Chairman and MD / CEO - combined or separate roles?
Date:09/11/2010 URL: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2010/11/09/stories
Back Chairman and Managing Director — Should roles be combined or not?
Should the roles of the Chairman and the Managing Director/CEO of a company be kept
separate, and handled by two different individuals?
According to a recent news item, a committee set up by the Securities and Exchange Board of
India (SEBI) is considering a proposal to separate the roles of the Chairman and the Managing
Director (MD) in listed companies, so as to “prevent concentration of management powers in the
hands of one individual”.
This move has drawn a response from Dr U. D. Choubey, Director-General, Standing Conference
of Public Enterprises (SCOPE), who has reportedly said that companies — at least those in the
public sector — are better off with a unified Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) role. In his
view, much more analysis is required before a decision can be taken in this matter.
This article takes a detailed look at both the alternatives from the point of view of effective
management and governance, and presents a model for understanding the corporate implications.
The Chairman is expected to provide leadership to the Board of Directors, and is responsible for
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its composition. His posture is expected to be “reflective”, maintaining a focus on the long term,
rather than on day-to-day activities. He is expected to make sure that the Board sets and
implements the company's direction and strategy effectively.
The MD runs the company's business on a day-to-day basis. He is responsible for ensuring that
the company's strategic plans and operating budgets are aligned with the corporate objectives set
by the Board. He provides leadership to the company, and is accountable to the Board. The basic
argument against combining the roles of the Chairman and the MD/CEO is that it would lead to a
conflict of interest. It would be difficult for the Board of Directors to supervise the management
of the company effectively, if the Chairman (who heads the Board) is also “management”.
Additionally, day-to-day pressures of running the company may make the incumbent focus more
on the MD's role, at the cost of his (or her) responsibilities as the Chairman. The combined role
also denies the company the benefit of having two senior people at the helm who can bring their
combined wisdom to bear on any issue at hand. Concentration of all powers in the hands of one
person is also a risk.
The argument in favour of combining the roles of the Chairman and the CEO rests essentially on
“simplicity” — that it is a lot more efficient to have just one person at the top to take decisions
and move forward. This option eliminates the potential harmful effects of having two people at
the top who do not necessarily see eye-to-eye, leading to politics and ego clashes. Last, it might
not be practical (or affordable) for smaller companies to have two senior leaders on its rolls.
There is no definitive research evidence to show which approach works better. The US is
trending towards separating the two roles, driven primarily by recent governance scandals
involving high-powered CEOs who were also Chairmen of their companies. UK favours
separating the roles. Many European countries (like Germany and The Netherlands) have made it
mandatory by law. In many cases, where the roles remain combined, companies are choosing to
appoint — in addition to various committees — a “lead director” who would coordinate the
annual evaluation of the CEO, and act as a special advisor to the Chairman/CEO. This approach
seeks to address the need for the Board to have an effective supervisory role in companies that
have a CMD in charge. However, this is, at best, a half-measure — since the Chairman still runs
This brings us to the key role to be played by the Board of Directors. It is the vital “third
dimension” to this issue, which most pundits seem to ignore when taking positions on whether the
offices of Chairman and CEO should be combined or kept separate.
By definition, the role of the Board is to “direct the affairs of the corporation, but not to manage
them”. The Board is expected to play the lead role in establishing the mission, objectives,
strategy and policies for the company. It is responsible for hiring (and firing) the MD/CEO. It
reviews and approves the use of resources, and is the guardian of shareholder interests.
While this is what is ideally expected of the Board, the reality is different in different companies.
T. L. Wheelen and J. D. Hunger have come up with the concept of the “Board of Directors
As per this concept, at one end of the spectrum is the “phantom” Board, which does not get
involved at all in the affairs of the company. At the other end is the “catalyst” Board, which
plays a very active role. Such a Board is not afraid to question and evaluate the recommendations
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