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What does it mean to take corporate governance beyond the status quo?

Each year, the Governance Professionals of Canada (GPC) honours leaders in the field with the Excellence in Governance Awards (EGA). The short list of nominees also provides a valuable behind-the-scenes peek at best practices in some of Canada's most successful companies.

In reviewing the submissions of the finalists, the expert panel of judges assembled by the GPC picked up on several key lessons. Here are five.

1. Understand, embrace and manage risks

Businesses often must take strategic risks to succeed. In fact, that can be a primary responsibility.

Exceptional leaders will not only identify growth opportunities for their business, they'll also know where all the risk factors lie, how they'll affect corporate strategy and how to communicate these risk factors to all the necessary stakeholders.

2. Create a culture of inclusion

It's proven that diversity in the workplace pays dividends, and those same objectives extend to the boardroom.

Constructing a quality board is about the caliber and ideas of its directors. To reflect the perspectives and demands of today's marketplace, it's imperative that boardrooms consist of a diverse group of individuals. Focused policies and goals around that can help to create a dynamic and effective governing body.

3. Take a holistic approach to engagement

Leading companies know that engagement is tied to everything from productivity to employee retention. Gone are the days of passing off the one-page employee survey as an engagement best practice.

Today, companies have to think bigger. It's about the communication with stakeholders (including conflict resolution), the accessibility of the board and the ability to change governance strategy based on feedback from investors.

4. Involve everyone in the plan

Strategic planning and oversight, like business, should never remain static. So it's important to have regular communications between board members, management and other stakeholders.

That includes holding "deep dive" information sessions to break down strategic plans, and having a clear understanding of the board's role in approving plans – and then giving management the flexibility and support to do their jobs.

5. Recognize how sustainability improvements add up

Sustainability is a core topic in the country's boardrooms and it's here to stay. Incorporating it into the workplace calls for recognizing both the big and small changes that can reduce your environmental impact and demonstrate a social conscience. Consumers and the marketplace are demanding that.

Last year's winner for Best Practices in Sustainability and ESG (environmental, social and governance), the Co-operators, says this thinking has to cut across all operational practices. They do it with everything from green meetings, to reduced air travel, to openly disclosing the environmental impact of their board meetings.

"Sustainability is becoming more embedded in organizations and we will all benefit from this shift," says Barbara Turley-McIntyre, vice president, Sustainability and Citizenship, The Co-operators Group Limited.

When it comes to corporate governance, especially in the years following the financial crisis, many people looked to the failures for lessons in what not to do. The EGA short-listed nominees and winners show the advantages of being proactive, to set yourself apart in an increasingly competitive market and define a benchmark. Learning from Canada's top practitioners of corporate governance can help you get ahead of the curve.

"These awards remind us that good governance is a value-adding activity for organizations to improve their performance," says Turley-McIntyre. "The more organizations are inspired by the best practices that these awards recognize, the better off Canadians and their communities will be – not to mention the organizations themselves."

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.