Why CEOs Need to Think Like Activist Investors

Businessman wearing a blindfold at his desk
Dave and Les Jacobs—Getty Images/Blend Images

As executives, being able to look at our organizations objectively and dispassionately is one of the most important skills we must possess to succeed.

Yet all too often when we look in the mirror and examine our business strategy and performance, we don’t quite see what is really there. This lack of objectivity is perhaps one of the reasons why the number of activist investor campaigns launched has increased by 18% annually since 2012.

Addressing this problem may help protect your company from a potential activist campaign. But more importantly, it will go a long way toward helping your business create more value.

Adopt an activist investor mindset

At a time when there are more people looking over your shoulder, one key strategy to protecting yourself from shareholder activism is to adopt an activist mindset. The age-old adage applies in this case: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

While attention from activist investors may cause headaches for executives and directors, it’s important to keep in mind that shareholder activists are simply seeking increases in value to their portfolios.

As a collective force, they have improved shareholder value and have done so by looking at balance sheets and numbers objectively and without emotion. For them, it’s not personal—or at least not always. They are looking at your publicly available information and do so without the details of your business’s day in and day out.

While having these details gives you more context about how your company may be performing, it also may create blind spots and unconscious bias about your firm’s strategy and execution. You may not want to see or admit that performance could be better or that costs could be lower because you know how hard your employees are working or because you have what you think is the next game-changing innovation.

Like an activist investor, you have to be willing to confront your teams with tough questions about missed opportunities. You can’t be afraid of having uncomfortable conversations about your business or asking your teams: Are our portfolios too broad? Could our margins be better? Are we executing or changing our business model fast and effectively enough?

Focus on your strategy, performance, and execution vis-a-vis your peers

Thinking like an activist investor also means getting to the core of what CEOs are responsible for—setting and executing the business strategy.

Focusing on strategy means looking at your business objectively and seeing how it is performing in comparison to your competitors. Put simply, when you’re focused on your core business strategy through this lens, you begin to more critically examine your business costs, competitive margins, and portfolios, as well as the pace with which you are changing your business.

As a result, you begin to observe things that you might not have seen otherwise. For example, you might see that while you’re still number one in the marketplace, you’re losing market share or margins. Similarly, you might see that your margins are not comparable to your competitors’, calling into question your cost structure. Or you might realize that even though the past performance of a specific business unit has been good, it still might not justify keeping the business in your portfolio in the long run.

Getting past the short-term and long-term debate

For the past few years, investors and business leaders have been fighting about curbing corporate “short-termism” in order to invest for the long term. This debate is important and recently gained traction again when the Business Roundtable announced a couple of months ago that it supported moving away from providing quarterly guidance.

Activists have a reputation for only caring all about the short-term and capturing money to enrich themselves. However, as objective and dispassionate leaders, perhaps we should be asking ourselves: “Why do activists implicitly or explicitly doubt our ability to invest the money back into the business—in the form of upgrades like technology transformation—or M&A? Is it because they don’t think that investment is warranted or do they doubt our ability to generate a return on that investment?”

The reality is that delivering short-term results and changing one’s business for the long term is necessary for most companies. Many activist investors are fine with investing for the long term, but “long term” cannot mean a lack of accountability. Businesses should be focused on their long-term strategy, but it can’t be done at the expense of intermediary milestones.

Similarly, activist investors zero in on businesses where they don’t see changes or transformations happening fast enough. Therefore, communication is key: You have to clearly communicate to your largest investors about the long-term value you are creating and stay connected with them while listening to their perspectives. Without effective external communications with investors and shareholders, they won’t understand your long-term business plans. This then can create challenges for you in finding the right balance between the reality of short-term profits and the goal of longer-term strategy and execution.

Taking on these strategies should help maximize your company’s business performance, and in the process, hopefully protect against shareholder activism. Ultimately, these strategies are all about creating more value for your organization. And if you are able to create more value and communicate it effectively to your shareholders, more of them will be focused on investing for the long term instead of going along with an activist campaign.

Tim Ryan is the U.S. chairman and senior partner at PwC.

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