11 April 2019 by Sonia Sharma
Winner of the Governance Professional of the Year at the ICSA Awards 2018, Alison Chan discusses her route into the profession, her successes thus far and the main challenges she has encountered
It is a long walk up to podium when one is collecting an award in front of over 700 leaders of the governance community. I was intimidated when I entered the reception but I soon found that the other guests were very welcoming and interested in celebrating each other’s success. It was fantastic to be seated at a table with other nominees and support each other as the awards were announced. Winning Governance Professional of the Year was a great honour given the quality of the candidates.
As a lawyer, governance was a natural route for me to enter the boardroom and I wanted to be closer to where the strategic decision-making was happening. I wanted the chance to make an impact, both on the business front and on improving corporate social responsibility. The governance issues that are so topical at the moment fascinate me – not that long ago governance was little more than complying with the law and disclosing conflicts of interest. Now we also tackle environmental issues, diversity, privacy, modern slavery and a whole raft of other issues that we always knew were important but didn’t necessarily acknowledge were corporate responsibilities. I’m delighted that so many organisations are taking up the challenge of embedding best practice into their governance regimes and genuinely think that their organisations will perform better as a result. Treating people more fairly and responsibly can only be good for business – for example, at the extreme, reducing litigation and prosecution risk and the consequent reputational and financial damage.
My role with Alexandra Rose Charity is as Chair of the Operations Committee, overseeing governance and processes. The expansion of our Rose Vouchers for Fruit & Veg project – where we help underprivileged families access fresh fruit and vegetables at their local markets through an innovative voucher scheme – involved a digital transformation to an app-based process as well as a careful review of the charity’s entire governance framework to ensure it was well-placed for rapid growth. At a practical level, my attention was focussed on clearly separating the roles and responsibilities of the board and its sub-committees, employment policies and contracts for staff, arrangements with key partners – and, of course, legal and regulatory compliance.
Like most small charities, having limited resources is the biggest challenge for Alexandra Rose Charity. That challenge goes further than simply keeping on top of our obligation to ensure the charity has sufficient funding to remain solvent. Having a small, though hardworking, staff team definitely impacts the organisation’s capacity to implement strategies to identify and manage risk while still undertaking the work that directly benefits beneficiaries. It’s unfortunately not an option to do one of those things without the other. Anyone who grappled with GDPR will understand the scale of the resource required to ensure compliance with that one regulation alone. There must be a more efficient way for small organisations to keep on top of their legal and regulatory obligations but so far I haven’t found it.
Last year, Alexandra Rose Charity published its first glossy Annual Report – an initiative I had championed since joining the board. I believe in transparency as a tool of good governance. Through the data in our Annual Report, our impact can be measured and compared and we can be held to account. Fortuitously, it’s also a good marketing and motivational tool. Putting our achievements in print with stories from our families really brought our work to life for our supporters and prospective supporters and gave the staff and trustees the opportunity to look back at the end of a busy year and congratulate themselves for a job well done.
Landing one’s first board role is a challenge. As soon as you make the decision, start to think about what you can offer and how you can prove that you can deliver it. It may be that experience in your executive career will be relevant, but it’s just as likely that you will need to invest some time (and maybe money) building your credentials. I undertook a week-long Company Directors’ course despite having worked with and advised boards for over 15 years! Don’t get hung up on ‘finding your passion’. Cast a wide net with your applications (within the realms of reality of course). Competition is high and even if you miss out, the process of writing application letters and attending interviews will help you identify the skills you need to build. I was lucky that when I was looking for a new role, Alexandra Rose Charity had an appetite for governance improvement and a mission with which I could identify. From there, I developed a passion for helping families enjoy a healthier diet. The final tip I’d give is to read the papers to learn from other people’s governance mistakes.