Speak to most company secretaries, and they’ll likely 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 the company secretary is uniquely placed to influence how the board, and indeed the wider company, operates. With that in mind, we’ve launched Governance Game Changers — a blog and event series that celebrates company secretaries who have broken the mould and changed perceptions. In doing this, we hope to inspire and support others who want to do the same.
Chris Taylor, company secretary at Young’s, the premium pub and hotel group, and former company secretary at Sky plc, is one such game-changer. Throughout his career, Chris has expertly balanced respect for regulatory frameworks with a desire for strategic and commercial impact — earning him his place as the board’s trusted advisor. Here are just some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way…
1. You’re in a unique position to become one of the board’s most trusted advisors
When I started my career, the company secretary typically spent much of their time overseeing the board and manual company administration. Technology, thankfully, has helped company secretaries and their teams work smarter – and our focus has shifted to keeping our organisations on the right side of an increasingly complex governance landscape.
But there’s scope for the company secretary to go further — to go beyond compliance and have a far greater impact…
If you play your cards right, you can become an indispensable counsel to the board - but it’s not enough to just know the regulations and the codes inside out. You need to have empathy for the board’s challenges, combined with a thorough commercial understanding of the organisation’s vision and goals.
From here, you’re well placed to help the organisation to meet its commercial goals while operating within legal frameworks. Ultimately, board members want options and solutions to problems.
Sometimes we have to have difficult conversations, it’s an important part of our role, but we should also avoid over-engineered, inflexible processes when more practical solutions can have the same effect.
Once you’ve established yourself as an empathetic and commercially savvy problem solver, you’ll be called upon to help with bigger, and more complex challenges. This has placed me and my teams at the heart of some critical projects in the past, particularly at Sky, which takes us to lesson number two…
2. Be a swan in difficult situations, serene above the water but working away beneath the surface
The Sky takeover, which involved two bidders, was complex, drawn-out and had a political dimension. Throughout this challenging process, my team acted as a calm and cohesive unit that was able to help the company navigate through the storm.
We built trusting relationships with internal stakeholders, external advisors, and key suppliers while working to shelter the rest of the business from the upheaval. I was a member of the senior leadership team working on Sky’s response to the bid and acted as an advisor and secretary of an independent committee of the board with authority concerning the offer.
Following the takeover, I worked with Comcast for nine months helping to design and embed a new governance framework that would work for both Comcast and Sky. Normally, in takeover situations the company secretary and their team are the first to go but, in this case, my team and I were kept on to ensure a smooth handover. I think that is a testament to the trust we earned by looking at regulation and compliance through a commercial and strategic lens, whilst maintaining high compliance standards.
Having worked closely with Sky’s Bigger Picture team (which looked at sustainability and responsible business), and acted as secretary to Sky’s Bigger Picture committee, I knew I wanted to keep driving these important sustainability conversations forward in the boardroom. This takes us to my third and final lesson…
3. Sustainability is an opportunity for you to break the mould in the most natural way possible
After all, as a company secretary, you are already likely involved in monitoring the governance aspects of ESG compliance and performance. But you can go further — and help shape and deliver your organisation’s ESG strategy.
When I joined Young’s, I made a proactive decision to get involved in the sustainability effort. Firstly, I completed a Business Sustainability Management course run by the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership — which I’d highly recommend.
The course gave me a well-balanced view of the issues, helped me to articulate the importance of sustainability in business and provided me with a toolkit that will help me develop Young’s sustainability strategy.
Since then, I’ve worked with internal and external stakeholders, presented an action plan to the board and received their full buy-in.
Our carbon footprint is being calculated and we’ll be developing our sustainability strategy and setting our short and long-term sustainability goals over the next few months.
My overarching point is this: your exposure to the board provides you with a unique opportunity to help your company be a sustainable force for good. My advice would be to seize it with both hands.