The battle at Credit Suisse over the fate of CEO Tidjane Thiam may be just the start of a broader conflict between investors and corporate boards as businesses redefine their raison d’être.
Chairman Urs Rohner came under attack from some of the bank’s biggest investors in the days before Thiam was shown the door. U.S.- and U.K.-based money managers demanded that Rohner, rather than Thiam, be held to account for the spying scandal that has shaken Switzerland’s second-largest bank. Credit Suisse would be acting against shareholders’ best interest if it removed a successful CEO, they said.
No one should be surprised the investors’ offensive failed. Thiam’s resignation was written on the wall when it became clear that the initial case—involving its former head of wealth management Iqbal Khan—was not an isolated event. “We saw a deterioration in terms of trust, reputation, and credibility among all our stakeholders,” Rohner said in media interviews after Thiam’s resignation.
It will take time to repair the damage. The Swiss financial supervisor is still investigating corporate governance at Credit Suisse in the wake of the scandal, during which a security officer killed himself.
For the record, an internal probe found that Thiam didn’t know about the snooping operations. That raises questions about what else he wasn’t aware of. Let’s not forget, Thiam also claimed he was blindsided by $1 billion in losses on trading positions in his first year on the job.
What the shareholders haven’t understood is that they don’t have the clout they once did. The notion that corporations function first and foremost to serve investors and maximize profits is falling out of favor as businesses respond to new social and environmental pressures.
At least that was the mantra at last month’s World Economic Forum, where Salesforce chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff proclaimed that “capitalism as we have known it is dead.” For the first time in decades, the WEF updated its Davos Manifesto, a set of ethical principles, to emphasize the role of other stakeholders in the success of a business.
In this model, known as stakeholder capitalism, investing in employees, providing value to customers, dealing ethically with suppliers, supporting the community, and protecting the environment are as important as advancing the interests of shareholders.
Whether business leaders will make good on their pledges remains to be seen. But if the battle at Credit Suisse is any indication, it won’t be without a fight.