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Company secretaries are moving to the top

07 November 2017 by Nick Ivory

Company secretaries are moving to the top - Read more

Companies should embrace the high level of movement among company secretaries

Is there still such a thing as a ‘job for life’? Until about 15 years ago, company secretarial careers tended to follow a linear path to the top and over a 40-year career the average company secretary moved jobs three or four times to get there.

This has changed. As one FTSE 100 company secretary commented: ‘To achieve your long term career objectives, you must take a “crazy paving pathway” to the top.’

A recent analysis of company secretarial careers by DMJ highlights that the average company secretary now moves three or four times in the first decade of their career alone. If this level of movement were to continue unabated, we could see company secretaries taking on up to 16 job changes over a 40-year career.

This change is partly down to the fact that the attitude of employers has changed. Where previously you may have been labelled as a ‘job hopper’ if you regularly moved jobs, now it is accepted that individuals will move jobs to diversify and develop skills, bring earnings in line with market rates, or overcome obstacles to progression, such as the ‘glass ceiling’.

That said, you must be able to justify the reasons for moving jobs. There is always a balance to be had – loyalty and commitment still play an important part of the selection process.

Technology has changed the profile of the profession. Global entity and board support software has fundamentally changed how company secretarial departments operate.

For those entering the profession, the technology has accelerated their exposure to routine statutory administration by a matter of years and once mastered they quickly look for other skills gaps to fill. If development is not available in the current setting, a job search quickly follows.

With technology improving all the time, we expect this trend to accelerate further and the corresponding time between job searches to reduce.

“If development is not available in the current setting, a job search quickly follows”

More strategic career planning among millennials also contributes to the trend. There is less fear or stigma around frequently moving jobs and this must be embraced by employers.

Ambitious individuals will take calculated risks to reach their career goals and they are plugged into trends and activity in the market to ensure they do not miss opportunities.

In an effort to retain their most valued staff, some employers flex to meet the needs of the individual by offering exposure to new areas or supporting further study – for example, a legal practice course or masters degree. Companies should not stand in the way of ambition and should instead encourage it.

One group company secretary we spoke to said that they would rather have two years of fantastic support from an ambitious and switched on individual than five years of average performance from someone with little drive. Helping to develop careers is a responsibility of a good manager no matter what the timescale.

Senior company secretaries are also more transient that they used to be. Key factors include their ability to effect change, alignment with the board, and commercial influence. If any of these factors are missing then there will be a reason to make a career move.

Due to the fact that the company secretary is in the corporate spotlight, those at the highest level need to stay at the top of their game – this may require moving jobs to build fully-rounded experience.

Governance is the centre of attention right now and at the top of every corporate agenda. The government speaks openly about the need for good governance against a backdrop of corporate failures within business and an increasingly complex and global marketplace.

This has created significant opportunity for the profession and DMJ research over the past three years has shown a 35% year-on-year increase in demand for company secretaries and governance professionals. For those in the profession this equates to greater choice and opportunity.

“Helping to develop careers is a responsibility of a good manager no matter what the timescale”

Talented company secretaries are in exceptionally high demand today. Regulation and legislation are unlikely to reduce. An increasing awareness of their value and a shortage of supply has seen salaries surge in recent years.

A notable increase in salary is a big driver for those that feel underpaid and undervalued. Our evidence to suggest that those who stay employed at one company for a long period of time earn on average 20% less than their contemporaries that have made strategic career moves over the same period.

One of the most attractive features of a company secretarial career is the sheer diversity of the role and the portability of the technical and commercial skillset. By moving between sectors, company secretaries get to experience working in different industries, cultures and corporate structures.

Many are choosing to explore the cross-sector possibilities earlier on in their career before settling into a preferred industry. Employers nowadays appreciate diversity of experience, as it suggests a flexible and adaptable approach.

Recruitment practices have moved towards methods previously used solely by executive search firms. Employers are retaining specialist agencies to attract top talent.

Key to this is the agency’s detailed understanding of an individual’s career plan, objectives and where the limitations are in their current setting. The trust that builds from this facilitates strategic career moves that might have otherwise be overlooked.

Employers need to embrace the new needs and attitudes of modern company secretaries. The crazy paving analogy has some merit in a market that is rapidly changing through a combination of improved technology, raised profile and further regulation.

Companies that embrace this ideal will find a way of benefitting from the productivity of a highly-motivated individual but also the opportunity it creates for others when they move on.

Nick Ivory is a senior consultant at DMJ

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