VIP Boards Big Names, Bigger Jobs

A plea for a broader selection of supervisory board members – where qualifications matter most.
Being a supervisory board member is becoming a more demanding job.

Manfred Schneider has a tough task as chair of the supervisory board at RWE, Germany’s second largest utility.

He has to finally strike a power balance between municipal shareholders on the one hand, and independent supervisory board members on the other. Specifically, one of the municipalities’ four representatives has to leave the RWE supervisory board – after years of complaints by other investors that towns have more influence than their share merits.

Mr. Schneider also has to sort out his own succession, and that seems to be even more difficult.  

VIPs don’t come with a guarantee.

One problem is that the 76-year-old really doesn’t want to go.  But that’s not the real obstacle.  Mr. Schneider, former head of chemical giant Bayer, expects quite a lot from candidates who might supervise a DAX blue-chip company – and rightly so.

In this context, rumblings were understandable in Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg headquarters when Siemens boss, Joe Kaeser, joined the supervisory board of its competitor, Daimler. Perhaps Volkswagen also would have liked a controller of this type. Or was it more about his celebrity status?  

Mr. Schneider would like to have seen Paul Achleitner as his successor at RWE.  The former Allianz board member for finance and current full-time supervisory board member is blessed with both qualifications –  VIP status and ability.

Mr. Achleitner, though, was hired by Deutsche Bank. And he made a decision that perhaps all professional company supervisors should take on board. He wanted no second mandate, which is so demanding.  

And that is the crux of the matter. On the one hand, a supervisory board mandate nowadays requires major involvement, in addition to  increasing liability risk. On the other hand, the number of individuals who could do justice to the mandate is decreasing in the face of an ever more demanding job.

In the Corporate Governance Commission there are even discussions about whether the chairman of a DAX firm should be able to accept a supervisory mandate or more responsibilities in other big companies.

That especially applies to crisis-ridden candidates like RWE. Does a man like Joe Kaeser really have time to get his head around a company in an entirely different industry? But that is exactly what is expected of him.

“Jobs for the boys” – a form of gratitude for long-term cooperation, or plum jobs for friends and family members – are something no supervisory board committee can really afford today.

In actual fact, celebrities are still popular on boards. That doesn’t have to be negative, by definition. Anyone who has successfully managed a big company can at least be expected to ask the right questions.

But VIPs don’t come with a guarantee. Especially when they are already fully involved somewhere else.  

The urgently required professionalization now demanded of supervisory board members can be assured when VIPs are a thing of the past.  Only one thing should count for the career of a company supervisor – his or her qualification.  


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