A crisis in the boardroom needs a steady hand behind the scenes

Whatever your political viewpoint, the political earthquake which has hit the UK  will potentially destroy value, as well as create opportunities which are not yet immediately obvious. Yet what struck me as I watched the drama unfold – particularly the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister (the defining moment) – was that, behind the scenes, someone was keeping the ship of state steady, and afloat.

I used to work in Whitehall, and also No10, and I knew that behind that shiny black door was a group of people staying focused, even as the shock waves and tremors were shaking the very building they were in.  Some of them would have had the word Secretary in their title – the Cabinet Secretary, and the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, to name but two.

The similarities between a government in crisis and an organisation in crisis are obvious to my mind.  The CEO (Prime Minister) has a strategy which hits the rocks, shareholders or stakeholders (voters) demand regime change, the board (Cabinet) is split and offers only equivocal support, and the inevitable resignation follows.

The role of the Company Secretary – that word Secretary again – is crucial in those moments of crisis.  It is maybe the moment which defines them, but they will rarely be seen publicly – they will be the steady hand behind the scenes, ensuring that the organisation survives the aftershock, by bringing to bear their skills, their knowledge, their experience and their independence.

These capabilities came up for discussion recently when the Association of Women Chartered Secretaries held a seminar to examine the qualities a board looks for in a top-performing company secretary.

We considered how the secretary should become a confidante, a trusted adviser or Consigliere, to the board; using strong influencing skills to tease out the best contribution from the different individuals with whom they interact; exhibiting sophisticated behavioural skills to develop productive and meaningful relationships with the significant personalities in and around the boardroom. All done from a position of absolute integrity.

The challenge sometimes lay in the fact that the board did not know what to expect of the secretary, or indeed themselves – this created the opportunity for the secretary to carve out their own space, and add value by becoming a strategic adviser.

The secretary also came into his or her own by developing the ability to perform the role of a ‘sounding board’ for the chairman (in particular) – trustworthy, discrete, and intimately associated with discussions of the greatest sensitivity to the organisation.

And, in times of crisis, the secretary needed to be(come) a rock of stability, displaying a cool head and exercising clear judgement.

The same themes came up at this week’s seminar, organised by Hays Co Sec, discussing how company secretaries can develop these crucial ‘soft’ leadership skills.  Five areas were key:

  • Displaying leadership and communication – stepping up and standing out
  • Exhibiting business and commercial awareness – part of, not separate from, the business
  • Being relationship-focused – at the centre of the business nexus
  • Becoming the wise counsel – the ‘go to’ adviser
  • Evidencing personal impact and influencing outcomes

David Cameron’s resignation was an inflection point – whatever your politics.  It will have ramifications and repercussions which will be felt for years, possibly generations.

But before he walked out to deliver his statement, he will have taken advice from professionals, behind that shiny black door, focused on maintaining the stability and sustainability of the organisation.  With the title of Secretary.  That word again.