Prioritize the Future with Duty of Foresight

The decisions we make as board members and leaders now will continue to have ripple effects years and decades into the future. Boards should keep that in mind when weighing short-term benefits vs. long-term costs.

Fiduciary Decisions Are Not Exempt

Boards should execute the traditional board duties of care, loyalty, and obedience with duty of foresight in mind. Financial considerations without duty of foresight considerations is a neglectful approach for any board to take.

Duty of Foresight is an Ongoing Approach

Duty of foresight is not a one-and-done activity. Instead, boards should blend duty of foresight into every decision-making process. This will, in turn, improve your board’s ability to properly prepare for the future to the best of your abilities.

Atlas Webinar Series:  Choosing the Board’s Duty of Foresight

Webinar Recap: Jeff De Cagna, Executive Advisor for Foresight First, explores how boards can choose the duty of foresight and adopt key practices that help them shape a better future.

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All board members are familiar with the three fiduciary duties: duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience. But in this turbulent decade and beyond, a board’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, and share the future is arguably even more important than its fiduciary duties. 

Now is the time for boards to adopt the duty of foresight. But what does that mean – and why does it matter? 

During a recent ATLAS Leadership series webinar, Jeff De Cagna, executive advisor for Foresight First, led a compelling discussion on how boards can (and should) choose the duty of foresight and how doing is key to shaping a better future for the organizations they serve. 

De Cagna shaped the discussion around 3 key questions:

  1. What is the board’s duty of foresight and why does it matter?
  2. How does the duty of foresight amplify the importance of the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience?
  3. How can boards build a consistent practice of foresight?

Read on for a summary of some of the top takeaways from this engaging session.

Duty of Foresight Has Never Been More Important

Today, we’re in the midst of what De Cagna refers to as the “turbulent 20s.” We kicked off the decade with a global health emergency – with plenty of social, technological, environmental, and political turbulence to follow. And, it’s not over. As De Cagna put it, “we still have a lot of days left in this decade.”

The issues we face today won’t necessarily be resolved in this decade. But all the critical decisions that will shape the future are happening now. 

De Cagna challenged attendees to consider what our successors will say about us. “We have a greater responsibility to those who will follow us to ensure we are shaping a better future,” he said. “Our successors are listening to us and taking note of what we do and don’t do.”

Now, more than ever, boards must choose the duty of foresight. Doing so enables boards to build their capacity to make future-focused decisions that leave the organization better than they found it.

Duty of Foresight, Defined

But what exactly is duty of foresight? 

De Cagna defines foresight as “an intentional process of learning with the future.” It’s about imaging the full range of futures – including favorable, unfavorable, and the worst-case scenarios. “We learn while it unfolds,” De Cagna said. “Given what we’ve learned, how can we prepare for a wide range of possibilities?”

The duty of foresight requires boards to stand up for their successors’ futures through:

  • Intentional learning
  • Short-term sacrifice
  • Long-term action

Duty of foresight requires boards to shift the way they think.

All too often, boards focus on the here and now. But the duty of foresight is focused on the board standing up for its successors’ futures. As De Cagna explained, “Too many boards are stuck in a belief system that is no longer operable in this century. They should care more about their successors than they do about themselves.” 

De Cagna cited BlackBerry (originally known as Research in Motion or RIM) as a prime example of duty of foresight failure. At one time, BlackBerry ruled the smartphone market. But the company went from having its product in most people’s hands to essentially a non-entity – largely because its board was unprepared for what the future held. “BackBerry failed in its duty of foresight,” De Cagna said. 

The duty of foresight goes beyond checking a box on legal requirements. 

“The next definition [of duty of foresight] grounds its authority in our shared humanity rather than a legal mandate,” De Cagna said. “The duty of foresight is an ethical and moral choice that fit-for-purpose association boards must make every day.” 

Boards Must Examine Fiduciary Responsibilities Through the Lens of Duty of Foresight

Duty of foresight changes the way we think about fiduciary responsibilities. According to De Cagna, “the duty of foresight demands that boards situate fiduciary responsibility in a larger context.” 

He went on to explain how duty of foresight amplifies fiduciary responsibilities.

  • Duty of care: The duty of foresight requires the duty of care to operate at a higher level of anticipation and vigilance. 
  • Duty of loyalty: The duty of foresight requires the duty of loyalty to ask deeper questions about self-interest versus shared interest.
  • Duty of obedience: The duty of foresight requires the duty of obedience to elevate the commitment to ethical purpose.

According to De Cagna, duty of foresight “challenges us to elevate the conversation around purpose. It’s not enough to have a vision and mission. What we need is a clear purpose that articulates why we exist and how we’re going to move forward.”

Throughout the coming decade (and beyond) every board decision will have significant ethical dimensions. “Fiduciary responsibility isn’t enough,” De Cagna said. “The duty of foresight is the highest responsibility for our boards as we move forward into the turbulent 20s and into the 2030s.”

Boards Must Build a Consistent Practice of Foresight

Of course, foresight isn’t a one-time event. Rather, the practice of foresight is created through “repeated work to build performance and deepen impact.”

“You’re not only learning with the future, but also building your capacity to learn with the future,” said De Cagna. 

What does it take to build a consistent practice of foresight?

According to De Cagna, it requires boards to “think and act beyond orthodoxy.” In addition, it requires a repeatable process for learning with the future. The process should by cyclical and include the following stages:

  • Sense making: Gathering resources to better understand the issue.
  • Meaning making: Understanding the human implication. In other words, how will real people be affected by these issues.
  • Decision making: Determining a course of action. 

De Cagna explained that a consistent practice of foresight also requires a “diverse and inclusive network of contributors to the work of foresight.” It’s important to seek feedback and insights that represent many perspectives. That way, you can “hear from many different people who will bring fresh and challenging perspectives.”

A consistent practice of foresight also requires boards to focus their attention on the future. “We want our board members to be substantive and future-focused.” 

In addition, boards must use dissent as a resource for learning. “Dissent shouldn’t be something we fear or discourage,” De Cagna said. “It should be something we learn from.” 

Finally, a consistent practice of foresight requires a deep commitment to ongoing board reflection.

De Cagna closed the session with a reminder to always consider what our successors will say about us – as well as a compelling quote from Barbara Jordan, “For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future.”

Ready to learn about the key role board chairs play in the success (or failure) of a board – and how you can take action to improve your board’s leadership? Save your seat for our next Atlas Leadership Webinar, Great Chairs Make Great Boards, featuring an all-star panel of NACD-certified directors including:

  • Stuart R. Levine, an independent director and board consultant
  • Jeri Isbell, an independent board member serving multiple boards
  • Jeannie Diefenderfer, CEO of Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance  
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