Liz is Company Secretary at St. James’s Place plc, the FTSE 100 wealth management group, and a Non Executive Director at Saffron Building Society.
Has the role and remit of CoSecs changed much in the last few years?
The perception, and possibly the role itself, has traditionally been focused on the admin side — and calling it “Company Secretary” doesn’t always help with that impression.
The remit has changed over the last 5 years, however. A modern CoSec role is not just to present options but to give recommendations. There’s a growing element of being a strategic advisor, not as a decision maker but as someone who supports the discussion and helps the board make the best decisions.
What impact does the quality of board information have on the effectiveness of boards?
To be blunt about it: rubbish in is rubbish out. But the problem is wider than just the quality of the information: you also need a future-looking forward agenda and a balanced split of your time between strategic and supervisory — focusing on the supervisory, day-to-day angle is the easy thing to do, so that’s where the information and the discussions naturally tend to drift if left unchecked.
At SJP, we map out a forward agenda for 18 months, for both board and committees and ensure these are all aligned. We start at a high-level with the topics we want to cover and ask ourselves “how do we get everything needed for a meaningful conversation around these points?” so that the executives who will be presenting elicit valuable input from the NEDs.
If you could wave a magic wand, how would you make boards more effective?
By ensuring that everyone, prior to a board meeting starting, is in the same place and has the same understanding of the topics that are about to be discussed.
In that spirit, we’ve started having our NEDs engage with experts outside of the meetings, to bring them on a level playing field with the Executives who live and breathe these — sometimes highly-technical — subjects.
What are the tips and tricks you’ve witnessed from leading Chairs in the boardroom?
First, be really clear about the objectives of the board. The board is a team and, like any other team in any organisation, it should have objectives linked to the company’s strategy.
Second, set the ground rules. The Chair’s role is to facilitate and act as a ‘conductor’ for the Board, and it’s worth standing back every so often from the running of the business and ask if the way the board operates works for everyone and encourages good contributions.
Finally, humility goes a long way. Being approachable and a good listener will let you get the best out the other board members. In my experience, informal and inclusive settings enable better conversations, as they encourage participants to be honest and speak their mind.
With the increasing spotlight on organisation’s demonstrating good corporate governance, what can be done to elevate the role of the CoSec?
The admin and compliance are a given, so the question becomes “how can you add strategic value?” One of the best ways to do so is to become more externally focused. What is happening in other organisations, and why? If you look back at the companies that hit the headlines in the last few years, a lot of these scandals had to do with governance failures. What lessons can you learn from it, and what do you need to put in place to avoid the same happening to you?
What is your advice for an aspiring CoSec?
Be clear about why you want to become a CoSec, and your development plan to get there. Beyond the box-ticking, take some informed, calculated risks for the things you believe in. In the people I recruit, the technical side is a given, and attitude and values matter the most: your key stakeholders are going to be high-profile, highly-intelligent people, so how are you going to influence them?
What book is on your bedside table?
I’ve just finished Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt — hilariously funny, but gives you a newfound level of respect for doctors. I’m also reading The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. I dip in and out of it, as it’s a genuinely scary examination of the Trump administration, but I feel I ought to read it.
What luxury item would you take on a desert island?
My espresso machine — I really struggle without good coffee!
What is your golden rule?
Always look for the positive. It makes life such a better place to be.