Tag Archives: dinners

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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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Keeping the boardroom moving with WD40 – what they don’t teach company secretaries at business school

WD40, the trademark name of the penetrating oil, and water-displacing, spray, may seem an odd subject in a discussion about governance inside UK boardrooms.  But it was one of the reflections offered by Amanda Mellor,  Group Secretary and Head of Corporate Governance at M&S, speaking to the recent dinner of the Leadership Development Programme.

Amanda outlined what she had learnt from her years advising the board of the iconic High-Street retailer, as well as the perspective she had developed from the other side of the boardroom table as a non-executive director at Kier Group.  Company Secretaries looking to secure the top job, read on.

1. People psychology is important – develop your antennae in terms of what is said, and what is not said

2. The Wizard of Oz – become the perceived source of the solution, both for the board, and for the business

3. Understand that shades of grey are important – stay open-minded

4. Boardrooms are full of big egos – learn how to manage your boss, and the other personalities around the table

5. Stay neutral – be aware of political agendas, otherwise people will use you

6. Bring your WD40 with you – useful for oiling the wheels in the boardroom

7. Value the long-term perspective, be patient, and encourage the same mindset among those around you

8. What you do must stand the test of time – your minutes (the ultimate in the dark arts) will become the organisation’s institutionalised memory

9. Pitch your battles carefully, because you won’t win them all

10. Don’t be the governance bureaucrat – think broadly about the business challenge and advise in a way that adds value

11. Grab the territory you want to occupy – the company secretary has an unparalleled opportunity to create her or his own space

12. Regularly move out of your shell – it’s lonely at the top, so network internally as well as externally

13. Be(come) visible by adding value in the business, for example by offering services such as director  training sessions

14. Communicate well and often – no surprises

15. Secure yourself access to the boardroom by looking for opportunities – don’t wait to be asked

16. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable – move out of that comfort zone

17. Be aware of your impact, and the effect of your behaviours – your colleagues are looking at you

18. Understand you have exposure at a high level – you carry huge responsibility

19. Be a voice in the boardroom

20. Think about the skills you are acquiring for your own development and take ownership of your own career

Some themes in here, but all worthwhile points for adding value to the Company Secretary’s role of governance leadership and developing the governance health of the board.

Which  points resonate most with you?

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Leadership Development for Company Secretaries

High standards of governance are increasingly being seen, understood and acknowledged as crucial for organisational success.  And yet the person responsible for driving this business-critical function – the company secretary, or board secretary – occupies potentially the most neglected role in the boardroom.

The secretary is the person who can advise the chairman, the board and the wider business on the best way to surf a governance wave becoming more powerful by the day.  The role can add significant value, as directors seek advice and reassurance on how to position the organisation in relation to the growing pressure from stakeholders – legislators, regulators, shareholders, customers to name but a few.

This realisation that the secretary can, and should, be a leader, has now led to the creation of a leadership development programme which has the potential to change the face of the function – transforming the role from that of administrator to the board’s strategic advisor.

How has this development come about?

When I was Policy Director at The Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, I launched  – in Autumn 2013 – what I considered to be a critical initiative to devise a developmental route map for ambitious company secretaries who wanted to shed the image of being techies, or being treated as back-room staff adding little value and, in some people’s views, actually failing to show sufficient understanding of, and commitment to delivering, the organisation’s objectives.

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While there arundoubtedly some company secretaries whose completer-finisher characteristics, attention to detail, and transactional focus stand in the way of them seeing the bigger picture, I have also met colleagues who are business-savvy, strategic, and highly capable of understanding what needs to be done to support the board and senior management – whether they are occupying the top role or are (in the hierarchy so beloved of our profession) a Head of Secretariat, Deputy Company Secretary, Assistant Company Secretary, Company Secretarial Assistant, or whatever.  They may be Chartered or, as likely, come from a legal background.  And they are ambitious.

So being part of a profession where you are invisible if you are doing your job well is not a great help.  It can lead to being unappreciated, and that then creates a wider problem where not only the role, but also the function, becomes devalued.  This creates an unhelpful downwards spiral.

The research I launched in 2013 aimed to address this issue, and work out how to create a virtuous circle – where the individuals and the function were acknowledged for the value they could offer, and were therefore able, through this recognition, to command respect, authority and credibility.  Not to mention enhanced prospects of promotion, and better salaries.

The solution lay in the three-legged stool approach.  Firstly, I knew we had to provide an evidence base of the company secretary’s worth and value-add – hence the research, published in July 2014 (after I had left the Institute), under the title ‘The Company Secretary – Building Trust Through Governance’.  Next we had to persuade employers of the company secretary’s worth and value-add, a marketing task in which the Institute is currently engaged, using the research report as collateral.  Finally, I was convinced we needed to do something at a personal level for members of the co sec community.  Research, and subsequent marketing, are all well and good, but I knew we needed to do something more urgent, and with more immediate effect.  This meant helping company secretaries acquire and deploy the soft skills needed to communicate well, develop presence, gain confidence, secure respect and, most of all, become leaders of the governance agenda.

And that is the background to the creation of the Leadership Development Programme. Its aim is to provide a structured programme of professional and executive development for company secretaries who wish to ‘reach the next level’. The Programme focuses on candidates who are professionally qualified, and experienced, wishing to develop the skills needed to transition from the role of compliance subject-matter expert to that, ultimately, of strategic adviser to the board and its directors.

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The year-long Programme has been created to address the skill gap which exists between the technical competences which most company secretaries possess, and the soft skill attributes required to operate at a senior level.  It draws on best practice executive development programmes, and has been designed by company secretaries for company secretaries.  The key Programme outcome is business benefit for the candidate and employer, in terms of increased personal and organisational effectiveness.

The interest in the Programme has been significant from the outset.  Hays Co Sec Recruitment kindly asked me to speak about the Programme at one of their breakfast seminars – instead of the usual sign-up numbers of 30-odd, over 80 colleagues registered, requiring a second seminar to cope with the overload.  When I presented recently to our company secretary colleagues in Dubai, where an event might attract some ten or fifteen attendees, a record 36 registered, and a record 31 turned up.

It came as no surprise that the objective of launching the programme in January this year was achieved, and if you would like to see who the members of the first cohort are, read about why they have joined the Programme, and understand how they are changing the face of the profession, you can do so here – Leadership Development Programme 2015 – January cohort.  Maybe you can recognise your journey in some of the things they say?

The Programme aims to address two specific challenges experienced by our profession – not enough good candidates at the junior levels, and not enough good roles at the senior levels.  By being able to participate in the Programme, good (and ambitious) company secretaries are making it clear that they want to stand out and be noticed, and ‘reach that next level’.

For me, this is the most significant development for company secretaries in a long time.  The route map for structured executive career development has become a reality and, with it, the potential to begin to transform the function.

If you would like to know more, please click on the Leadership Development Programme tab on the Homepage.

Future Programme cohorts are being assembled for April (Assistant Company Secretary), and May and June (Company Secretary/Deputy Company Secretary).  If you wish to apply to join the Programme, please contact me by phone (07739 88208) or email seamus@valuealpha.com