Conference culture - ICSA 2015

This year's ICSA conference was thoroughly thought-provoking - starting with some of the more technical aspects of our roles, with topics such as financial reporting and lobbying with Europe on the Shareholder Rights Directive, through to the way in which companies engage with their investors and stakeholders, and ultimately to the commercial context in which we operate, with 'real-life' examples of what can go wrong and how we deal with such situations.

One of the predominant themes of the conference seemed to me to be 'culture'. Company secretaries have such an important role to play in the culture of their organisations; coaching their boards, encouraging positive communication skills, balancing advocacy and inquiry and ensuring that there is an informed dialogue between boards and shareholders. We heard from investors with their thoughts on how shareholder engagement can best be achieved - reporting plays a very important part, but it is equally important for key investors to have opportunities to speak to chairmen and non-executive directors (such as audit committee chairmen), as well as executive directors, to get a fuller understanding of how governance processes and systems described in a company's report are embedded in an organisation's culture.

Sir Stuart Hampson's keynote address was an inspiring commendation of the John Lewis Partnership's admirable aim - achieving 'happiness through satisfying employment in a successful business'. Fundamental to business success is engagement of all parties - staff, customers, suppliers - with the organisation's culture and values, which becomes a virtuous circle. He commented that genuine good governance can be seen and add value to a business where everyone in the business is 'living in it'.

From success to crises, we heard about the Co-op Group's turbulent times from an insider perspective - issues around a dysfunctional board structure, 'democratic deficit' and a fragmented culture. It marked a sad journey from where the co-operative movement began in 1844. Yet, with a reform process in place and change to be implemented step-by-step, the group has made much progress in steadying the ship, with a re-evaluation of its values and culture.

The day was rounded off with an analysis of succession planning at Manchester United Football Club and David Moyes' brief term as manager following the club's two decades of unparalleled success under Sir Alex Ferguson. The key message of the story was, again, culture. In devising a succession plan, the club had consulted with, and acted on the recommendation of, the outgoing post-holder, Sir Alex Ferguson, rather than analysing the proven track records of potential candidates and identifying whether there was the right fit with the culture of the team and its global brand. A fascinating, not to mention entertaining, end to the day, with lessons for company secretaries and the contribution they can make in helping boards achieve success from succession.

See online previews from the April issue of Governance + Compliance for our interview with the Co-op’s Nick Folland and Neil Gibb’s feature on succession planning at Manchester Utd

Muriel Thorne is a chartered secretary with extensive experience of advising on all matters of a company secretarial nature. Prior to co-founding Oakwood Corporate Services she was the manager of the company secretarial team of Addleshaw Goddard, where she advised both listed and private companies in relation to continuing obligations, compliance and corporate governance matters. In addition to working in the professional services sector, she has worked in industry in the secretariat of Scottish Power plc. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA) and the treasurer of ICSA North West.

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