Kate Owen: “Strong relationships open opportunities for development.”

Company secretary

4 min read

Kate Owen is Director of Governance at Elemental CoSec and the CGIUKI’s 2023 Governance Professional of the Year. Here, she shares insights from her career working in-house and in professional services and her tips for building the relationships every company secretary depends on.

Why are relationships such an important part of the governance professional’s toolkit?

Relationship building is critical, whether you’re in-house or in professional services, to get the buy-in and trust of the people you work with.

When you have those relationships, it’s easier to get things done — they ensure smooth collaboration and are vital for delivering good governance.

Sometimes, the company secretary will report directly to the CEO or another executive director, which underlines the importance of maintaining relationships not just with the board but with the executive management team too.

One way you can use these relationships for a positive effect is to improve the quality of the papers that management write for the board. Your role as an impartial advisor means that you have a keen sense of what management wants from the board, and what the board needs from management in return. By working with management to ensure papers contain all the information the board needs to make the decision, you can help to avoid delays and the board is better equipped to make the right decision.

But the benefits of building strong relationships extend far beyond the organisation you’re currently working in, as individuals will recommend and continue to work with you when they transition to new roles. Your relationships will open up many opportunities for personal and professional development.

How can governance professionals make sure they’re seen as enablers rather than as blockers?

Historically, in some quarters, company secretaries have been perceived as impediments to progress. Shifting this view, so that governance professionals are seen as enablers, involves understanding the intricacies of the company’s operations, working with teams to deliver strategic solutions, and ensuring compliance in a way that doesn’t hinder progress. By becoming advisors who actively contribute to problem-solving and strategic planning, company secretaries can engage stakeholders earlier in the decision-making process, adding significant value to the business.

To do this, you have to prove yourself over time by being first a safe pair of hands. Then, you have to be proactive about demonstrating your skills and the value you can add — you have to prove it with your actions.

Direct relationships with the board, non-executives, and management are key to building the trust necessary for you to be seen as an essential adviser. The independence of the company secretary, with a direct line to the board, also helps to foster this trust.

“You have to prove yourself over time by being first a safe pair of hands.”

I’m sure many governance professionals will have seen cases where the company secretary isn’t involved early enough; as such, they’re only told once a decision has been made. The way to avoid this is to show you have a rock-solid understanding of the business and that you can balance compliance and best practice with strategic priorities. If you can show that you can help the business to deliver on these objectives, then you’re infinitely more likely to be involved at an earlier stage. And the benefit to everyone is that the business can then make better use of your knowledge and skills.

How do you raise the profile of governance within an organisation?

Governance is often challenging to define because good governance can be a subtle thing. Governance failures are significantly more noticeable and tend to have a much greater impact.

To navigate this challenge, you need to proactively define success metrics, even in the absence of visible crises, and showcase how governance principles contribute to the organisation’s strategic goals and prevent potential issues. This makes it more likely that the value of governance will be seen as proactively maintaining a healthy organisation rather than in responding reactively to challenging circumstances.

What would you say is the difference between being a governance professional working in-house and working at a service provider?

In the world of outsourced services, given the nature of the relationship and what you’re brought in to deliver, there’s often a lot more structure and forward planning that goes into your work.

If you’re working in-house in a trusted position, it’s a different game altogether. Here, you find yourself working across the entire business in unpredictable ways. When something’s unclear or needs attention, it tends to land on the company secretary’s desk because people assume you know what to do with it or how to get the ball rolling.

“When something’s unclear or needs attention, it tends to land on the company secretary’s desk because people assume you know what to do with it or how to get the ball rolling.”

What should governance professionals look for in a role?

It’s always good to think broadly about your experience and the types of work you engage in.

People can fixate on what they believe looks best on their CV, and because of that many gravitate towards PLC work. However, a different type of company might offer a much broader experience that exposes you to new challenges. It’s about building transferable skills; governance principles remain consistent across different organisations, and it’s the application that varies based on entity type and industry.

It’s also important not to stress too much about job titles; they can mean entirely different things in different companies. What may seem like a sideways move can actually be a significant step up when you see the detail of the role and consider the bigger picture.

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