Corporate governance has had a bad rap of late. From not even rating a mention twenty years ago (my father, an experienced company director, had not heard of the term until 2001), the term has become ubiquitous, hackneyed even, to the point now of being conceived (blamed?) variously as a perpetrator or panacea for all manner of corporate ills and missteps. Further, a bevy of related terms has emerged; an industry in and of itself.
One especially troublesome 'related term' that has emerged in recent years is 'governance professional'. What does it mean, and to what or whom does it refer? I put this question to a professional associate recently (a highly experienced director, chairman and board consultant). His answer, delivered without pause, was telling: "A company director, of course". After a brief pause, he asked why I'd posed the question. I related a couple of stories, of recent discussions including one in which the other party asserted that company secretaries and corporate risk managers are both 'governance professionals'. My colleague interjected asking, "Really? Aren't they getting ahead of themselves?"
Let's consider this in the context of another sector and look for parallels. Take healthcare. Doctors and nurses are universally understood to be healthcare professionals—clinicians who serve patients' healthcare needs in pursuit of physical and mental wellness. But what of receptionists, administrators and practice managers? These people make important contributions to the delivery of healthcare in a supporting capacity. But organising appointments, processing paperwork and supporting clinicians is not the same as delivering healthcare, the threshold for the 'healthcare professional' moniker.
How might this example inform our understanding of troublesome term 'governance professionals'? First, let's acknowledge that corporate governance describes the work of the board. We know this from Richard Eells, the person who first coined the term (the structure and functioning of the corporate polity), and Sir Adrian Cadbury (the means by which companies are directed and controlled). Given corporate governance is something that occurs in the boardroom (i.e., a board-activated mechanism for coordinating knowledge and making informed decisions in pursuit of the long-term future of the company), my professional associate's reply (that a company director is a governance professional, but the roles of company secretary and risk manager are not) seems plausible. What do you think?
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.