The company secretary role is growing in profile and influence as effective governance rises on the corporate agenda. Growing regulatory scrutiny is elevating the importance of robust compliance and transparent reporting, while recognition of the link between good governance and company performance, reputation and long-term sustainability reinforces the need to get it right. All this sits firmly in the sphere of the company secretary, who is increasingly being asked to drive the modern governance agenda and act as a valued strategic advisor to the business and the board.
Company secretaries occupy a unique position that encompasses strategic and operational activities, bridging the gap between directors and the organisation. As such, building strong relationships at all levels is a critical skill. Being connected means greater effectiveness, so a company secretary should have a positive profile in the organisation and be a familiar face with the board and the business. Company secretaries need to be good networkers and build a rapport with everyone they work with, but there are some stakeholders that can prove to be particularly valuable allies.
1. The Board Chair
It goes without saying that the company secretary’s relationship with the board chair is central to the functioning of an effective board. Together, the chair and company secretary are custodians of governance in the organisation, so a strong, complementary working partnership is essential.
The chair should view the company secretary as a trusted governance advisor and be confident in seeking information and clarification on governance best practice and regulations.
The company secretary and chair should regularly review board governance and develop initiatives to address issues and drive improvement. This requires open dialogue and collaboration. A chair and company secretary who are on good terms paves the way to strong, forward-looking governance.
2. The CEO
As the key liaison between the business and the board, the company secretary must forge a good relationship with the CEO. The company secretary should aim for neutrality in their work between the CEO and the board and have dual allegiance, as far as possible. Achieving this can be a balancing act, and it is made easier if the relationship is founded on mutual respect.
An understanding of the CEO’s personal priorities and vision for the business can help to ensure that company secretaries are able to act in their liaison capacity in helping these align with the views held by the board and vice versa. This conduit role is facilitated when there is a good flow of information from the business to the board, and a strong relationship with the CEO is the first step in achieving this.
3. Executive Assistant Teams
In addition to the two key connections above, a good working relationship with their executive assistant teams can yield big benefits. Senior executives rely on their support teams to manage and protect their time; a lot of insight into how they like to work can be gained from their trusted staff. Executive assistants can be valuable allies when it comes to finding the best times to get in front of the chief executive or chair of the board to ensure a productive meeting.
4. The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)
Digital transformation is a key aspect of driving the modern governance agenda as processes shift from analogue formats to secure, digital platform alternatives. This means that accountability for ensuring the security of sensitive board materials and data is shifting from office managers and administrators squarely into the realm of the CISO. Company secretaries who build a positive relationship with their CISO are in a better place to develop a strong business case for the adoption of governance tools that improve efficiency and security when it comes to producing, distributing and storing confidential board materials and securing director communications.
By demonstrating understanding of the pressure CISOs face from external cyberattacks and the ever-present risk of employee errors leading to sensitive data breaches, company secretaries can build common ground with CISOs over the need to keep the organisation’s most important data safe. This will help to get buy-in for proposals to digitise governance processes and implement secure director communications.
5. The HR Director
Engaging with the HR director has several advantages when it comes to promoting governance.
First, employees are key stakeholders in the organisation, and the importance of board engagement with the workforce was underlined in recent revisions to the UK corporate governance code, requiring that boards build closer relationships with employees. As the primary vehicle for employee representation and management, the HR department is a key strategic relationship to establish.
Of course, communication between the board and workforce needs to be two-way. For that reason, it’s important to have HR endorsement of the “tone from the top” which sets the corporate culture and is a core board responsibility. HR policies and practices are often the aspects of governance with which employees are most familiar and it is important that they align with board culture.
By forming a strong relationship with the HR Lead, the company secretary has a channel through which to take the temperature of corporate culture, receive early warning of in-house concerns, and ensure there is a positive dialogue between the board and the workforce.
From an operational perspective, implementing governance frameworks frequently requires policy adoption and enforcement to ensure that the business is acting ethically as a good corporate citizen. Cascading this down through the business requires the support of the human resources team, who are responsible for raising awareness, providing employee training and drafting employment contracts that stipulate compliance with relevant policies.
6. The Chief Data Officer
Increasingly, data is the fuel that powers business decision-making. It is both asset and liability, and understanding how it is managed in the organisation and the insights it can deliver is extremely useful for company secretaries. There are governance aspects around data protection – GDPR compliance is just one example – but also benefits to be gained from big data analysis.
An increasingly common feature of today’s organisations are data analysts who are responsible for collecting, crunching and presenting big data insights that deliver intelligence on both the company’s performance and broader market forces. This information is critically valuable to the board and CEO. It can help identify new trends, spot emerging risks – potential supply chain disruptions, for example – and turn complex concepts into more easily digestible figures or visualisations that serve as a shortcut to insight.
Having an open line of communication to the team that generates this information is a smart move for company secretaries. It makes last-minute requests for reports or data that much easier to meet and, from the data team’s perspective, it is confirmation that the insight they provide is valued at the highest level.
Building Influence Through Strategic Company Secretary Relationships
For company secretaries to seize opportunities, increase their influence and contribute fully to the success of their board and organisation, establishing and nurturing these connections with key individuals across a variety of business departments is vital.
Creating trust in, and respect for, the value that governance advisors bring to the business is essential in placing governance professionals where they ought to be: at the centre of organisational success.
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