The company secretary is considered the gatekeeper to the boardroom. They have legal requirements to uphold, corporate governance responsibilities to embed and most crucially yet often overlooked they provide expert advice and insight to the board. The management team, the non-executives and the chair rely on the company secretary to ensure that they are comprehensively and appropriately informed and that effective business decision-making is achieved.
I have had the pleasure to meet, talk to and work with company secretaries for many years and I am often asked “How can I optimise my potential and leverage my value?”. With so many layers to the role – from the routine reporting processes (which are never that routine!) to the highly-charged interpretive situations and the increasing impact of technology on the boardroom – it’s an issue I am delighted these able individuals are raising. To any company secretary, ask yourself three questions:
What is my potential?
Do you actually know what you are really good at? The first step would be to write down the major aspects of your current role and identify which you enjoy most and how these aspects would fit into more senior – or more expansive – remits. For example, if you enjoy supervising others perhaps think about a team leader role. However, if you prefer to work alone on a technical project perhaps you are more suited to a stand-alone 'expert' position. Are there areas of involvement outside the secretariat function where you add value – or could do?
Who do I see around me who is aspirational?
Don’t just look at your immediate line managers but consider who, more broadly across the hierarchy of the business you work in, you admire and for what qualities. There are two types of expertise you will need to develop: technical and professional. At a technical level, who do you turn to for wider insight and context and whose door is always open to offer this support? On a professional front, who are you aware of as a thought leader? Who is wired into all the networks, who delivers training, who is a regular speaker at industry events?
Who could help me and what else can I do for myself?
Now is a brilliant time to pursue a formal mentorship support, as many organisations are keen to offer this as part of their wider inclusion and diversity policy; and as a means to retaining the most highly potential employees. But formal systems are not enough. You need to build your own network. This should not only include your peer group but also those who are widely recognised as offering impactful opinions and those who are proactive supporters of the profession. They should be people who are social media savvy, make regular appearances at conferences and seminars, and are known to be accessible ‘advisors’ to the company secretary/corporate governance community.
There's nothing wrong with politely approaching someone whose achievements or status you admire and asking for a few moments of their time. Done in the right way, anyone worth talking to will recognise that it's a mutually valuable opportunity. I've always been flattered to think that others might be interested in how I have navigated my own career and how my network and insight – acquired from observing and befriending company secretaries at all stages across all types of remit – might provide encouragement and guidance to someone at an earlier stage in their journey. Sharing my successes and failures to help others shape their future is rewarding for me too.
Finally: don’t hesitate, have a plan, take bite-size steps, push for new experiences and projects – but don't forget the day job! You still need to make sure that you continue to deliver successfully on all fronts in your current role.
Caroline Evans FCIS, is founder of MindLeap, a corporate governance boutique. Caroline partners with several organisations providing expert advice and practical support, connects and collaborates across the corporate governance community and gives guidance as a company secretary and corporate governance speaker at conferences. She also offers coaching on career decision-making for company secretaries, governance professionals and aspiring NEDs.