Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Executive Sessions in the Early Days

We've just marked the first-year anniversary of the passing of Stanley Foster Reed, founder of Directors & Boards. Stanley died on Oct. 25, 2007, at the age of 90. 

His obit in the Washington Post is a good backgrounder on this eclectic and entrepreneurial executive, but only hints at what an early guru he was in corporate governance. The term was not even in the popular lexicon when he founded the journal in 1976. In fact, he taglined his new publication "The Journal of Corporate Action," and not "The Journal of Corporate Governance."

He didn't suffer fools gladly, befitting his years in the board trenches. I always got along well with him both when I joined the journal in 1981, right after he sold it to its current owners and he stayed on for a while as a consultant and eminence grise, and for years afterward for the occasional phone chat. Of course, his daughter, Alexandra Reed Lajoux, brilliantly helmed the journal during this transition period from old to new ownership. Alex is still a force in the governance field as the chief knowledge officer of the National Association of Corporate Directors.

Stanley wrote so many profound commentaries on board behavior while he was publisher and even years after. The picture of him above comes from a photo taken for a reflective essay he wrote for the journal's special 20th anniversary issue in 1996. Since he was a corporate director himself, his writings were infused with his own experiences — the good, bad, and even the ugly. 

One of Stanley's confidences to me that always made an impression was when he took me aside one day to say, "You know, Jim, some of the most productive conversations that we board members ever had were in the rest room during breaks in the board meeting." I could tell from his tone that more than one CEO's fate was probably sealed behind the bathroom door. 

Who needed the formalization of executive sessions? This was the executive session at the dawning of the modern era of corporate governance. Much has progressed since, thanks to pioneers like Stanley Foster Reed.