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How to succeed as a top company secretary (at a relatively young age!) Or, putting out fires, not fanning the flames

Peter Speirs is one of the youngest Company Secretaries in the UK FTSE100.  His company – Hikma Pharmaceuticals, a (Jordanian) family-owned enterprise – develops, manufactures and markets a broad range of branded and non-branded generic pharmaceutical products.

Peter was the guest speaker at the September dinner of the Leadership Development Programme.  What lessons was Peter able to offer about how to become, and succeed as, a top company secretary?

Peter’s first observation was refreshingly candid – he had enjoyed his fair share of luck, through becoming a Deputy Company Secretary at a company whose business model was eventually to propel it into the top tier of UK listed companies. (Although, as Gary Player, the top golfer, reportedly said, ‘The harder you practice, the luckier you get.’)

Peter’s subsequent reflections offer hope to the ambitious company secretary:

  1. Technical skills are not that important.  Boards don’t care about your experience and knowledge – all they want is excellent advice.
  2. A board will take a punt about their governance adviser – does this person fit our culture, and the way we do things?
  3. You need to be able to deal with – and advise – senior directors.  This means hearing the sound of your own voice with confidence.  ‘Fake it till you make it’.
  4. Saying less is more.  Traditional company secretaries feel the need to offer comprehensive advice.  That is NOT the way directors operate.   All they want to know is what matters
  5. Discretion and tact are everything.  Soft skills are everything. Emotional skills are everything.  You are dealing with people with egos – big time – and challenging them poorly could be fatal
  6. The biggest learning of the evening.  NEVER, EVER say “this is on fire”.  The Company Secretary is there to put out fires, not fan the flames.
  7. The guiding principle – ‘what does my boss want?’  Within the parameters of high-quality governance, this is the ONLY thing that matters.  What does my Chair want?  What does my line manager (CEO, CFO) want?  How can I make their lives easier? What is the one-line advice that helps them?
  8. Again within the parameters of high-quality governance, do anything you’re asked to do.  Secretaryship means service.  If you don’t want to serve, don’t become a (company) secretary
  9. (Another big one.)  Be seen as the solutions – rather than problems – provider
  10. Be able to get on with others – or choose a new career

[Subsequent edit by Seamus. I thought I’d clarify points 1 and 7, because my journalistic style might give the wrong impression of what was meant here, and some colleagues have made useful points which are worth reflecting. So I’ve left the post in its original form and offer the following additional commentary.

On point 1, Peter was making clear that for a company secretary operating at that level in that big a company, there is an expectation by the board that the individual will already have all the necessary technical skills, experience and knowledge, and that that is how he or she secured the role. What the board then wants is the value-add – excellent advice. As Eric Sanders FCIS has commented in a discussion on the blog from another LinkedIn site, ‘You have to have the technical knowledge and experience, but delivery and timing are everything.’

(It’s a similar situation with non-Execs – to have got onto the board in the first place they will have been through a rigorous selection process in terms of evidencing their skills, knowledge, experience and independence. Once appointed, however, the board doesn’t concern itself with the person’s qualifications but looks to them for their value-add, comfortable that the constructive challenge and oversight is based on those criteria of skills, knowledge, experience and independence.)

On point 7, the qualification ‘within the parameters of high-quality governance’ is critical, and is repeated in point 8.  Again, this is shorthand for the company secretary already knowing what is, and is not, possible/legal/ethical etc.. His or her job is then, within those parameters, to help the board achieve its objectives.  The company secretary is a principal officer of the company, and will always be the first to point out that directors’ fiduciary duty is to act in the interests of the entity.]

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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.

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Improving governance inside your organisation

Would you like to improve the quality of governance inside your organisation? As an introduction, read my blog about my discussion with George Alagiah, BBC journalist, about value destruction. We talked about whether governance failure, or economics failure, was likely to wreak the most damage. Then sign up for my two-day workshop on how to improve the standard of governance inside your organisation   http://bit.ly/1RvePqk