Interview: Susan Stenson

Sonia Sharma talks to CEO of Independent Audit Limited, Susan Stenson.

Susan Stenson was recently named CEO of Independent Audit Limited (IAL) one of the longest established independent board consultancies. Setting up their European practice, she takes the helm at a time when demand for support in improving board performance and governance is higher than ever before.

Interview by Sonia Sharma, Former Editor of Governance and Compliance.

You have just been named CEO of Independent Audit Limited. Can you tell us about your background and your entry into the role?

I started my professional life in corporate law and due to the type of work I was doing got exposure to the board level very early on which is unusual. I was always very interested in how the board could make an impact on the organisation so when I moved into an in-house role with EuroClear, I naturally gravitated to working with boards and became a company secretary, head of investor relations and head of governance.

Each new role increased my interest in good governance, understanding the governance framework and how it all fits together within a company’s decision-making processes. And the most intriguing piece of it for me is the people dynamic.

The focus on understanding people as well as process is part of what drew me to Independent Audit. I was a client of theirs initially and really liked what they did and how they did it. They were very human and pragmatic in their approach which appealed to me, so they were my obvious choice when I transitioned into a consulting role. The founders and I saw my taking on the role of CEO as an opportunity to strengthen and evolve the business as the governance landscape is changing so rapidly.

What does your job involve on a day-to-day basis?

No two days are ever the same. I’m a bit of a governance geek; I love governance and I also really love developing people. So, I will be dealing with very practical, hands-on matters with our team to big-picture strategic thinking about where the business is heading and everything in between. We want to stay very focused on what we need to do to deliver the best possible results for our clients. 

When you work in a smaller business, everyone needs to be ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and get in to the down and dirty of the work. We are fortunate to have a strong team of people who have that ethic and are driven to help our clients optimise their governance. One of my biggest priorities is to continue to foster an environment where the team can contribute and thrive, and that allows us to attract and retain great talent as we grow. That includes staying ahead of technology advancements, so we are leveraging the power of data and analytics for our clients.

Good governance is becoming ever more business critical and there has been a huge impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you believe the sector has risen to the challenge?

I really believe in the need for stronger governance especially coming out of the pandemic. The role companies and organisations are playing in a broader societal context is changing and solid governance can amplify that positive impact. The whole conversation around ESG is helping to elevate the focus on good governance but we risk over focusing on the ‘E’ and the ‘S’, when the solution often lies in doing the ‘G’ well. 

We have many boards more interested in looking at their effectiveness but there is still a way to go in doing so in a really meaningful way. We need to see more boards open to change and to try new ways of doing things as the world of corporations and boards is entirely different than it was before the pandemic.  Boards are part of a greater ecosystem now and their challenges are bigger and more complex.

One of the most notable parts of this experience has been seeing the resilience and adaptability of the company secretary community. Firstly, the very practical side of keeping the board running during a pandemic, and also really demonstrating their strategic value as advisors to the board, chair and management team in challenging circumstances.

What would you consider the main governance challenges currently?

One of the main governance challenges I see brings us back to the topic of ESG. How do boards develop an approach to ESG that truly integrates into the strategy and fabric of the organisation and not become a tick box add-on or something that’s just done by a select group of people. We see boards struggling to know where to begin and define what ESG means for them.

Another challenge area is around risk. Even though most boards have highly developed risk programs nobody saw the pandemic coming. So, it’s about having different conversations about risk. Keeping the evaluation frameworks that are in place but also exploring emerging risks more so that boards are prepared to meet future unseen challenges. 

And – this is more of an observation – but I am seeing an increased understanding of the benefits of having different kinds of people around the board table. We have definitely seen that boards with more diverse profiles going into the pandemic benefitted from range of viewpoints in adapting and pivoting to the situation and that boards who have not committed to diversity are starting to realise that this could be a limiting factor to effective governance.

What has been you biggest achievement in your career so far?

That’s a tough question! I think for me having a career that has continued to challenge me and offer new opportunities while balancing an active family life outside of work has been a big achievement. Also, having people believe and invest in me along the way – to know that I’m serious about my career even though I have kids. 

Another thing I am grateful for is having a succession of roles that have allowed me to keep learning at every stage of the journey and has helped me develop my leadership style. I have gone through phases in my career where I felt the need to adapt to other people’s leadership models but that becomes unnatural and hard to pull off. So, I’ve learned that when I’m being true to myself, I’m being the best leader I can be.

What advice would you give to those beginning their governance career?

First, I would say focus on making strong relationships – within your organisation and beyond it. Obviously to know your board well but also to get to know other governance professionals because you can learn so much from each other. Then there is understanding the psychology of the boardroom and what is really going on from the human perspective that’s critical in a governance role. 

I would also counsel anyone to look for and find roles where there is true respect for the governance function and where its value is understood and embraced. In that type of environment, you can really focus on what outcomes the board wants to achieve and let that destination inform the route it takes to get there. Without that destination in mind, deciding how to do things is much more difficult.

This interview was first published in the November 2021 issue of Governance and Compliance.

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