If you’re a company secretary, you’ll agree that the title doesn’t do justice to the weight and breadth of responsibility that comes with the role. Nor does it convey how uniquely placed you are to influence how the board, and wider company, operate.
With that in mind, we hosted our launch event for Governance Game Changers — a programme to both support company secretaries who want to take their career to the next level and celebrate those who already have. During the panel discussion, Chris Taylor, company secretary at Young’s, talked about spearheading sustainability efforts, and why the company secretary is so well placed to take on this challenge. And Miranda Craig, director of strategy and change at the Financial Reporting Council, shared how to get more from your governance career, and which skills to use to your advantage. Here were our key takeaways:
How do you think the role of the company secretary has changed over the past two years, particularly in terms of the skills sets that it demands?
Miranda. The pandemic was simply an opportunity to bring our existing skills to the fore, namely adaptability and resilience. When an organisation must move immediately within a given framework, company secretaries are the ones to help them do it well and make it look seamless. People don’t realise that you’re like a swan — paddling away furiously beneath the surface while trying to look serene!
“When an organisation must move immediately within a given framework, company secretaries are the ones to help them do it well and make it look seamless.”
Chris. Organisations have had to be agile over the last two years, and therefore so have governance professionals. But as Miranda said, we’ve always been that patient and trusted advisor that can anchor a business during times of chaos. I recently found a leaving card from an old company, and there was a message from a colleague who wrote, “You’ve always managed to do your job with a sense of calm — which, considering some of the characters you dealt with, was an incredible asset!”
Which skills are going to be of greater importance in the coming years?
Chris. There’s an expectation now that the company secretary understands all elements of the business, particularly the commercial aspects. And if you can get this experience, even if it involves making a sideways move, you could progress more quickly.
People mistake your career path for a ladder but moving in one linear direction might not get you the rounded exposure you need. And as a governance professional with this commercial acumen, you’re well placed to show the correlation between good governance and commercial success — which positions you as that trusted advisor to the board.
“People mistake your career path for a ladder but moving in one linear direction might not get you the rounded exposure you need.”
How can governance professionals get the most from their careers?
Miranda. You’ve got such a broad set of hard and soft skills, and you can take your career in so many directions — so think about what energises you the most and make a forward plan. Where do you want to end up? How can you get there via your current role? And which skills gaps do you need to bridge? I’d also advise that you make judicious use of mentoring and coaching.
I recently heard a speaker at an event recommend having a “career board” — an independent, trusted, inner circle that can keep you on track and make sure you’re being true to yourself. In doing the above, you’ll learn to recognise when your job is not the right fit and it’s time to move on. On that note: never wait until you're miserable to leave a job. You’ll make poor decisions because you’re desperate. Get in front of your career and treat it like a strategy.
“Never wait until you’re miserable to leave a job. You’ll make poor decisions because you’re desperate. Get in front of your career and treat it like a strategy.”
There’s growing scrutiny on organisations to do the right thing. Which levers can governance professionals pull to help an organisation be a force for good?
Chris. I think ESG, especially sustainability, is something that already sits quite naturally within the company secretary’s remit. When the chief executive of Young’s interviewed me, he said, “I want you to be the conscience of the company.” When the opportunity arose to get involved with ESG, I volunteered, and Young’s sponsored me to take a three-month business sustainability management course at Cambridge.
I now provide leadership and direction to the wider business to ensure our sustainability initiatives correspond with the board’s wider sustainability strategy. Before this, when I was at Sky, I was involved with the “bigger picture committee,” which had lots of sustainability initiatives like Sky Ocean Rescue. I could help drive these initiatives forward by leveraging my understanding of the governance frameworks, how to write a board proposal, and how to engage the execs. These are the kind of skills you can use as company secretary, to help your organisation be a force for good.
“ESG, especially sustainability, is something that already sits quite naturally within the company secretary’s remit.”
How do you feel now in board meetings, compared to when you started in your career?
Miranda. For a long time, when I started out in my career, I felt terrified that I was going to say something stupid. It was only when I became deputy company secretary that I finally thought: “I’ve got this, it’s fine.” There was one audit committee that I went to early on, and the committee chair thought I was there to make tea. So, I made the tea, and then I sat down and talked to him about the capital restructuring that we were announcing!
Your confidence and EQ develop with each board meeting that you attend. You’ll become very tuned in to people’s body language, what they’re saying — and what they’re not saying. You know you’ve got it right when you’re sitting next to the chair in the meeting, and you have an unspoken agreement on how this meeting will go. Together, you’re moving everyone around a chessboard with great tact. Nobody is a pawn, but everyone moves in the way they need to, and you get the best from each person.