursue an Execution Engine strategy often compete in markets where the low costs are the key to success. Consequently, they focus on operational excellence, efficiency, and effectiveness in order to reduce unit costs and increase margins. They marry a handful of priorities with simple, consistent, and scalable processes. They strive for continuous improvement, learn from mistakes, and disseminate learning and best practices throughout the organization.

The Responsive Board holds management’s feet to the fire on the company’s top priorities, the scalability of its initiatives, and its allocation of resources to core competencies and projects. It challenges management to keep things simple and fast. It asks how a given initiative is going to work with every customer, every day, everywhere. And it casts a cold eye on anything that doesn’t serve the core. The Responsive Board typically includes CEOs who understand how to make money, directors who can read the numbers and ask detailed questions, general manager types and consultants who are operationally focused, and executives with deep industry experience. As a whole, the board is hands on, understands where major business levers lie, and knows how to pull them.

Talent Magnet/Inspiring Board

Though it’s almost a truism today that good people are a company’s greatest competitive advantage, Talent Magnets not only believe it but live it. (Think Google, which was left to carry on unambiguously as a Talent Magnet while Alphabet pursues its portfolio strategy.) They often operate in knowledge-intensive industries but may also be found in highly operations-based companies. They focus on all aspects of talent management: recruiting, assessment, development, and retention. Employees are empowered to exercise their talents, offer candid input in decisions, and stretch themselves in new assignments and responsibilities. Turnover is low among valued employees and high among those who are mediocre. The real Talent Magnets place high on lists of best places to work; they are known for their strong employer brand, and that reputation strengthens their position in the marketplace.

The Inspiring Board often found within the Talent Magnet company puts people development and management high on the meeting agenda. It sees ongoing CEO succession planning as one of its highest responsibilities, and because it is acutely attuned to talent risk, it makes sure that management has best-practice succession planning in place for all key roles. These boards are themselves magnets for talent, often including among their members “best athletes” who are known for their accomplishments and track records, though not necessarily in the company’s industry. Membership may also include CHROs, CEOs, and GMs with reputations for developing leaders and attracting talent. Inspiring Boards are also typically diverse—by gender, race, culture, and experience—and their members are often active in promoting diversity in the company, working with employee resource groups, and mentoring high potentials.

***

Obviously, no one type of board is best, and, as we’ve noted, boards may reflect more than one type. But among superaccelerators, the board’s approach to its responsibilities is tightly fitted to the particular company’s highly successful approach to outperforming competitors year after year. And it may not be too much of a stretch to imagine that such congruence is at least part of the reason that these companies are superaccelerators in the first place. 


About the authors

Bonnie W. Gwin (bgwin@heidrick.com) is vice chairman and co-managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ CEO & Board Practice; she is based in the New York office.

Andrew LeSueur (alesueur@heidrick.com) is the global managing partner of Heidrick Consulting; he is based in the New York office.

Jeff Sanders (jsanders@heidrick.com) is vice chairman and co-managing partner of the CEO & Board Practice; he is based in the New York and San Francisco offices.

A version of this article was originally published in Directors & Boards.

References

1 See Colin Price and Sharon Toye, Accelerating Performance: How Organizations Can Mobilize, Execute, and Transform with Agility (Wiley 2017), from which much of the material here has been adapted.

2 For the 2017 list, see Colin Price, “VUCA, meet META: The 2017 list of superaccelerators,” and for the 2016 list, see Colin Price, “What does it take to be a ‘superaccelerator’?

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Bonnie W. Gwin Vice Chairman +1 212 867 9876
Andrew LeSueur Managing Partner - Heidrick Consulting 212 699 3171
Jeffrey S. Sanders Vice Chairman +1 212 867 9876

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