A helicopter view

Joanne Alker speaks about the importance of strong relationships with the board and the unique challenges of being a company secretary in the NHS

Joanne won The One to Watch award at the CGIUKI Awards 2015.


How did you arrive in your current position? 

I started with Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust (LCFT) in January 2010 as PA to the chair. This role involved providing committee support to the board of directors. I quickly moved into an advisory role as I developed new systems and processes to support the board’s decision making. Gaining my Masters qualification in Developing Professional Practice that focused specifically on governance in LCFT was a significant turning point in my career. It gave me confidence and empowered me to put myself out there as a rising leader in the organisation.

I have recently led a piece of work on the Trust’s governance arrangements which I received great recognition for. This has continued as LCFT showcases its work more and more at national events. This project was a journey of discovery of how a deep understanding at all levels in the organisation of the ‘nature’ of governance can transform ways of working and develop efficient flows of information, as well as effective reporting to the board. I have been unable to identify this kind of work elsewhere in the NHS. LCFT’s principle-based approach to developing governance arrangements has enabled me to empower others across the organisation.

I have also had excellent performance reviews supported by a detailed development plan.

What are the most essential skills you need to perform your current role well?

As Deputy Company Secretary at LCFT, I am required to have a helicopter view of the organisation. I ensure that there is an effective flow of assurance and appropriate decision making throughout our governance structure. I usually have a number of plates spinning at any one time and also have a finger on everyone else’s spinning plate. I must be confident in my approach and be able to advise the board on governance matters, recognising when I need to lead and when I need to follow.

It is essential that I am independent and uphold absolute discretion. I have three main contacts in my role: the non-executives, the executive and the governors. Each requires a different communication style as each role has a different statutory requirement, one holding the other to account for its performance.

I have a range of soft skills: the ability to manage relationships well and influence, resolve conflicts and negotiate with diplomacy. I continuously encounter circumstances in which I must use them differently to ensure the right outcome for the organisation. I believe these skills are the most important for any company secretary. We can develop systems, processes and guidance but supporting people to do the right thing and giving them to tools to do so is what is important. I have listened to other views and advice and have personalised this into my own style.

To take the next step in your career, what additional skills do you need to learn?

This is something that I have been reflecting on a lot over the past six months. For me, the biggest area of development is to become more outward focused as the NHS becomes more complex and integrated, and governance across organisations becomes a requirement.

I must ensure I have a team who are confident in delivering the administrative and technical support to the board and governors. My relationship with individual board members has never been so important and I am actively taking steps to ensure they are continually developed. This will allow me to be the bridge between the executive team and non-executive directors.

For LCFT, it is important that I promote the role of the company secretary and the corporate governance team to ensure the organisation understands the role and utilises the skills and knowledge.

What is the most difficult part of the company secretary’s job?

The hardest part of being a company secretary is being strong and confident enough to challenge members of the board. This is much easier if you have good relationships and if the board has the confidence in you to know that your opinion or advice is in the best interests of the organisation.

Are there any challenges unique to your sector that you encounter in your role?

As the NHS financial challenge continues and we move into more integrated ways of working, such as vanguards and new models of care, the challenge for me is a lack of experience in cross-organisational governance arrangements. The development plan I have in place will support me to overcome this as I shadow others in those situations and undertake my chartered secretary qualification.

What particular elements of CGIUKI have best equipped you to perform your job well?

CGIUKI is a great resource for company secretaries and their teams. The material available on the website is very useful and there are a number of courses that I have attended which were extremely engaging and ultimately increased my knowledge.

Interview by Alexandra Jones, Editor Governance and Compliance

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