The Company Secretary as Changemaker: a discreet but powerful role

Stefan Stern wraps up the first chapter from The Company Secretary as Changemaker series and highlights the main points made by the panel of speakers. 

The first full session of the ‘Company Secretary as Changemaker’ project, a joint initiative between The Chartered Governance Institute and Company Matters, was held at the beginning of December, with the ambitious title ‘Creating, innovating and thinking strategically’. Happily, the perhaps somewhat daunting title for the event did not deter a large audience of company secretaries and other governance experts from attending – a good sign that there are indeed quite a few changemakers out there.

The panel for the evening comprised three astute practitioners and observers of the company secretary role: Sara Thomson, Deputy Company Secretary at Tesco; Emma Reid, Head of Corporate Governance at Which? (the Consumers Association); and Erika Percival, Founder and CEO of Beyond Governance, a consultancy, and was chaired by Will Booth, Professional Development Director at the Institute.

The discussion was opened by a presentation from Zoe Bailey, Chief Strategy Officer at accountants BDO (for a more comprehensive report on her talk and the rest of the event look out for an article in the next Governance and Compliance magazine). This set the scene for a wide-ranging discussion on how change-making company secretaries could make the most of the opportunities before them to be innovative and creative, and in so doing help shape company strategy.

Erika Percival emphasised that, while company secretaries had a crucial role to play at the heart of things, it was important also to be realistic about the extent of that impact. 'We influence the way strategy is implemented, we don’t necessarily originate it,' she said. Sara Thomson agreed: 'We are facilitators of a conversation at board level,' she said, but added: 'We can be more innovative.'

The company secretary used to be the quietest person in the room, she went on, but now is a good time to take risks and show ingenuity, she said. With raised concerns about companies’ ESG (environment, social, governance) risk company secretaries have to do more – 'No-one else in the company will do this,' she suggested.

Emma Reid agreed that the company secretary is a key facilitator at the heart of boardroom activity. But she pointed out that until you have acquired good influencing skills, it can be hard to assert yourself or challenge established views. A changemaker company secretary will operate differently in different corporate settings, she added. But the role does not have to be limited to narrow bureaucracy. If you are in charge of drafting the agenda for board meetings, you have a vital part to play in the development of strategy.

'It is a discreet but powerful role,' Erika Percival agreed. You can be a changemaker but in a subtle way.

Sara Thomson was optimistic about the potential scope for a changemaking company secretary. 'Our roles have expanded massively,' she said, 'but we can own our own strategy.' Boards look to the company secretary for an understanding of the practical realities and challenges of business life. The company secretary can join the dots between various people both at board level and beyond in the business. In this way, there is a unique and special contribution to be made to company strategy.

'We are the go-to people,' Sara said. It is an exciting opportunity, and maybe at times, a slightly daunting one. But it is surely there to be grasped.

The next event in the Changemaker project will be on the morning of 29 January 2020 at the London offices of Company Matters.

The author of this article is Stefan Stern. Stefan is the former director of the High Pay Centre, an author and a contributing journalist for The Guardian, Financial Times and other publications.

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