Company secretaries must learn to put themselves first!

This was one of the themes that emerged as Penny Thomas, Company Secretary at Shaftesbury PLC, spoke at the latest networking dinner of the Leadership Development Programme for Company Secretaries. 

Company secretaries putting themselves first is not a message we often hear, or are prepared to promote. The term company secretary derives from the concept of the ‘keeper of the organisation’s secrets’. The term also suggests ‘service’. As company secretaries we are used to serving others – the board, the directors and the Executive. The task requires humility – being prepared sometimes (often?) to stay in the background.

Yet, as Penny pointed out, the governance function is now recognised as business-critical – a familiar argument to dinner attendees from a range of corporate, NHS and public sector backgrounds.

Becoming a trusted adviser to the board, and particularly the Chair, placed the company secretary in a position of strategic importance – with a line of sight into the business, and ears to the ground, we were a natural choice for becoming a ‘go to’ confidant, or counsellor, participating in the conversations that mattered. We needed to recognise this importance, and push ourselves forward.

More than this, perhaps more than becoming a trusted adviser to the board, we needed to become a central player in the executive team, displaying a deep understanding of the business, commercial nous, political awareness, management acumen, and LEADERSHIP.

This required an ability to put our interests at least equal to those of our executive colleagues and, sometimes, first. Our executive colleagues never hesitated to promote their own interests and, as company secretaries, we had put up with that. We needed to change our approach and, contrary to the way we often behaved, make ourselves available to the activities, and opportunities, which would allow us to advance our careers.

The quote in the caption to this article comes from Lisa Haisha, a counsellor in the US who works to help people “show up” in their lives – personally, professionally, and passionately.  ‘Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader, they set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role, always about the goal’. As company secretaries we need to have the governance vision for our organisation, and then ‘make the difference’. Sometime that will mean standing up for who we are, articulating what we stand for – “showing up”.  Sometimes it will be about the role, as well as the goal. Sometimes it will mean being prepared to put ourselves first.

Do you agree? 

Would you like to become your board’s governance adviser? And a central player in the executive team? Through a series of coaching and mentoring interventions, and networking dinners, the Leadership Development Programme helps company secretaries – and other board-related professionals – develop the soft skills required to perform at the top level.

If you would like to join the Programme, or are interested in attending the next dinner, please contact Seamus Gillen at, and on +44 (0)7739 088208