How does it feel to win the Governance Professional of the Year 2017?
It was a big shock. It was not what I was expecting but it is obviously a lovely surprise.
My team nominated me; I knew that they were working on the nomination but I did not see a final draft of what they had written. In fact, I only really read it this week in preparing for the interview with you. There are lovely and meaningful quotes in there from people, and things that I had only just read for the first time.
I am sure there is more ground to cover on this journey and I am excited to be a part of it.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in governance?
I went to university and I did a joint honours degree in law and politics, and as part of that I studied a wide variety of different topics. I started out wanting to be a lawyer, but halfway through I realised I enjoyed the variety and decided not be a lawyer, because I did not want to specialise in one area of law.
I went to the university careers advisor asking what I should do. They introduced me to the concept of the company secretary, which I thought sounded interesting and something that could be different in different sectors. I could potentially chop and change between them throughout my career, giving me the variety I liked.
What does your job involve on a day-to-day basis?
Most of my daily job is line management and leading the department, with five of us in the team. It involves looking after the cycle of board and committee meetings and various governance requirements.
As secretary to the board I attend those meetings, as well as remuneration committee, nomination committee and our executive committee.
I work part-time because I have got two small children but recently I have taken on a dual role within our directorate as change manager.
As part of that I completed training with CapGemini Consulting, along with five other people in the organisation. Together we form a change network and that has added an interesting and different dimension to my role.
What would you consider the main governance challenges at the moment for the Pension Protection Fund?
The PPF is a bit of an unusual entity, because we are not regulated but some of the activities we do would be regulated in other organisations.
For example, in the last 12 to 18 months we have brought some functions in-house, including parts of the investment function. We are now trading in-house, but we do that without having to be FCA-regulated.
For governance, we try to emulate the best governance standards that would be required if we were regulated, aside from those that are too onerous. We adopt the practices we consider the most useful.
We voluntarily go through the governance codes and say whether we ‘comply or explain’, because I think that is the standard we should hold ourselves to. But in having that choice, I can be a bit more pragmatic with some of my answers than I would be if I was in a regulated environment.
“The PPF is such a unique organisation it straddles the public sector and private sector”
We have the Treasury and Cabinet Office Code that we look at because that is the one for the public sector. But the PPF is such a unique organisation it straddles the public sector and private sector. If we just focused on the public sector requirements, I feel we would be missing out on a lot of important things.
In terms of my role, the most challenging aspect is fitting everything in. There can be such a shortage of hours, particularly as I work part-time.
It is a challenge any working mother with young children faces. You have to cover a lot of ground as a board secretary; I am spread thinly at times and that can be tough.
Do you find it challenging that the secretariat department is often seen as a natural house for so many different areas of governance?
I do not. I know from talking to other people in the profession that sometimes they can feel a bit like a dumping ground for stuff. However, I feel I have a good working relationship with the senior management and I can be honest with them and say wether we can add value.
I have also got a fantastic team who are ambitious, hard-working and talented – they relish the chance to do new things. They always want to grow and develop and are generally keen to take on any extra bits of work that come our way.
There have been some high-profile pension stories recently and a lot of resultant media scrutiny – does that affect things for you in the secretariat at the PPF?
The board have had to take some big decisions and so there has been an increased volume of work, with some of that at short notice.
We have to be ready to respond quickly and precisely for everything: to get the information out to the board, convene the meetings and so forth, so that the necessary decisions can be made.
Personally, I have to make sure the minutes that I write and the papers that are submitted are perfect, given the high-profile nature.
In order for the senior team to be able to really focus on those high-profile issues, I have picked up some of the bits that they did previously to keep the lights on, and keep the organisation running smoothly. This has broadened my day-to-day remit, but I am not involved in the detail of deals.
What do you feel is your biggest achievement within your role?
I would say building a really brilliant team. I genuinely could not do my job as well as I can without them.
They rally together well and perform as a team – they never moan and groan about anything. They have bonded well, take on a lot of responsibility and care about the outcome of our work.
“We try to anticipate what people might need, what people might think and what might go wrong”
An episode I am particularly proud of is from early 2017, when we had an externally-facilitated board effectiveness review.
One of the comments was that we have a secretariat team ‘that most FTSE 100s would envy.’ I thought that that spoke to the high levels of service, and the personal touches and attention to detail that we strive to give our board.
We try to anticipate what people might need, what people might think and what might go wrong, and that seems to have added an extra dimension to the service that we provide.
With the non-executives at the PPF – who are highly-skilled people at the top of their profession – we try to make their lives and their time spent with us as easy and useful as possible.
We make everything as smooth as we can, since we are aware that given we cannot pay as much as some other companies and our board members are doing us a bit of a favour by giving up their valuable time.
What advice would you give to those beginning their governance career?
Get involved with as many different things as you can. Even though you are the junior person in the team you can still make an impression and certainly on the senior people.
One of the things that is different in this profession compared to most others is that you have access to senior people at an early stage in your career. If you make the right impression, those people will remember you and the world is small. You may well come across them again in a few years’ time and that can go in your favour.
Alongside that, do the exams as early as you can. Do not leave it too long after school and university, because that adjustment to return to studying can be difficult to manage.
Katie Hollis is board secretary at the Pension Protection Fund.
Interview by Henry Ker, editor of Governance and Compliance