Victoria Penrice: “I realised it wasn’t good enough to be just ‘good enough.’”

Company secretary

4 min read

Victoria Penrice is the immediate past President of the CGIUKI and was previously Company Secretary of Seadrill, British Land, and Eurasian Natural Resources Corp. Here, she shares her hopes and ambitions for the governance profession, as well as the importance of being able to read the room and its undercurrents so that you know when things in the boardroom aren’t as they might first appear.

What are your hopes and ambitions for the governance profession?

I hope the profession will maintain its ability to provide a great career, as it has done for me. The reason I got into it in the first place is the sheer breadth of coverage provided by the qualification, which got me excited.

I think there’s something of a stereotype about governance professionals being competent introverts, but I don’t think this is true; however, we should still be better at proselytising loudly and proudly about the fantastic skills the profession offers, and the fulfilling career it can provide. It can be hard to convey that you aren’t just doing the annual filings and that you actually influence and have rich insight into the business. So much of the role is about synthesising different perspectives and viewpoints so that you can bring people together to find a way forward. In that sense, the role is a fairly good parallel to that of the chair.

You’ve worked across sectors and sat in the boardroom of some of the UK’s most treasured FTSE 100s. What do you think is the secret to an effective board?

Two words: mutual respect. This needs to be underpinned by an absence of ego, as without that everything falls apart.

Mutual respect means that you don’t care that someone’s opinion is different from yours, you want to hear it anyway and it won't impact your opinion of them. When people recognise this as the approach being taken around the table, then they’re much more likely to open up about something that’s causing them worry.

You’ve also worked in organisations where corporate governance standards have been tested, and where you’ve had to make a stand. What did that experience teach you?

It goes without saying that an experience like that teaches you where your boundaries are, the importance of maintaining them, and that you should be prepared to walk away when they’re crossed. But beyond that, I learned the importance of being able to read the undercurrents in the room so that you can spot when something is perhaps not quite as it seems at face value and can then dig a little deeper.

“An experience like that teaches you where your boundaries are.”

And when it comes to dealing with ambiguity, networks are critically important. It’s immensely helpful to have a network of friends and contacts you can trust, who won’t push you to break confidences, but can help you work out what’s going on. And if you’re talking to someone about something tricky, my advice is to inject a little humour – it's surprising how much more you can learn from those conversations if you keep things light.

What are the social issues that keep you awake at night?

The fact that we all seem to have become much more insular worries me. Thinking about the last few years, it seems like everything’s been about building up boundaries around ourselves individually, as companies, as communities, and as countries. However, each boundary we throw up is a false one – we're all on the same planet toiling under the same sky, and we should remember that. And for everyone who is inside the boundary, there are those who have been excluded.

Although this sense of insularity began before Covid, it was exacerbated by the pandemic; whilst working from home has many benefits, it makes it easier to forget to include certain people than if you were all in the office. So, I worry that it’s become much easier to eliminate the challenging voice and to leave people behind.

“I worry that it’s become much easier to eliminate the challenging voice and to leave people behind.”

In ten years’ time, what technology do you expect to be mainstream at board and management level?

Thinking back to ten or fifteen years ago, it wasn’t unusual to have meetings online. Granted, it was expensive and required more technology, but it was still fairly commonplace. Today, we do it all the time from our own houses and the technology is commonplace. I think the advance of AI into the mainstream will not be dissimilar. It throws up challenges, especially around the veracity of information, but we cannot ignore it.

We have been questioning whether it will replace certain aspects of the governance professional’s role. I expect that in a decade’s time it should be able to do a good job reproducing conversations. However, I’m sceptical as to how well it will be able to read the subtext and complex undercurrents conveyed through body language; it might be that, one day, technology will be able to do this, but I doubt it will be in my working life.

What has been the defining moment of your career so far?

In my first job after university, I realised it wasn’t good enough to be just ‘good enough’. I graduated at a time when many graduates were chasing the same jobs and being just ‘good enough’ wasn’t going to get me a promotion. I decided to do a professional qualification to distinguish myself, but I realised that you need to continually distinguish yourself from the pack. You should always be thinking about the skills you will need for the next part of your career and try to be ahead of where you want to be.

“In my first job after university I realised it wasn’t good enough to be just ‘good enough’.”

What book is by your bedside table?

I usually read novellas and short stories before going to bed, but the other thing I’m reading is Days of Zondo: The fight for freedom from corruption by Ferial Haffajee and Ivor Chipkin. It’s a fascinating exposé that gives great insight into how systems of governance, government, and people can be corrupted. It makes a compelling case for the need to be always vigilant to ensure our systems work and that the people within them have the integrity to ensure that society works not just for the few, but for everyone.

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