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Changing Thinking Around The Company Secretary

Posted on September 25, 2013 at 9:05 AM

Having Paul Mason - BBC Newsnight Editor and as of last week Culture and Digital editor for Ch4 News - kick-off the ICSA company secretaries conference 2013 (#cosecconf13) was always going to be a good start for an agenda of change.

"I'm going to knock their socks off" he told me before it began.

It's an admirable aim for much of the industry around UK corporate governance. And ICSA - the UK's membership and qualifying body for board and company secretaries, in-house lawyers and other professionals working in governance and compliance roles, has its work cut out in raising the bar. 

Mr Mason told a chilling tale of the evaporation of trust in business as a whole. Of the rise of global elites of business figures, politicians and journalists. And of the increasing 'disconnect' between people in power and the 'real world.' 

There is also a disconnect between what is increasingly required of the UK's plc boardrooms, and the individuals to whom we are looking to provide it. Some of this is around the nature of board appointments,a nd the recruitment process. Some of it is also because nothing has changed for a very long time, and people are locked into outdated ways of thinking.

ICSA itself has been working hard at re-invention over the last few years - and if its conference speakers are anything to go by, it has been providing some excellent food for thought. But company secretaries were the audience at this conference, and they can still be an underwhelming bunch. 

It's a shame, because the role of the Company Secretary can be a critical one in the boardroom. As speaker after speaker indicated at #cosecconf13, they can play an important role in oiling the wheels of conversation, helping develop relationships between the key board actors, leading to better decision making.

But as Charles Plender tweeted @CPenderFCIS - 'Key attributes for the very top Co Secs are interpersonal not technical and yet most training & CPD is technical.'

Or, as he also tweeted after Paul Mason's talk - which stressed a new world of social networking and human interaction outside elite conversations - 'why do so few Co Secs ever tweet at conferences?' 

Indeed. Given that company secretaries are also dominated by women, elevating them to boardrooms would also be one way of achieving greater diversity. But for that to happen, they need substantively to raise their game.

At the same time, women company secretaries speak of fighting a losing battle when it comes to gender bias in the way they are perceived within business. The Association of Women Chartered Secretaries aims to provide support.

ICSA is working hard to help raise the profile of the company secretary.  It has just appointed Peter Swabey as Policy & Research Director, based in London. Mr Swabey - who moves from Equiniti -is responsible for further developing the profile of the Institute to members, regulators, policymakers, employers and other stakeholders.

A steering group will now take forward a project set up by outgoing polcy director Seamus Gillen, which is to research and identify the skill sets needed to progress 'all the way to the top'. It  is expected to be completed by early 2014 - and then aims to provide the training and support to make ICSA members suitable for positions as non-executive directors (NEDs) on boards. 

Professor Terry McNulty of the University of Liverpool Management School spoke of the company secretary as an "agent of change" capable of "developing relationships with and between all the critical actors in and around the board."  

Richard Murphy , the campaigner for transparency in the UK's tax system, gave so very many reasons for all listening to stand up and get involved.

But it's going to take a lot of hard work I think - to get most company secretaries to look hard at the colour of their socks - let alone to knock them off - just yet.

Categories: Scrutiny, Accountability, Leadership