Helen and her team look after Coca-Cola European Partners plc (CCEP), CCEP’s board of directors (the board) and CCEP’s shareholders.
CCEP is a company that has been set up in the UK. You can buy and sell its shares on stock exchanges in four countries. Looking after CCEP includes making sure it follows all the laws and rules that apply to it.
The board is a group of people that leads CCEP. Looking after the directors includes making sure:
- their meetings run smoothly;
- they understand CCEP and know what is expected of them – arranging training if they need or want it;
- they make the decisions they should; and
- they give other people in CCEP the power to make decisions where appropriate.
The shareholders own CCEP. Looking after them includes:
- giving them access to information about CCEP through announcements and reports; and
- making sure they make the decisions they should – arranging meetings to enable this.
What is governance?
For Helen, the key to good governance lies in the right people doing the right thing at the right time. Alternatively, it can be seen as how these actions and the frameworks that are in place enable the organisation.
What is a company secretary?
Helen would say that a company secretary supports, advises and influences the board and gives them the information they need at the right time to make the decisions. At least, that’s a very simple way of putting it. The company secretary facilitates getting the right information to those that need it to enact key decisions. They might not be the ones responsible for making decisions, but they are essential for knitting everything together.
More broadly, it's not just the board that should concern the company secretary, because the work they do might apply just as much to other decision-making groups in the organisation. Ultimately, the role is all about enabling decision-making across the organisation as a whole, and that means it's a case of making sure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time in order for them to make the right decision.
The route to a career in governance
Helen studied natural sciences at Durham University and eventually ended up with a joint honours degree in maths and physics, which she sees as being useful in that it was broad and had a variety of transferable skills. After graduating, she spent time working for a marketing consultancy company, focusing on the financial modelling of CRM programmes. With three years of this experience under her belt, she felt like a change of job role and was recommended to look into the position of company secretary by her family friend who practised in this area. After looking into it more, she started doing her exams with The Chartered Governance Institute. She was able to complete the first two exams while still working for the marketing consultancy, although she dropped down to a four-day week, which allowed her to study and start looking for a role as a company secretary. Helen sat her first two exams in June 2003 and had secured her first job as a company secretary by July 2003!
The essential skill for success in governance
As well as having the required technical knowledge, Helen thinks it’s essential to have the right soft skills, particularly the ability to build and manage relationships effectively. A company secretary needs to be approachable and personable: the directors need to feel able to talk to them openly, as does everyone else in the organisation. Knowing how to adjust your communication style to suit the circumstances is a big part of this. Reading people, good verbal and written communication is essential. But so is the understanding of why you're communicating in a certain way and knowing what it is you're trying to achieve. ‘It's about understanding and curation.’
Helen’s career highlight so far would have to be the two occasions that she was asked to be Acting Group Company Secretary for Atkins, a design engineering and project management consultancy, to cover first a period of training (training sabbatical) and second a period of time spent working in another organisation (a secondment) the Group Company Secretary was doing. She enjoyed the responsibility of running the team and working with the board and wider organisation to achieve their aims.
How did the Institute support your career as a governance professional?
The Chartered Governance Institute provided the professional framework for Helen’s career. Completing the exams initially showed her commitment to the profession and then provided evidence of her knowledge. Achieving Associate and the Fellow status provides external validation of her level of expertise and experience.
Words of wisdom for your governance career
Rather than offer specific pieces of wisdom for a career in governance, Helen wanted to really call attention to why exactly a job as a governance professional or company secretary is worth pursuing, highlighting the kind of expansive and high-level opportunities that this path will offer you.
If you're interested in law and business and want something that gives you a really broad overview of the business but also a real involvement in it, then this would be the role for you. You are right at the heart of things from quite a junior point in your career, whereas people in other parts of the business spend many years getting to that level of involvement.
To find out more about a career in governance, check out the events and programmes available on their employer profile.