Sarah Hollinsworth: “Clearly articulate the benefits of change.”

Company secretary

4 min read

Sarah Hollinsworth is Chief of Staff, Corporate Secretariat at Barclays and was highly commended for the CGIUKI’s 2023 Governance Professional of the Year award. Here, she shares insights from her governance career and the complex change projects she has worked on and explores the opportunity that awaits governance professionals who embrace change.

What impact has your career path into governance had on your perspective of it?

I’m fortunate to have worked in more than one area of the business since joining Barclays in 2006, but it’s safe to say governance found me six months into contracting in an unrelated role. From my initial perception, my view of governance and the role it plays has changed significantly.

My first nine years at Barclays were spent working in a front office department, managing around 300 legal entities. Not for the faint hearted, but it was a great training ground and the foundation to my career. I developed the skills, tools and resilience I needed for future roles and it gave me firsthand experience of governance and why it mattered to the organisation.

During this time I also worked on my first technology project. This project, to improve controls around the quality of legal entity data, was a light bulb moment for me. I realised that I had a real appetite for challenging ways of working and leaving things better than when I found them. But I also realised that this appetite wasn’t shared by everyone – and the world of governance would remain predominantly paper-based for many years to come.

A few years later, I jumped at the opportunity to support the execution of Structural Reform for Barclays, leading a team to deliver three legal entity focused initiatives and putting governance and legal entity management on the map. The experience was incredibly rewarding, and demonstrated to the group how important good governance and simplifying the group structure was.

After this, I moved into the Corporate Secretariat team where I covered a variety of roles before being appointed Chief of Staff in July 2023.

What did this experience teach you? And what can others learn from it?

I think my atypical route into governance has given me a different perspective to those who’ve followed the more traditional route. Having these different backgrounds in the team is incredibly valuable because it brings diversity of thought and ways of working.

“I think my atypical route into governance has given me a different perspective to those who’ve followed the more traditional route.”

My internal moves have enabled me to broaden my skillset and develop a solid understanding of the group and the challenges across it. Working solely in one function can sometimes limit your view of the organisation and how it works, and this can make it hard to understand the rationale behind the requests you receive or why certain structures are required.

My experiences have also ignited my passion for transformation and for stepping back and challenging established ways of working. I can be proactive in identifying change projects that will help us work more efficiently, enhance our control environment, and reduce risk.

My advice to anyone starting out in a CoSec career would therefore be don’t always rush to progress and push for a job title. It’s important to work hard and deliver while seeking opportunities to gain experience, and secondments and lateral moves are a great way to get practical experience and see how things work on the ground.

How do you communicate the benefits of change, so that people are aligned and focused on delivery?

The most important thing is to clearly articulate the benefits of the change you’re making. There’s always a cost and time impact, so you need to ensure that everyone understands the value of the investment that’s being made. I try my best to articulate this in a simple presentation that outlines the business case and how the technology will help us to achieve it.

For me, introducing technology is about reducing risk by improving our control environment and driving efficiencies. It’s also about making roles more value-adding and enjoyable – by trimming administrative work and freeing up time for training, development, and the high-value work that we all find more rewarding. These are the sorts of benefits I tend to focus on when I outline the business case for change.

For the secretariat team, it’s vital that we create these opportunities and give ourselves the time and space to focus, because governance professionals are always busy. Unlike some other functions, we don’t have quiet periods in between feverish bursts of activity and can only dream of a mid-month lull!

As an organisation, Barclays is committed to being “consistently excellent” and delivering our three-year plan of being Simpler, Better, and More Balanced. We have a mandate to look closely at everything we do and question whether we’re delivering that “consistently excellent” service, and that has injected momentum and focus into our change programme.

Do you think emerging technologies like AI will help governance professionals in the future?

In the short term, I think AI has potential value in terms of helping report authors when they’re preparing board papers, by assisting with writing summaries for example.

Over time, as the technology develops, it may be able to help governance professionals in other ways. Take writing minutes, for example. Whilst some love doing this and treat it as an art form (others maybe aren’t so fond!), introducing a bespoke AI tool here could save hours of work, which would be transformative in creating even more space for governance professionals to add value.

“Introducing a bespoke AI tool here could save hours of work, which would be transformative in creating even more space for governance professionals to add value.”

If you could issue a challenge to your peers, what would it be?

There’s more to be done in terms of promoting governance and celebrating all of the colleagues who play a part in the smooth operation of the CoSec function. It’s not just those of us who are qualified Company Secretaries; the support we receive to orchestrate an increasing number of board and committee meetings is invaluable.

We also need to create opportunities for more people to learn about the role at a younger age – exciting and energising them with the variety and breadth of work we do to build a diverse pipeline of talent.

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