On Directors' Minds: Insights From the Latest Research

Kira Ciccarelli

On Directors' Minds: Insights From the Latest Research

What Do Directors Think?

Listen to Episode 49 on Apple Podcasts

Guest: Melanie Nolen, Research Director for Chief Executive Group and Research Editor for Corporate Board Member Magazine

Hosts: Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director of the Diligent Institute, and Meghan Day, Senior Director of Board Member Experience for Diligent Corporation

In this episode:

  1. “What Directors Think”: An Overview; Nolen provides the report’s background, history, and robust response rate.
  2. Key findings from 2021 report: Nolen dives in and dissects standout findings on diversity, ESG, and other director priorities.
  3. Director Confidence Index: Updates and predictions; Will director confidence in the economy continue to rise?


Which issues are top priority for directors as we head into 2021? How confident are they in economic conditions, now and in the future? What trends in director sentiment are we likely to see continue this year? Melanie Nolen, Research Director for Chief Executive Group and Research Editor for Corporate Board Member Magazine, weighs in with results from Corporate Board Member and Diligent Institute’s latest research.

“What Directors Think”: An Overview

Every year, Corporate Board Member magazine publishes results from their “What Directors Think” survey. The survey fields from late August to early October, and the results are published in Corporate Board Member magazine and in the form of a whitepaper the following January.  In a year unlike any other, Corporate Board Member and lead sponsor Diligent Institute published the 18th edition of “What Directors Think.”

Host Dottie Schindlinger first asks Nolen to discuss the response rate. The survey itself is incredibly comprehensive, covering every governance topic one could think of. Consequently, it takes between 25-30 minutes to complete. Despite its length, the survey boasts an incredible response rate: around 400 directors completed it this year. “It’s always a challenge, especially fielding it during the pandemic this year,” says Nolen, “What we produce as a result, all the benchmarking data they get to look at, it’s so valuable to directors.”

“There is quite a lot of food for thought and topics for discussion. That motivates them to participate year after year.”

Melanie Nolen, Research Director for Chief Executive Group and Research Editor for Corporate Board Member Magazine

Key Findings From 2021 Report

In the midst of the global pandemic, three key results stood out looking at the survey results:

  • ESG is top of mind for directors as we head into 2021
  • DEI remains a key priority for boards
  • Directors focused back in on growth sooner than expected

Many of the events of 2020 resulted in ESG issues bubbling to the forefront of board agendas. In “What Directors Think” this shone through. According to Nolen, “ESG was definitely one of the major standouts. Boards want their companies to do the right thing, and they want to report it correctly so that stakeholders can see and understand that.”

Another interesting finding from the report has to do with the importance of diversity. For the first time in the report’s 18 year run, respondents placed diversity criteria higher up on their list than CEO experience when asked what they were looking for in their next board appointment. For Nolen, this was  a harbinger of what boards will look like in the future: “We are moving towards more modern, diverse, and representative boardrooms.”

On a high level, “What Directors Think” also revealed much in terms of how some businesses have fared throughout the pandemic so far, and how director perspectives have shifted since the beginning of the outbreak. Nolen noted her surprised that director focus returned to growth so early on, and it shows how well companies had navigated the crisis. She goes on to explain, “After the survey closes, we get in touch with participants for interviews, and those conversations have shown me that boards were more prepared for the black swam than we thought.”

“Directors were able to pivot, and many of them did it extremely well. It was reassuring to know that at the governance level, these companies are well run.”

Melanie Nolen, Research Director for Chief Executive Group and Research Editor for Corporate Board Member Magazine

Director Confidence Index: Updates and Predictions

Corporate Board Member and Diligent Institute also recently published the January 2021 edition of their Director Confidence Index, a two minute 72-hour pulse poll of U.S. public company directors. In this edition, directors were asked if their company was considering tying executive compensation to ESG and DEI goals. The results showed that 40% of companies were either considering tying executive compensation to DEI goals or had already done so. This number was 35% for ESG metrics.

Nolen also saw director confidence in the economy tick up again in the January DCI, a continued trend over the last three survey runs. She explains her thoughts behind this result: “Directors are risk aware, which is the nature of their role. So, they’re being cautious in their predictions and forecasts. In February, as vaccine rollouts continue and a new administration settles in, I think we will continue to see director confidence in the economy increase.”

“If we are truly on the back end of this pandemic, I think we will see confidence continue to rise.”

Melanie Nolen, Research Director for Chief Executive Group and Research Editor for Corporate Board Member Magazine

Also in this episode…

Nolen discusses a pandemic-honed new hobby: cooking, particularly Indian food. Her and Schindlinger also dissect the various leadership lessons found in Apple TV’s Ted Lasso, and Nolen’s passion for volunteering at animal shelters. These and other recommendations can be found below.

Resources from this episode:

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Kira Ciccarelli
Kira Ciccarelli is the Lead Researcher at the Diligent Institute. Diligent Institute is the modern governance think tank and research arm of Diligent Corporation, the leading provider in board collaboration software. In her role, Kira works to conduct and provide high-level modern governance research to inform director decision-making and identify best practices.