As a law graduate, your degree opens the doors to a wider career that offers the flexibility to move between public, corporate or not-for-profit sectors. We find out just how transferable the skills of a company secretary really are and how a career in governance can get the most out of your law degree.
Organisations of all types are governed by regulation and standards of practice that are in place to ensure that they operate legally, appropriately, ethically and fairly. Good governance is critical to enable management and the board to deal more effectively with the challenges of running an organisation. ICSA qualified company secretaries and governance professionals offer the board advice about legal, regulatory and ethical matters, to ensure that organisations have appropriate decision-making processes and controls in place so the interests of all stakeholders are balanced.
Are you sports mad? Passionate about the NHS? Want to make a difference at a charity or to someone’s education? A degree in law is your passport to a governance career that opens you up to myriad of industries.
The role of a company secretary is broad, multifaceted and can be crucial in preventing companies from hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons. While corporate governance is a term that many people are familiar with, governance is not just relevant to the corporate world. Governance professionals are in demand in organisations of all kinds – from charities and academy schools to the National Health Service to sport.
“I genuinely think that corporate governance is governance. You apply your skills and experience to the environment you find yourself in”, Laura Latham, Associate Director Corporate Governance, NHS Stockport CCG.
Take the charity sector, for example: governance professionals act as the legal, moral and social conscience of a charity, ensuring that the organisation is run in accordance with its charitable objects and public benefits requirements. But how much do the daily tasks and responsibilities vary from those of a governance professional working in, say, a corporate organisation?
The daily routine of Allison Howe, Head of Governance at NSPCC, would suggest not very much. “Day to day it’s really varied. I do all the board and committee work. I do an awful lot of compliance work, but I also get pulled across the organisation for governance advice and how best to handle things. It’s really interesting.”
It’s a busy job too. On any given day Howe can expect to be pulled in several different directions: “if there’s anything I dislike, and it’s a minor grumble, it’s the number of meetings that I have to manage at any one time. I can have a board and two committee meetings in the space of three days, so it’s constant agenda management and producing the necessary papers. And then my day job on top!”
But the role transcends administrative tasks; seasoned people skills are also paramount in ensuring the successful running of an organisation, charitable or otherwise, as Jo Cooke, Deputy Secretary at the National Trust explains. “We sit between our Director General and our Board of Trustees. We have the job of being essentially a relationship manager between the Executive and Non-Executive.” (Executive directors are members of the board who have management responsibilities whilst non-executive directors are board members who have no responsibilities relating to the day-to-day management of the organisation). “So that means that we handle communications and we make sure our board is informed of what’s happening in the charity”.
Another sector in which the skills of governance professionals are highly sought after is the NHS. One marked difference of working in the health sector, however, is that the board operates in public. “Having the public in the board meetings brings a whole different set of complexities around how you manage difficult conversations, how you present a unified front, how you enable debate and constructive challenging questioning and how you build that engagement element with the public in board meetings”, says Latham.
Being party to important, high-level decisions is also big driver for Latham: “I really like being at the heart of an organisation. I like the sense that you can make things happen, you can unblock problems, you can develop strategy, and actually, if governance is effective it can make an organisation really, really efficient”.
A career in governance can also allow ambitious individuals to rise up the ranks more quickly than they might do elsewhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the NHS: “I genuinely do get a sense of pride. There aren’t many jobs that take quite junior staff (in some cases) to the top table of an organisation” adds Latham.
Rob Findlay, Integrity & Compliance Director at British Cycling, is well aware of the similarities between sport and other industries when it comes to governance. “Yes I have to file at Companies House, yes I do the agendas and the minutes for the board meetings and the general meetings, which every company secretary has to do. And we still have the same issues and the same governance challenges”.
The sport industry is also subject to the same level of scrutiny currently facing other sectors, and Findlay has to continually take this into account. “I think the importance of the growing focus on governance within sport and the growing recognition that we need proper governance professionals will change the nature of the organisation”, he says. “The challenge is you have to make sure you’ve got the experience from outside the game, but if you don’t have representatives from the game on your board, you’ve obviously got to make sure that you have all the channels for making sure that you take those issues into account”.
But having proper mechanisms in place is just the beginning. Karen Moorhouse, Director of Operations and Legal at Rugby Football League, elaborates: “so much now is to do with not just having good governance, but demonstrating you’ve got good governance”. For example, “you’ve got to make sure your website’s right in terms of what’s on there and that you’re communicating to all your stakeholders on governance. And then we need to communicate to Sport England, who are a major funder, that we’re fulfilling their requirements and that we can demonstrate that. So really [good governance] ends up in every bit of the organisation”.
But despite the obvious similarities, each industry still has its own nuances, and sport is no exception. Being a sports fan can make working in the industry all the more delicate. “Because everyone is so passionate about sport, which is why it’s a really fantastic industry to work in, it also means it’s an incredibly challenging industry because you’re not just dealing with people on an arm’s length basis. You’re dealing with people’s passion, their lives, their emotions”, says Joy Johnston, Governance Manager, Sport England.
Passion for the subject matter also plays a big role for governance professionals in the education sector. For Anna Machin, Governance & Compliance Manager at Ark, “it’s a really exciting sector to be part of. It’s the chance to literally change the future for young people”.
A successful academy school relies heavily on governance and Tomas Thurogood-Hyde, Head of Governance and Legal for Astrea Academy Trust is entrusted with this weighty responsibility. “I provide legal support to our schools, I look after admissions across the network, and I make sure that our schools’ governance arrangements are being delivered throughout the year”. He describes himself as “a kind of linchpin for governance at the centre [of the organisation] where you’ve got a necessarily dispersed and part-time body of people supporting it at the regional school level”.
So what are the challenges for those overseeing governance in the education sector? The variety of work, which can be both a good and a bad thing, says Machin. “You’re always keeping a million plates spinning to keep things running. I think the expectations in governance are evolving more quickly than they were, which is a good thing because there’s a lot more guidance out there, but then you’re having to continually adapt and evolve your support and your general governance model against that” says Machin.
Regardless of sector, there’s no doubt that the responsibilities, challenges and motivations of company secretaries and governance professionals are readily interchangeable. Equipped with a universally and internationally applicable set of qualifications, they have the ability to work in an industry which interests them. Who wouldn’t want a job like that?
ICSA offer many ways for you to try the role for yourself. You can attend an open evening where you can meet recruiters and practicing company secretaries. Or join an Insight Day where you get to go behind the scenes of an organisation and observe a company secretary’s day-to-day work. These are just some of the ways to discover more about this versatile profession, to get started visit icsa.org.uk/gradhub.