Supervisory Board: Sparring partners in dynamic times

Lifelong learning – this also applies to supervisory board members. The aim is to equip the Supervisory Board for its advisory and control function in the long term.

(f.l.t.r.): Birgit Kraft-Kinz - Chairwoman of Digital Hub Vienna // Sabine Aigner, Partner at Spencer Stuart International // Wolfgang Anzengruber - Member of the Supervisory Board of ASFINAG and Siemens // Christine Catasta - Member of the Supervisory Board (e.g. BIG, Austrian Airlines). Photo credit: KRAFTKINZ/LIEB.ICH Productions

Lifelong learning – this also applies to supervisory board members. In view of the highly dynamic and challenging market situation, experienced supervisory board members advocate constant further development of essential skills. The aim is to equip the Supervisory Board for its advisory and control function in the long term.

Companies are currently facing a multitude of crises and challenges: Digital and technological developments are progressing at a rapid pace, while geopolitical crises and conflicts are on the rise. The economy is cooling down and the consequences of inflation, interest rate hikes and trade barriers are making it more difficult for companies to manage their business. The overly complicated legal framework and excessive bureaucracy in the European Union also pose additional challenges in terms of efficiency, innovation and international competitiveness. This is not an easy situation for company management to master.

This changes the skills needed to lead through this dynamic. In this context, the Digital Hub Vienna association has now focused on the Supervisory Board: The aim is to strengthen companies in Austria and make them more resilient and future-proof. It is important to strengthen the Supervisory Board in this respect and to use it strategically to improve economic dynamics.

Market dynamics demand constant further development

Birgit Kraft-Kinz, founder of the Digital Hub Vienna association and CEO of KRAFTKINZ, in an interview: “Supervisory board members are key factors and play a decisive role in the success and stability of companies.” The basis for this: Measures to continuously develop the expertise and know-how of the Supervisory Board. In view of the challenges, a wealth of experience is no longer enough to shape the future.

Kraft-Kinz: “The risks and threats for companies are currently enormous. We therefore need qualified training and regular further training for supervisory board members, especially on increasingly essential topics such as sustainability, cybersecurity and EU regulations.” Sabine Aigner, Partner at the leadership consulting firm Spencer Stuart International, emphasizes in this context: “This is not about criticizing the present, but only about seriously discussing possibilities for improvement.”

Increasing demands on management in companies

“Our role as Supervisory Board members is to use the investments for the company in a forward-looking and strategically sound manner,” clarifies experienced Supervisory Board member Christine Catasta and advocates sustainable skills development: “Mandatory further training would be desirable. The selection of Supervisory Board members should be diverse – not only gender, but also professional and personal skills should be reviewed annually in a collective suitability matrix.”

This is already used in the banking sector and provides an overview of the professional composition and structure of a board. Catasta: “It takes a good mix of the special skills of individual members to be a competent sounding board for the leadership team in all matters.”

The former CEO of Verbund and Supervisory Board member, Wolfgang Anzengruber, also sees the demands on Supervisory Board members increasing significantly in the future. On the one hand, in supporting the ability to resist and react to volatile conditions and crises. In addition to effective risk management, he also emphasizes the importance of comprehensive opportunity management and gives an example: “The ecological transformation of the economy is urgently needed and can no longer be delayed.” He therefore advocates giving priority to these aspects in the selection of suitable supervisory board members.

Sabine Aiger goes one step further: “You need to constantly question whether a supervisory board can cover all the skills that are currently required and take action if this does not appear to be the case.” This means succession planning, rapid further training measures, the involvement of external consultants for tricky special issues – right up to the replacement of the board.

In this context, Anzengruber allows himself a side blow: “In my opinion, membership of interest groups such as social partners, political parties or NGOs should not be a determining quality criterion for a supervisory board.” He is much more in favor of a nomination procedure similar to the fit and proper test (examination of managing directors in the securities sector by the Financial Market Authority FMA).

Fair remuneration for liability and effort

Whereas in Austria there is a clear separation of the bodies, there is closer cooperation internationally: The Management Board and Supervisory Board are united in one body. Anzengruber also mentions remuneration in the interview: While he considers Austrian supervisory board members to be on an internationally comparable level in terms of expertise, “remuneration in Austria is significantly lower and usually not in an appropriate relationship to effort and responsibility.”

Furthermore, supervisory board members in the international area often have a team at their disposal for preparation. For Christine Catasta, these differences lead to challenges in the professional competence of domestic supervisory boards: “It is often difficult to approach experts from abroad, as the responsibility and liability of Supervisory Board members is not adequately honoured.”

Anzengruber concludes: “Supervisory board members should be seismographs of future developments. To achieve this, it is essential that they are fit for the future and really understand sustainability issues, keep themselves informed on an ongoing basis and provide sound support to top management.

Anja Herberth
Author: Anja Herberth

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