26 January 2018 by Lesley Ward
ICSA’s mentoring scheme offers bespoke, confidential support to help governance professionals fulfil their potential
As a previous company secretary, and now a specialist coach and mentor, I am aware that the role of governance professional is unique. So I was pleased to see that the 2014 Henley Business School/ICSA report, ‘The Company Secretary – Building Trust Through Governance’, reached the same conclusion.
It found that in this field soft skills are as important as technical knowledge, that reporting lines can be complex and challenging, and that having a thick skin is vital.
The report also found many organisations fail to appreciate the role’s potential. Often, there is no one else in the organisation who understands the role’s challenges or scope, let alone how to develop a governance career. This can make governance professionals feel isolated and lonely.
Having long supported its members with their technical skills, ICSA wanted to help them develop the soft skills needed to tackle these challenges, so created a free mentoring scheme.
The terms coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably, and not without reason: they both use the same core skills of questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing. But they are not the same and can have different results.
Coaching is often defined as developing a person’s skills and knowledge so their job performance improves. It is the choice for people who want to achieve significant, complex goals over a short period of time, which require frequent attention and a structured approach.
“ICSA’s scheme provides a confidential, safe space to discuss challenges with an impartial, experienced outsider”
Mentoring is a supportive relationship in which the mentor has carried out a similar role as the mentee, and has been likened to the concept of an apprenticeship. It may, at least partially, involve passing on advice based on the mentor’s experience.
With its access to governance veterans, the ICSA is in a position to offer its members this kind of support.
In my experience, people usually seek out a coach or a mentor if they want something to be different. But change is hard, as David Rock describes in his interview with Jeffrey Schwartz in ‘A Brain-Based Approach to Coaching’ in the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations.
This is because the primitive parts of the human brain are wired to detect and resist change. The brain also uses the automatic parts of our brains for tasks we undertake regularly, rather than the working memory, which has limited resources and tires quickly.
Remember the concentration needed when you first learnt to drive a car, and how now you can drive without thinking? This is an example of how a new skill transfers from our working memory when we are learning, to the automatic parts of the brain when our brain has made the new connections. If you want to make a change you have to focus on it until the new habit develops.
Rock suggests that: ‘Focusing on the solutions actually create solutions, while focusing on the problems can deepen those problems in our thinking.’ An ICSA mentor will help you to stay positive and encourage you to find the solutions that feel right for you and your particular circumstances.
They will ask thought-provoking questions to identify the outcome you want, the options and the actions to take. They then provide opportunities to review your progress, notice what you are learning and set new actions. All of this helps your brain to form new connections.
Even though in many organisations they have introduced in-house coaching and mentoring programmes, these may not be appropriate for governance professionals. They handle sensitive issues and organisations often do not understand the scope of the role.
ICSA’s scheme provides a confidential, safe space to discuss challenges with an impartial, experienced outsider.
“Soft skills are difficult to learn on a course because you need to consciously practise them until they become hard-wired”
I have found that busy mentees use the opportunity to step out of the day-to-day detail to see the bigger picture and identify insights and solutions. Feedback on ICSA’s scheme shows regular focus on career or personal development gets positive results for mentees.
It also offers bespoke continuing professional development (CPD). If you have ever attended a course and felt that it did not quite give you what you were looking for – or you did not implement what you had learnt when you got back to work – mentoring is the solution.
Soft skills are difficult to learn on a course because you need to consciously practise them until they become hard-wired. You can learn through experience, but you can do so faster by focusing attention on the skill and consciously applying it until it becomes a habit. Mentors support you through this.
ICSA asked for volunteer mentors in 2016 and the resulting group comes from a variety of governance backgrounds. All the mentors have received at least initial training, which, coupled with their own work experience, mean they are well-equipped to help members develop and achieve their ambitions.
ICSA matches mentors and mentees based on their ICSA membership designation, stated experience and preferences of both parties.
ICSA members throughout the UK who have received mentoring have sought support in a variety of areas, including career and professional development, soft skills, leadership, technical issues and networking. Sessions can take place face-to-face, by telephone or by video call.
The scheme is confidential, so I have not attributed comments to individuals, but below are some examples of the experiences of some of the mentees so far.
One mentee felt she was ready for promotion to deputy company secretary and needed some support and guidance to get there, as well as someone to act as a sounding board and to help her build her profile at work. She said that working with a mentor forced her to carve out time to focus on her goals, recognise her strengths and appreciate what she was achieving.
‘Our discussions were focused and fruitful and I was always challenged to achieve two to three goals before the next session,’ she said. ‘This meant I always made progress and ultimately achieved my goals.’
After six mentoring sessions she achieved her ambition to be promoted to deputy company secretary and said that it had a positive impact on her confidence and morale.
Another mentee had just been appointed to the senior management team and wanted to establish herself in the role. Working with a mentor who had been through the same process helped her to gain clarity, focus and perspective. She received advice and encouragement and found the mentor to be a valuable sounding board.
She also learnt new ways of approaching issues. This helped her to understand her authentic leadership style, how she contributed to the senior management team and how to convey this to her colleagues so she could make a real impact. She said: ‘I achieved better results than I could have hoped for.’
ICSA is offering its members up to six free monthly mentoring sessions with trained mentors. If you would like to take advantage of this new service contact mentoring@ICSA.org.uk