David Lock: The importance of serving with integrity

The master of the WCCSA discusses his time helping to rebuild higher education systems after conflict in Iraq and Libya, and the work of the WCCSA in supporting the company secretarial profession

Photo of David Lock

David Lock FCIS is master of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (WCCSA), one of the modern livery companies of the City of London.

He has spent his career in higher education administration, with the Universities of Huddersfield and Hull, before moving on to establish and lead the British University in Dubai, and is now secretary general of the Magna Carta Observatory.

Are there unique governance challenges for the higher education sector?

The main challenge comes from their democracy. The stronger universities in the world are autonomous and have academic freedom, but at the same time have to serve their stakeholders and comply with the law.

It is the governance function that enables that to happen in a secure way. It is the democracy, and the expected transparency, which can make it more challenging to make difficult decisions in universities.

With transparency, there is a very difficult balance to be struck. As a member of the leadership team of a university, you want to reach decisions that are right for all of your stakeholders, which is a challenging thing to do. Where people’s jobs are involved, it is sometimes difficult to give as much information as people would like, as early as they would like to have it.

Total transparency could compromise the consideration process. Meaningful and honest consultation with all of the stakeholders involved is a better solution. I have been involved in the making of some quite difficult decisions and have found that this approach works.

You have led higher education work in Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya. Can you talk us through this?

The common feature in all the countries is they wanted to improve their higher education systems, and in the case of Libya and Iraq, they wanted to rebuild their higher education systems after conflict.

In Libya, all the leaders of the universities that had been loyal to Colonel Gadhafi had either left the country after his death, or were dead themselves.

A number of universities had been closed for two years and the need existed to build sufficient leadership capacity for the universities to reopen and to start to rebuild and deliver full benefit to Libya. The British Council was asked to assist with this and I was asked to design and deliver a programme and to go there to work with 45 potential leaders.

“There were bullet holes in the buildings, but the enthusiasm was phenomenal”

It was one of the most exhilarating projects I have ever worked on. Yes, there were bullet holes in the buildings we were working in, but we were warmly welcomed and the enthusiasm among the participants was just phenomenal.

When the potential university leaders presented to the two ministers at the end of the programme, I found myself defending the ministers from what was a substantial, and almost impossible, list of demands, trying to moderate some realism into the process. But I made a lot of friends. Things continue to be difficult in Libya, but they are making good progress.

There was a similar situation in Iraq. The Iraq war did terrible things to the higher education system, and the UK offered to help Iraq rebuild it. We put together a programme, which was partly delivered in the UK and partly delivered in Iraq, where we worked with small teams, two or three people, from seven universities, some of them based near Baghdad and some of them from Kurdistan.

The impact of the programme was pretty substantial. In the Baghdad area, after the programme, the ministry had confidence to invest significantly in the universities in terms of infrastructure, and other ways.

In Kurdistan, they took a different approach. They replicated our programme and delivered it to all the universities in Kurdistan. They then devolved more powers from the ministry to universities. They adopted a different approach to quality assurance and the effect on people working in the universities was extremely positive.

Again, there was a lot of energy in the programme to deliver things, even when we were working in secure rooms underground. We worked with them
on and off for about a year and the change in that year was noticeable.

Are there any lessons you have taken from this to bring back to higher education in other countries that may not have gone through conflict?

First, good leadership is vital, and the development of leadership capacity at a relatively early stage of professionals’ careers is a very wise investment, because it builds a strategic sense. It makes people aware of the wider purpose of what they are doing. It makes them more aware of their strengths, weaknesses, capabilities as leaders and how to work effectively in teams.

It may be several years before people take on significant, top-level responsibility but, on the way up, they can be sensitive to what their leaders are trying to do and be more helpful as a result. If there had been leadership development deeper down the organisations, there would not have been the need to do quite so much, quite so quickly, with the people who are now leading those institutions.

“The development of leadership capacity at a relatively early stage of professionals’ careers is a very wise investment”

Strategic planning is an extremely valuable tool, if used sensitively, by which I mean it is not something to put institutions in straightjackets so they cannot be responsive. It is a great device for agreeing values, involving stakeholders, for monitoring the environment, for honestly assessing where your organisation is and where investment needs to be made for it to achieve its objectives, or otherwise where activities need to be reduced because they are no longer relevant.

What is the Magna Carta Observatory and its purpose?

The Magna Charta Observatory for Higher Education is a global body that is based in the University of Bologna. The organisation followed an event in 1988, when 388 universities from across the world came together in Bologna to sign the Magna Charta Universitatum, which is a short statement of fundamental university values.

Those values are the autonomy of universities, academic freedom, integrity in academic processes and the combination of research and teaching to provide a strong university experience.

The Observatory exists to promote those fundamental higher education values, to help universities which encounter difficulties with those values and to provide workshops and conferences across the globe to help universities assess and then increase the extent to which they are putting those values into practice. Over 800 universities around the world have now signed the Magna Charta.

“The company secretary plays an invaluable role in making sure organisations operate with integrity”

I am currently leading its Living Values Project. We are working with 10 universities in nine different countries to explore the extent to which the values they have adopted are the most appropriate ones for them, the extent to which they are really living them in practice and how to address situations where their values and their practices are not aligned.

Values are at the heart of what we do, not just in higher education but in other bodies too. The art of being able to live those values effectively, will, we think, make universities stronger.

How would you describe the mission of the WCCSA?

The mission is to provide fellowship for senior professionals who are chartered secretaries or in governance roles so as to further the profession, promote high standards in governance and to support educational opportunities.

Members meet and discuss common issues and further their own personal development, while helping to channel their public spiritedness into projects that support both the profession and the performance of individuals. One advantage of the WCCSA is that it attracts people from industry, commerce, education, charities, the health service and local authorities and that provides a rich discourse.

In the past year, we have been addressed by, among others, the Dean of Westminster, a former cabinet secretary, and a well-respected risk professional all of whom have added to our understanding of governance and the importance of integrity. The motto of the WCCSA, which should resonate with all company secretaries is ‘service with integrity’.

The number of apprentices is growing and the scope of their programme is widening. WCCSA gives apprentices special insight behind the scenes, in the profession, with companies and other organisations, and the City of London.

Our apprentices were involved in consideration of the reforms being contemplated by ICSA and gave some very valuable feedback from the perspective of people starting out in the profession. This is one example of the way in which ICSA and the WCCSA are working together.

Why is the role of the company secretary so important?

The word ‘integrity’ is a very important one. The reputation of companies is the most valuable thing they have. It is hard to build a reputation and it is very easy for a reputation to be lost. The company secretary plays an invaluable role in making sure things are done properly and that organisations operate with integrity.

In being sufficiently senior to advise the chairman and the chief executive when they feel something is not being done properly, or could be done in a better way, company secretaries can add enormous value. They contribute professionally and creatively during developments, preserve the reputation and thereby help to build the company.

They are a trusted source of information. They are, or should not be, caught up, in the various politics of an organisation. The role of secretary, brings to companies and organisations a great strength which is valued world-wide.

I have found it to be a great profession. The ICSA qualification is so useful at so many levels. It does not teach you to do everything. But it either teaches you how to do things or what needs to be done, so you know when to get help. When you do, you have the knowledge necessary for very intelligent conversations with the providers of that help.

Interview by Henry Ker, editor of Governance and Compliance

Search CGI