Natalie Gracey: Finding your voice

An interview with the winner of The One to Watch at the CGIUKI Awards 2017 to discuss challenging senior managers, learning in a new role, and the future of board papers.

Image: Natalie Gracey [left] with Governance Professional of the Year winner, Katie Hollis.

How does it feel to win The One to Watch?

Obviously I am delighted, and still a little bit shocked. I really enjoyed attending the awards dinner and meeting so many great people from our profession. CGIUKI stands for everything I believe is important about running a business well – ethical, effective governance. So I am incredibly proud to have won this award so early in my career.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in governance?

I completed an LLB [bachelor of laws] a year and a half ago. It was while studying my company law module that I came across the role of the company secretary for the first time. I became immediately intrigued by the role of ‘mysterious keeper of secrets’.

As I neared the end of my LLB I realised that I was more interested in pursuing a career in governance than in legal practice. When my professor was contacted by Scottish Widows to ask if any of his final year students might be interested in filling a secretariat vacancy, I decided to apply.

From that point my feet did not really touch the ground. I got the job and began working part time at Scottish Widows straight away, then full time once I completed my degree.

What are your role’s biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge for any new role is learning what you need to know to do your new job well. For me, joining a massive business like Scottish Widows, this was a significant challenge – even more so when you consider that Scottish Widows itself is part of the wider Lloyds Banking Group.

I am naturally a very inquisitive person, so I set about learning as much as much as possible as quickly as possible, which included masses of reading on our intranet and constitutional documents related to the companies and committees we look after.

“For company secretaries generally, I believe a key challenge is that the role is often misunderstood and frequently overlooked”

I was also mentored closely in my first months and was encouraged not just to hit the books, but to make as many contacts as possible throughout the organisation.

I went along to lots of product talks, ‘town hall’ presentations by leaders and ‘cultural cafes’ where colleagues from different backgrounds share stories and explore cultures. As an avid traveller, I was particularly drawn to the cultural cafes.

For company secretaries generally, I believe that a key challenge is that the role is often misunderstood and frequently overlooked. Certainly, when I talk about my chosen profession I find it difficult to conjure up a description that accurately reflects the challenges of my job to those unfamiliar with the role.

For these reasons I welcome the recent constitutional changes within CGIUKI and I hope that they will help those of us who are passionate about corporate governance to have a more easily recognised brand.

What has been your biggest achievement?

Like many people in our line of work, a big part of who I am is a problem solver and an innovator. I work in a team that welcomes innovation and is receptive to pushing the boundaries of our practice.

I was given free rein to redesign our team’s intranet site to make the valuable information there (about future meeting dates, paper templates and other governance guidance) more accessible and customer-friendly.

Being a team of 11 it can be difficult for our internal stakeholders to know who within our team is responsible for what and I came up with a landing page that links seamlessly to the appropriate team member for each of our boards and committees.

This change got positive feedback, which was really pleasing. I think company secretaries make small differences like this all the time and it is why I am in this job.

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

Never be afraid to challenge, despite how senior your stakeholders are. I was advised by a more experienced colleague that I was much more likely to regret not speaking up in a board meeting than I was to regret speaking up.

“I would advise anyone considering a career in governance to find their voice so they can speak openly with absolutely everyone in the business”

Clearly you have to use judgment to know when to escalate and when not to, but I do not agree with the idea that those who sit at the boardroom table are unapproachable and would be angry if someone like me spoke to them, because I have found the opposite to be true.

Lloyds Banking Group is culturally extremely inclusive anyway and I would advise anyone considering a career in governance to find their voice so they can speak openly with absolutely everyone in the business – obviously judging when it is appropriate to do so – and that includes the chairman.

What does 2018 hold for you?

For me personally, I am driven to progress through the CSQS. I sat two exams in November – one of which was on the day of the awards, which was a bit surreal! Alongside holding down a full-time job with its fair share of challenges, studying for the CSQS is demanding, but also interesting.

Outside my core role, I am particularly enthused about the idea of the board of the future. I am fascinated to see where technology, like paperless board portals can take us.

I was fortunate enough to hear one of our group board directors speaking recently about board information flow and it made me wonder what might be the next opportunities to innovate in that space.

We have already begun ‘layering’ board papers so that directors can review a shorter end-to-end pack, while drilling down using quick-links into more detail. I am sure there is more ground to cover on this journey and I am excited to be a part of it.

Natalie Gracey is assistant manager in the secretariat team at Scottish Widows. Interview by Henry Ker, editor of Governance and Compliance

Correction: In a previous version of this article we mistakenly spelled One to Watch 2017 winner Natalie Gracey’s name incorrectly. We apologise to Ms Gracey for this error.

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