What is a changemaker?

Stefan Stern introduces The Company Secretary as Changemaker, a new series of workshops being held by The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland, and discusses what being a changemaker involves for a governance professional. 

How does change happen? What does it look like? Perhaps a bit like this: a room full of company secretaries and governance professionals gathered at the London headquarters of The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland one damp evening at the end of October, at the start of a nine month project to discuss ‘The Company Secretary as Changemaker’.

This was the first in a series of seminars which will take place between now and next summer. We will be reporting back, both here and in Governance and Compliance magazine, on the content of these discussions, culminating in a session at the Governance 2020 conference next year.

So what is a changemaker, and how can company secretaries prove themselves worthy of that title?

Clearly, a changemaker does not just carry out business as usual. This does not mean that a changemaker has to be an iconoclast or a revolutionary. Indeed, there is a need for continuity even while you are setting about introducing change.

As many participants in this opening session agreed, the company secretary has a delicate balancing act to pull off, between keeping the company show on the road while also pointing out where something different – new – ought to be tried. The governance landscape is changing, and the company secretary has to be ready to change with it.

Bravery, then, is a key characteristic of a changemaker. If the chair turns to a company secretary and asks: ‘Who else is doing this, and why should we?’ a confident and convincing answer has to be found.

Tracey Brady, Managing Director of Company Matters, the sponsoring partner of this project, asked a key question: are we, as governance professionals, leading, or merely reacting? Changemakers lead. A degree of self-promotion may be required to win the space to be heard.

Changemakers offer solutions. Peter Swabey, Policy & Research Director at The Chartered Governance Institute, suggested that company secretaries very often have the skills a chairperson and boards are looking for – but do chairs and boards realise this? Does the company secretary have the confidence to speak up and the ability to judge the right moment to make an effective intervention?

Changemakers don’t just take notes and sit silently. They are trusted advisers, who have the ear of leadership teams. Attendees at the launch meeting agreed that company secretaries have to speak up when they have concerns. And as the person with a key role in setting the board agenda and deciding which issues come to the board table, the company secretary arguably has as much power as anyone at the top to steer and bring about meaningful change.

As one attendee put it: changemakers are enablers, and not merely gatekeepers. A changemaker company secretary gets past the ‘no or maybe’ answer, preferring ‘yes, and here’s how’.

Our next session on 4 December will look at the company secretary’s contribution to strategy. We welcome your comments, feedback and participation in this important programme of work. You can be a changemaker too.

The author of this article is Stefan Stern. Stefan is the former director of the High Pay Centre, an author and a contributing journalist for The Guardian, Financial Times and other publications.

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