A Shareholder Revolution? Pt. 1

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

If many corporate leaders have run their companies as drunken sailors at the till (or, more aptly, like wolves with the key to the hen house), maybe it’s time for true stockholder revolutions, and the initiation of real, voter-driven democracies?

Nell Minow, one of the nation’s leading thinkers on corporate governance, suggests that calls for corporate reform so far have focused on supply side changes: boards of directors, chief executives, and the various other leaders and lackeys who support one another’s self-enrichment. "We have completely failed to address the demand side of corporate governance, which is what shareholders must do," she said recently in Business Week.

I think she’s absolutely right, and as a marketer, I immediately start thinking about how to effect that change.

Gulp. Telling a shareholder to get more involved (they’re otherwise busy person with a zillion other things going on) is like telling somebody that where they choose to stand affects the balance of the earth in space. 

We can talk about involvement until the execs have socked more zillions into their personal bank accounts…somebody has to explain it, connect it to the real lives of real people, work through the options, and provide the procedures and mechanisms to enable the required behaviors. Ultimately, votes have to matter, not just to the voters, but to the votees.

Definitely an opportunity for marketers to make a difference.

Just for chuckles, let’s compare the way a company annual meeting is run to, say, the recently completed Presidential election in the U.S.

  • The voters. Individual stockholders aren’t really like citizens, in that there are institutional investors who own large blocks of stock (they’re corporate America’s superdelegates, and they own over half of all stock) and various classes of stock that make some votes more equal than others (oink). So every individual vote really doesn’t really count
  • The agendas. It takes wherewithall mixed with know-how to get a topic discussed at an annual meeting; individual shareholders need to work through proxies or special interest groups, and which may or may not be interested in getting involved. Imagine if the outgoing President and his cabinet got to decide what the issues for the next election might be (consciously, that is)
  • The candidates. Forget hearing from a Ron Paul or Ross Perot, or even a gaggle of reasonably sane wanna-be leaders. The stars on the stage of any annual meeting are decided by the people running the meeting; those in the audience, however brilliant and telegenic, are extras, rarely anything more
  • The campaigns. If you own stock in a company, you know that the first (and usually only) time you even hear of the agenda issue is in your invite mailer, in which a brief description is followed by the company’s "suggested" voting action. Maybe there’s some mouseprint backup printed on toilet paper…but there have been no town hall meetings, Reverend Jeremiah videos, or stump speech gaffes to get you involved
  • The choices. See above. The message is vote, even though it really doesn’t matter
  • The follow-up. There isn’t any. Companies are covered by the media and financial analysts as things or entities that exhibit emotions and behaviors, but the mechanics of governance — who decided to do what, and why — are relegated to the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms

In other words, we’ve heard of countries that were run like major corporations. Fascist Italy. Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union. Give us your allegiance and conformity, and we promise not to kill you, unless we change our minds. We’ll let you know via proxy mailer or midnight visit. 

I think annual stockholder meetings should run more like general elections or referenda. That would mean giving them better tools, cash, and enabling their very own James Carvilles.

And first, I think we need to be thinkin’ a lil’ revolution.

Part 2 of this essay will riff on the possibilities.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/02/a-shareholder-revolution-pt-1.html