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Boardrooms Uncertain about Economic Outlook, with Few Predicting Growth

Survey of 4000+ Directors – Conducted by Groysberg, Bell, and Cheng; Spencer Stuart; and WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation – Captures Board Concerns about Strategy, Cybersecurity, Risk, Talent, and Regulation

[NEW YORK] – FEBRUARY 16, 2016 – In a global survey of 4000+ corporate board directors, Professor Boris Groysberg and Yo-Jud Cheng of Harvard Business School, Spencer Stuart, the WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation (WCDF), and researcher Deborah Bell have found that most directors are uncertain about economic prospects and are not seeing growth in the future. The 2016 Global Board Survey, which garnered responses from male and female directors from 60 countries around the world, provides a comprehensive snapshot of the business climate and strategic priorities as seen from the boardroom of many of the world’s top public and large, privately held companies.

“Over the last decade there has been an increasing focus on corporate governance and more and more is expected from boards,” says Boris Groysberg of Harvard Business School. “We felt it was really important to take the pulse of what board members are thinking about and focusing on so we created a comprehensive survey in scope and depth covering topics from diversity to board dynamics to CEO succession in order to better understand boards from around the world. We believe the subsequent analysis of the survey could generate a number of best practices that will improve corporate governance in years to come.”

The team is launching the initial results of the survey today, and in subsequent months will release additional findings related to board processes and governance priorities.

Key Findings of 2016 Global Board Survey:

Economic Outlook, Risks, and Strategic Challenges for Boards
  1. Uncertainty dominates boardroom economic outlook, and few directors predict growth. Fifty-nine percent of directors are uncertain about growth prospects globally, driven primarily from directors in the U.S. and Western Europe (63% of each cited uncertainty about future growth, vs. 36% in Asia, and 53% in Australia/N.Z.). Just 2% of directors across all regions predicted a period of strong global growth over the next 3 years. Groysberg explains, “This pessimism about growth is one of the most surprising findings of our survey. It seems that the market volatility and low prospects for growth as well as the unpredictable economic outlook are what keep board members awake at night.”
  2. Cybersecurity in top 3 of political issues relevant to directors. The political issues directors ranked as most relevant to them are the economy, the regulatory environment, and cybersecurity. “Cybersecurity continues to be a leading issue on the agenda from a regulatory, reputational, and contingency standpoint,” says Julie Hembrock Daum, head of Spencer Stuart’s North American Board Practice. “We see boards considering a number of different approaches to getting smart about the broader impact of technology on the business. In certain cases they have added a director with a strong digital or security background. However, the board should not isolate cybersecurity responsibility with just this one board member, but continue to view cybersecurity as a full board priority.”
  3. Women directors report higher concerns about risk than male directors. Across the board, female directors reported a higher level of concern about various risks to a company than their male peers – from concerns about activist investors and cybersecurity to regulatory risk and the supply chain. However, female directors also felt that their companies had higher level of readiness to address these risks than did their male cohorts. Susan Stautberg, Chairman and CEO of WCDF, believes that women directors may be educating themselves more about the potential risks: “We believe that women in particular bring a real thirst for knowledge and curiosity to their board service, and this includes getting up-to-speed on what the real risks are to an organization. All good directors do this, but we think being relatively new to the boardroom can create a greater sense of urgency to learn.”
  4. Private companies see need for top talent as #1 strategic challenge, with regulatory environment the top challenge for public companies. Private company directors see attracting/retaining top talent as the #1 challenge to their company’s achieving its strategic objectives, while public company boards cite the regulatory environment as #1. “This was interesting because we do see in larger, more established public companies a greater maturity in their HR processes and deeper resources invested in talent management and development,” says Daum. “Identifying and recruiting individuals who fit the culture, bring impact to the organization, and endure is a high priority for nearly all companies. However, many private companies, which tend to be smaller and have less brand awareness as a whole, often have less robust HR structures to attract the level of talent across the organization.”
Boardroom Grades, Diversity, and Turnover
  1. Boards rate themselves as less effective in people-related processes. Directors gave their own boards lower ratings on their effectiveness in HR/talent management, CEO succession planning, and director evaluations. But directors gave their boards higher marks for effectiveness in compliance and staying current on the company. “These ratings underscore directors’ views that attracting and retaining top talent is a common challenge, and underline the need for these HR competencies on boards,” says Stautberg. Harvard Business School doctoral candidate Yo-Jud Cheng adds, “Despite the fact that directors recognize their weaknesses in these areas, boards continue to prioritize more conventional areas of expertise, such as industry knowledge and auditing, in their appointments of new directors.”
  2. Greater scrutiny/spotlight doesn’t always drive greater diversity. Public companies have more independent directors than the private companies whose directors participated in the survey have, but private company directors report similar proportions of female and ethnic minority directors on their boards. “This finding was very interesting. There has been much debate about the use and effectiveness of quotas. To see the parity of diversity among public and private companies reinforces that the tone needs to come from the top regarding bringing a fresh, diverse perspective representative of the company’s stakeholders and interests,” says Daum. Groysberg adds, “Although we are hearing more talk about the importance of diversity from boards, it’s not necessarily translating into numbers. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen as much progress as we were hoping for compared to our past survey on the diversity of boards.”
  3. Directors – especially women – favor tools to trigger board turnover. Female directors are more in favor of director term limits (in favor: 68% of women vs. 56% of men) and mandatory retirement ages (in favor: 57% of women vs. 39% of men) than their male peers. “It was encouraging to see the majority of respondents in favor of retirement ages and term limits. Turnover among S&P 500 companies has trended at 5-7% – roughly 300 to 350 seats a year. Boards need tools they can use to ensure that new perspectives and thinking are regularly being brought to the boardroom,” says Daum. “This isn’t just an issue tied to activist shareholders, but something institutional shareholders are asking about as well: what are boards doing to ensure independent and fresh thinking?”
  4. Search firms have been successful in expanding talent pool to qualified female directors. In their pathways to the boardroom, female directors are more likely than their male counterparts to have been recruited by an executive search firm, while male directors are more likely to have been appointed by a major shareholder. “Search firms may be able to open doors that networking opportunities may not have been doing until relatively recently, at least for women,” says Stautberg. “Building up networks and getting known is something that women directors are engaging in much more actively now.”
  5. Why isn’t the number of women on boards increasing? Older male directors disagree with women as well as with younger male directors on the reason. As the percentage of women on boards stays stagnant, there is both a gender divide and a generation divide on why this is. Male directors, especially older respondents, report the “lack of qualified female candidates,” while women directors cite most often the fact that diversity is not a priority in board recruiting and that traditional networks tend to be male-dominated. But the younger male directors (those 55 and younger) surveyed agreed with women: that traditional networks tend to be male-dominated. “Men in the younger generation I think just see their qualified female colleagues out there, but know that the traditional board networks still tend to be male,” says Stautberg. “It’s often hard to see an informal ‘network’ if you are in the middle of it, but you can see it very clearly when you’re on the outside.”
  6. Boardroom diversity quotas not supported overall. Nearly 75% of surveyed directors do not support boardroom diversity quotas. Forty-nine percent of female directors support them, but only 9% of male directors do. Support for diversity quotas also declines with age, particularly among female directors: 67% of female directors ages 55 and younger personally support boardroom quotas, as compared to 36% of female directors over 55 (the majority of male directors, of any age, do not support quotas).

For more information about the 2016 Global Board Survey, please contact Suzanne Oaks Brownstein or Trang Mar at Temin and Company at or 212.588.8788.

About WomenCorporateDirectors Education and Development Foundation, Inc. (WCDF)

The WomenCorporateDirectors Education and Development Foundation, Inc. (The WCD Foundation) is the only global membership organization and community of women corporate directors, with more than 3,500 members serving on more than 8,500 boards. A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, the WCD Foundation has 71 chapters around the world, with seven more to launch over the next year. The aggregate market capitalization of public companies on whose boards WCD Foundation members serve is over $8 trillion. In addition, WCD Foundation members serve on numerous boards of large private and family-run companies globally.

WCD Foundation membership provides a unique platform for learning from the intellectual capital of accomplished women from around the world, and the WCD Foundation’s mission is to increase courage, candor, inclusion, and cohesion in the boardroom.

The WCD Foundation has 71 global chapters, located in Arizona, Atlanta, Austin, Beijing, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Chile, Cleveland, Colombia, Columbus, Dallas/Fort Worth, Delhi, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greater Colorado, Greater New Mexico, Guatemala, Gulf Cooperation Council, Hanoi, Hawaii, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Houston, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Kansas City, Kenya, London, Los Angeles/Orange County, Malaysia, Melbourne, Mexico, Milan, Minnesota, Mongolia, Morocco, Mumbai, Netherlands, New York, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern California, North Florida/South Georgia, Panama, Peru, Philadelphia, Philippines, Quebec, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, San Diego, Sao Paulo, Seattle, Shanghai, Singapore, South Africa, South Florida, Spain, Switzerland, Sydney, Tampa, Tennessee, Toronto, Turkey, Washington, D.C., and Western Canada. For more information visit or follow us on Twitter @WomenCorpDirs, #WCDboards.

About Spencer Stuart

At Spencer Stuart, we know how much leadership matters. We are trusted by organizations around the world to help them make the senior-level leadership decisions that have a lasting impact on their enterprises. Through our executive search, board and leadership advisory services, we help build and enhance high-performing teams for select clients ranging from major multinationals to emerging companies to nonprofit institutions.

Privately held since 1956, we focus on delivering knowledge, insight and results through the collaborative efforts of a team of experts – now spanning 56 offices, 30 countries and more than 50 practice specialties. Boards and leaders consistently turn to Spencer Stuart to help address their evolving leadership needs in areas such as senior-level executive search, board recruitment, board effectiveness, succession planning, in-depth senior management assessment and many other facets of organizational effectiveness. For more information on Spencer Stuart, please visit

Boris Groysberg

Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Professor Groysberg’s work examines how a firm can be systematic in achieving a sustainable competitive advantage by leveraging its talent at all levels of the organization. He is the coauthor, with Michael Slind, of the book Talk Inc. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). Follow him on Twitter @bgroysberg.

Deborah Bell

Deborah Bell is an independent researcher of organizational behavior whose work focuses on leadership, drivers of success, and organizational effectiveness and dynamics, especially at the board level.

Yo-Jud Cheng

Yo-Jud Cheng is a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School whose research focuses on CEO succession, top management teams, and corporate governance issues.


This survey was conducted through a partnership between Professor Boris Groysberg and Yo-Jud Cheng from Harvard Business School; WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation, led by Susan Stautberg; Spencer Stuart, led by Julie Hembrock Daum; and independent researcher Deborah Bell.

About 4,000 board members of companies headquartered in 60 countries (U.S. boards made up 48% of the sample) responded to the survey. Results are based on all responses submitted between October 12 and December 1, 2015. The data were analyzed along several dimensions including gender, company ownership, geography, and industry (not all respondents provided information on these dimensions). Boris Groysberg and Yo-Jud Cheng are continuing to work with Harvard Business School’s Global Research Centers to increase the response rate in certain countries and regions.

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