Refurbishing the boardroom

Demands on corporate boards are more intense than ever

And filling board seats has never been harder

IN THE POPULAR imagination, a corporate board seat looks like the cushiest sinecure in business. Board members appear to get paid—often handsomely—to attend a few meetings a year and to nod knowingly as the chief executive pontificates on strategy. They seldom make the news unless the occasional tut-tut results in the CEO being shown the door, or an activist investor campaigns for a seat at an iconic company (as has happened in recent months at Disney, Salesforce and Tesla). Once the errant boss is out or the activist campaign is over, either because it succeeded or, as in Disney’s case, the challenger is placated with concessions, the board slinks back into comforting obscurity

In fact, these low-key shareholder representatives have never been busier. They are expected to help bosses navigate war, geopolitical strife, the return of high inflation, climate change and technological disruption, all in the aftermath of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Stricter corporate-governance rules have forced company directors to be more accountable. They are also more likely than in the past to be compensated in stock, aligning their incentives with those of other shareholders.

Perhaps as a result, they are working harder and longer than before, often on top of their demanding day jobs as executives at other firms. “It’s not uncommon to have two-day…