Technology and the role of company secretaries: in a chat with Nick Ivory

Nick Ivory is one of the Company Secretarial Assistants at National Grid PLC, an organisation listed both in the UK and US. His current role has a broad remit, which he says ‘it’s giving me fantastic exposure as I get started in the company secretarial profession’. Nick is also the Vice-Chair of the ICSA Student Forum having been appointed in June 2019. 

Nick holds a BA (Hons) in Business Management and is currently working towards his ICSA qualification. He began his career working in Company Secretarial Recruitment for DMJ before making the choice to join the profession.

Over recent years, how have changing regulatory environments impacted the work effort required in company secretarial functions (e.g. GDPR)? 

Regulation is consistently evolving and as this is an external impact on organisations, it is vitally important that company secretarial functions remain informed and adaptable to any new regulation developments. The industry facing the most day to day scrutiny is the Financial Services, particularly post financial crisis. Sarbanes Oxley had a significant impact on the professional services industry impacting how Company Secretarial providers, particularly in how the ‘Big 4’ operated.

Regulation can add increased pressure, particularly when it adds elements to the day to day role, however it should be recognised that it is there to add safeguards and does not always fully fall on the Company Secretarial function.

It will be interesting to see any future developments that the Auditing, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA) will implement and it is positive that Company Secretary/Governance professionals are being consulted in the independent BEIS review.

How do you think emerging technologies such as AI and blockchain will impact your role (and all of other governance professionals) in the future?

I think the impact can only be viewed as positive and it’s important to embrace emerging technologies or there is risk of being left behind. The legal sector has been significantly in the limelight regarding AI and new technologies - Bernard Marr wrote last year about how AI and Machine learning have transformed Law Firms and the Legal Sector. In terms of the Company Secretarial function and governance profession, I think there are a few more complications when it comes to embracing AI. 

Alongside the growth of AI discussion in the past 5-7 years, there has also been a lot of talk around Emotional Intelligence and how vital that is for the ‘modern day’ Company Secretary to possess. The role is unique in the interactions it must have with every function across the business at all levels. Can AI or technology in its current state offer the level of emotional intelligence that is vital within organisations these days? At this point, no. 

What technology can currently do is offer further enablement to the company secretarial function. Automation can allow significant time saving, and programmes such as Blueprint and BoardVantage have already revolutionised the profession compared with 15/20 years ago. 

Although I’m extremely far from having my head wrapped round exactly what Blockchain is and the range of its offerings, it’s interesting to see how it’s being embraced for AGMs as part of the voting process. Santander were interestingly able to produce a ‘shadow register’. Although Blockchain is yet to be widely adopted, exploratory activities such as this are leading the way and will get organisations thinking about what they can adopt. 

Do you think that board members fully understand the company secretary's role?

In previous role at DMJ, I was fortunate to engage with a wide range of individuals from General Counsels and Group Company Secretaries, through to CEOs and Chairs. It is important to note that in recent years there has been a significant shift and the ‘modern day’ company secretary has taken on a wider role that differs from the past. I believe that the Board highly values the Company Secretary’s role, but it is tricky to comment from business to business. What a company secretarial function does in one organisation could completely differ to another one, and Chair’s will have different expectations. 

The Company Secretary is part of the boardroom for a reason, and it’s important that they embrace the position and make themselves valued within the board room. C-Suite and Non-Executives operate in a relatively tight network and know each other well, a good company secretary will be well known in these circles. It has also been positive to see how the FTSE100 has now tipped the balance of having a majority of split GC vs CoSec roles thus further emphasising the importance of the role. Whether value and understanding is the same thing is another question, but I’m not convinced it is necessary for board members to know absolutely everything the Company Secretary does in terms of the ‘knitty gritty’. For most, particularly the NED’s, the company secretarial function will offer the day to day liaison and will be the link to the rest of the business. 

What do think is the main barrier to good corporate governance?

With certain barriers knocked down in recent years, corporate governance is increasingly at the top of the corporate agenda and the appetite has increased. Bigger roles for corporate governance professionals has further supported this move forward. Adding company secretaries and governance professionals to the C-Suite in roles such as Chief Governance Officer (as seen at Rolls Royce) will have an important long term impact. 

Organisations are complex and constantly evolving, similar to regulation and governance. It has got to always be forward thinking allowing for continuous evaluation. One element may suit one year that may not the following year. Governance professionals need to be the voice advocating strong corporate governance alongside the leaders in the business and be the individuals facilitating this. 

Connect with Nick on Linkedin.