This recently published summary of a meeting held to discuss the role of the company secretary caught my eye today. The company secretary has an important supporting role (preparing reports including compliance reports, recording minutes and managing the processes of the board) in most companies. However, some meeting participants appeared to suggest that a greater role was appropriate:
The meeting followed the publication of ICSA’s report The Company Secretary: Building trust through governance, which found that company secretaries ‘make a significant contribution to board performance’, supporting ICSA’s wish to reinstate the legal requirement for all large private companies to have company secretaries. The topics that were discussed at the roundtable included governance, messaging, tone, teaching, acting as the ‘radar’ of a company and being the ‘bridge’ between the company and stakeholders.
This conception is helpful, except that it perpetrates the widely-held view that corporate governance is a conformance activity. However, the responsibility to act in the best interests of the company in pursuit of shareholder wishes lies with the board. Thus, a conformance conception provides the wrong basis upon which to understand board and company secretarial contributions.
Someone needs to have their finger on the pulse in terms of strategy, monitoring, process and shareholder communications. Ideally, these are tasks for the board as it discharges its duties. In those cases where the board is weak, aloof or less than fully engaged, these tasks tend to fall on the company secretary (or even the chief executive in some cases): the requisite processes and compliance tasks still need to be performed. Thus the thinking of many in the governance community including those cited in this report it would seem.
An expanded conception of the company secretary role may remedy the symptoms (and serve the interests of company secretaries hoping to elevate themselves), but it does not address the root cause. The focus needs to be on the board, its roles and its contribution to business performance. Candid discussions around the board table and, potentially, with shareholders will probably be necessary. However, the benefits of resolving the board's role are likely to be many including that the company secretary would be released to perform their role as first conceived: to provide an outstanding administration and support service.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.