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Is it time to change the 'Company Secretary' label?
Insights - What We Think

Steve Playford | Senior Manager, Company Matters

Job titles have never really been that important to me.

I’ve watched colleagues over the years scrambling up the greasy pole to get the word ‘Director’ on their business card or, in some cases, enter the magical world of the C-suite (which always makes me think of a very plush airport lounge) and wondered if their hunger really is for status or just the associated remuneration. For me it was always the cash first, what you called me after that was irrelevant but that’s probably natural for most people who eke out a career in the world of sales. I guess that if it matters that much to people in the UK then they would be best moving across the pond where even the local barista is known as the Senior Vice President of Espresso Production.

And yet, after 30+ years of semi-nonchalance, I am irked.

In 2021 I moved into the corporate governance space, proudly joining the Link Group to help add value to Company Matters, their Company Secretarial division. And that’s when I discovered the rub. Why ‘Company Secretaries?’

I work with some of the finest corporate governance professionals and have observed their craft, which seems to be keeping those on boards (who should know better) on the straight and narrow when it comes to being compliant. These heroes often ply their trade discreetly, helping to ensure that the directors and executives are kept out of jail, the company itself isn’t fined within an inch of its existence and ultimately the shareholder value remains intact. And yet they are labelled as ‘Secretaries’. This isn’t to undermine the traditional role of a secretary, but the reality is that for the average Joe or Jane, the title immediately conjures up a junior position, starting out at the bottom of the ladder, making tea, and doing the filing. Most ‘Company’ Secretaries will have been through years of strenuous professional qualifications as well as holding a degree, often in a relevant subject such as Law.

A case in point. I was speaking with a colleague recently whose own Mum lamented it was ‘such a shame she had worked so hard to acquire a law degree only to become a secretary’. Other colleagues recount times when they have told folk at parties and gatherings that they are a Company Secretary only to be met with a condoling stare. At least as a salesman I can resort to labelling my role as Business Development Manager, which, while completely bemusing the recipient of this information, will at least result in an affirming nod. 

So, on behalf of my long-suffering colleagues, I decided to do some further research.

My first port of call was the Chartered Governance Institute, the body formerly known as ‘ICSA’. This is particularly relevant because they only changed their own name from The Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators in November 2019 in a bid to move with the times and better reflect the activities of their members. So while the professional body has adopted a more apt title, what are their thoughts on this topic?

Sheila Doyle, Head of Policy at the CGI explained:

 ‘There are many members who have no issue with current job titles, but it does seem that those in the larger organisations – especially FTSEs – continue to use ‘Company Secretary’ and it is still the wording in the Companies Act’.

A further look at their job board backed this viewpoint up with Public Sector and Private Companies displaying a tendency to create fresher titles such as Head of Governance and Governance Officer. Perhaps these organisations are leading the way?

I also canvassed the opinion of Laura Higgins, an experienced Company Secretary of 20 years and now the founder of the CoSec Coach consultancy. Laura commented that:

‘Whilst the role is statutory, the Secretary is an officer of the Company. In the absence of company law being updated, it would be helpful to elevate the role to Chief Governance Officer. In political circles, the Secretary of State or Cabinet Secretary, even Private Secretary is well understood to have great importance and they operate at the very top of these organisations. However, the term ‘Secretary’ does not do justice in the commercial or corporate world.’

Deloitte, one of the ‘big 4’ professional service organisations supported this viewpoint in a recent white paper stating:

‘The role of the company secretary has developed into much more than the traditional statutory requirements. Most notably, the responsibility for developing and implementing processes to promote and sustain good corporate governance has fallen largely within the remit of the company secretary. This is recognised in both the UK Code of Corporate Governance and the FRC Guidance on Board Effectiveness’. 

Larger organisations also seem to struggle to sufficiently value the commercial role of the Company Secretary. This tends to be the case whether referring to an in-house Company Secretary or a trusted outsourced partner such as Company Matters. Listed companies often accept that they must sign off hundreds of thousands of pounds to Lawyers, Brokers, and the big Accountancy firms, either before or after admission, yet I’ve personally experienced reluctance to pay fractions for the Company Secretarial activity. Would a change of name make a difference to that perception?

Laura continued to say that:

‘Organisations valuing the role are where the role holder has established trust and collaborative ways of working with both the management team and the Board. Without education, awareness or advocacy for the role and function, the role can be quickly dismissed as a compliance role’.

So is this the right time for a blanket change? It may need to be evolution over revolution, similar to when Personnel became HR during the early 1990s. Chief Governance Officer (CGO) certainly has ring to it as well as elevating the role to ‘C’ level, something that Senior IT Professionals executed perfectly when tagging themselves as Chief Information Officers (CIO), Chief Data Officers (CDO’s) and Chief Technology Officers (CTO) in the noughties. Whatever happens to their handle going forward, I would like to see Company Secretaries given the respect and rewards that they clearly deserve and, in the meantime, if perhaps someone at Link Group could see their way clear to designating me the moniker of Senior Vice President – Vending, that would be very much appreciated!

Steve Playford

Senior Manager, Company Matters