Girding corporate secretaries for their victory lap
Now that many of you have had a chance to refresh yourselves and probably broaden your perspectives at the SCSGP’s Boston conference, you may be ready to rethink your role and take it to the next level. There was no shortage of inspiration on that score from keynote speakers and panelists at the conference.
One choice morsel I walked away with came from Thomas Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, who, in introducing the first keynote speaker, explained the conference’s thematic tie-in to the ‘Boston strong’ response to the marathon tragedy on April 15, 2013. ‘In Boston, everyone owns the marathon and all the events we observed that day, great and small, flow from that,’ he said. In describing the basis for the heroic acts of bystanders running toward the blasts instead of away from them in order to offer help to the injured, he said, ‘The moment didn't create that character [of compassion and resilience]; it revealed it’; it was decades in the making.
Boards and governance professionals have a similar opportunity to get their company culture, compliance and ethics policies and programs and risk-management controls right so that employees at all levels feel they own the company long before there is any sign of a problem or crisis.
Jim Koch, chairman of the Boston Beer Company (which makes Samuel Adams and other popular craft brands), expanded on Grilk’s remarks by reminding everyone that corporations are ‘a legal fiction made up by lawyers’ and that ‘what a company actually is, is a group of people who come together for a certain purpose.’ He added: ‘We will never be better than the people who make up the company.’
That’s something corporate secretaries and other governance professionals should keep in mind as they carry out what can sometimes seem like unexciting, routine responsibilities that receive little recognition or praise. A new research paper from the University of Reading’s Henley Business School in Oxfordshire in the UK outlines the key traits of the company secretary, an individual who is certified by ICSA and is the British equivalent of our corporate secretary.
‘There is no end and no beginning to the role,’ said Professor Andrew Kakabadse, co-researcher and co-author of the report. ‘This is only a problem to people who are not sufficiently able; for those who are, it is fantastic.’
The findings, based on interviews and group discussions with and questionnaire responses from more than 200 company secretaries, chairmen, non-executive directors and CEOs from public and private firms and not-for-profits in the UK, Ireland and beyond, show that high-performing secretaries help build trust, which results in good governance. ‘Many company secretaries acknowledge that their individual discretion, freedom of choice, personal morals and ethics are important in positively impacting corporate judgment,’ the report notes. Respondents emphasize ‘the role’s need for continuous engagement, using interpersonal skills to craft effective relationships. These capabilities evolve in a manner that constantly tests a company secretary’s understanding, and often results in the critical appraisal of other board members’ roles.’
Seeing your role as a chance to act on your personal morals and ethics to positively influence corporate judgment can include being an advocate for more transparency in company policies, or pushing management and the board more quickly toward sustainability reporting or forward thinking on employee engagement and other human capital issues. Continuous engagement isn’t limited to interactions between you, the C-suite and the board but also should encompass discussions with business unit leaders so you’re aware of risks and opportunities that deserve to be brought to the board’s attention.
On any given day, this may be too overwhelming to even consider. But if you remind yourself occasionally of your unlimited possibilities to exert a positive influence, you’ll be better able to reinvigorate yourself for another lap.