The two most authoritative positions in a boardroom are the CEO and the chairman. However, when these roles are combined, all the authority is vested in one individual; there are no checks and balances, and no balance of power. The CEO is charged with monitoring him or herself, presenting an obvious conflict of interest. Indeed, if the CEO is responsible for running the company, and the board is tasked with overseeing the CEO’s decisions in the interests of shareholders, how can the board properly monitor the CEO’s conduct if he or she is also serving as board chair?
While the theory behind separating the two roles has been the subject of much shareholder and governance activist protest and commentary, an analysis of GMI Ratings’ data suggests that other, more practical considerations would support the separation of the two roles. In addition to the inherent conflict of interest already discussed, CEOs who also command the title of chairman are more expensive than their counterparts serving solely as CEO. In fact, executives with a joint role of chairman and CEO are paid more than even the combined cost of a CEO and a separate chairman. Also, companies with a combined CEO and chairman appear to present a greater risk of ESG (environmental, social and governance) and accounting risk than companies that separate the roles. Furthermore, companies with combined CEOs and chairmen also appear to present a greater risk for investors and provide lower stock returns over the longer term than companies that have separated the roles. Thus having a separate chairman and CEO costs less, is less risky and is a better investment. This report focuses on 180 North American mega-caps, those with a market capitalization of $20 billion or more. This group was chosen because, given the relative complexity of running the companies, it might be expected that the resulting differentials between leadership structures in cost structure, performance and risk exposure would be more marked. Here are some of the main findings of the report: