Governance Game Changers is a blog and event series that celebrates governance professionals who’ve broken the mould and changed perceptions. One such game-changer is Catherine Sukmonowski, who, after working as a corporate lawyer at Clifford Chance for several years, transitioned to the company secretary world. She has worked for long-established public companies such as BP (as legal counsel to the company secretariat) Burberry and Aston Martin (as company secretary), and currently Deliveroo, joining on their respective IPOs.
Catherine believes that company secretaries can add significant value to businesses going through a change — whether by responding to an internal or external crisis or supporting a corporate transformation. Here, she shares her advice for company secretaries looking to balance their affinity for governance frameworks with the experience and flexibility needed to thrive in these environments, all the while increasing their credibility and exposure.
Apply agile rigour in the processes that you put in place
Whether a company is newly public, long-established, or entrepreneurial, agility has definitely been a priority for all companies given events over the past few years. I think that this will remain an essential factor for companies to thrive (and perhaps even survive) in the future.
COVID has had a significant impact on our behaviours, changing our social, economic, and work landscape, probably permanently in some areas. What I find fascinating about companies like Deliveroo is that, as a tech business in the food space, it is uniquely aligned to this shift — both benefiting from our changing behaviours but also very focused on anticipating how this will continue. So, by definition, agility isn’t just the ability to react to events, it’s also about anticipating the future and is an important part of strategy. I think this must be true of most modern businesses.
Each company has to find its own path to balance governance and entrepreneurship as one size definitely does not fit all. Clearly, public companies (in particular), have a responsibility to do things properly and to be accountable to their owners and stakeholders. But the transition to public company life can be a challenge. Governance is not just about “bolting on” a few processes. To be effective, it should be “built in” as an integral and sustainable part of the business, and that can take time. In my experience, appropriate processes and planning can facilitate agility. It stands you in good stead to react quickly when there’s a time-critical, high-pressure problem to solve. It also helps organisations work more collaboratively, effectively, and efficiently — things we all value.
Be patiently tenacious
Company secretaries can be key players in helping their companies find the right governance balance. However, this can sometimes be a challenge as it may require overcoming a perception that agility and good process can’t co-exist. This isn’t helped by the fact that there always seems to be competing priorities within businesses, external headwinds, and the occasional crisis that needs to be navigated.
To be effective, company secretaries need to be patient and tenacious. Building relationships within the board, the exec team, and other key players within your company is key, along with constant communication. You need to know what is going on, how you can help/keep things on the right track, and people need to understand what you are trying to achieve and why. They also need to trust you. Ultimately it might be a case of “seeing is believing” and so people will need to experience the benefits of change before buying into it completely. Be patient — you will get them there.
Don’t be afraid to veer out of your lane
As a company secretary, you will be known for your governance and compliance skills. However, your skills are likely to go way beyond that. Company secretaries tend to be acute observers, listeners, and above all “doers” — instinctually rolling up their sleeves to help — and so are usually in the thick of things. They also understand that there will be a number of stakeholders (internally and externally) who will need to be considered and brought into the fold, and this will need to be navigated carefully, especially in difficult times. They are typically effective communicators, given the different constituents they serve and the breadth of people they interact with.
Despite this, there can be a lack of understanding and awareness of what a company secretary has to offer. I encounter many company secretaries who are impressive individuals. Yet I sense that some remain underutilised, as their colleagues may not realise what a gem they have hiding in plain sight.
So I would urge you to be confident about the skills that you have, and don’t be afraid to showcase them. You’re an expert, a problem solver, a project manager, a connector of people and, most of all, a pragmatist. You don’t always need to stay in your lane. When there’s a problem that needs solving and you think you can help, then go for it. If there’s a project that needs co-ordinating, throw your hat in the ring. Use your proximity to the board, management, and your stakeholders to make a difference and find ways to add value. Companies are facing difficult times; they need all the help they can get.