Last month I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the ICSA Annual Conference 2019: The Future Board.

With over 1,000 delegates across two days, the event covered subjects from purpose and trust to corporate transparency and blockchain.

Every year at the conference, I am encouraged by the diversity and breadth of the company secretary community and its ability to look beyond the traditional understanding of the role.

The overarching theme of the conference and its various breakout sessions focused on the future role of the board, company secretaries and business as a whole in a market environment where trust, consistency and confidence are hard to find.

Among all the great themes that emerged throughout the two days, here are four that stood out:

1. Purpose, Culture and Trust
In a political environment where trust is in short supply and business is under pressure to demonstrate long-term and sustainable value, boards are being asked to articulate why their businesses exist, and show that they are behaving in a way that benefits all of their stakeholders.

‘Purpose’ is the buzz word of the moment with both the Financial Reporting Council’s strategic report guidance and new UK Corporate Governance Code placing it at the centre of their proposals. But it’s not a new concept. In fact, it’s not even a concept.

Purpose is why a business exists. Every business is conceived with a purpose in mind, but many businesses struggle to communicate what it is and how it links to their culture, strategy and performance.

Every investment case or piece of corporate communication needs to be grounded in why a business exists, how it behaves and operates, and the outcomes of those behaviours. None of this is new, but it does help to balance the emphasis of corporate communications from purely financial to long-term value and sustainability.

2. Culture and Development
As a reporting consultancy, we work with company secretaries every day. The vast amount of company knowledge they carry, along with an unbiased view of the market and performance, is clear.

Because of that knowledge, company secretaries have always been seen as the guardians of truth within a business, but they are so much more.

They are changemakers and people who can pioneer new ways of working. Company secretaries are ideally placed to inform and advise boards of how to future-proof their business.

3. Employee Engagement, Nurturing Talent and Personal Empowerment
Many areas – such as human capital management, harnessing creativity and diversity of thought – were discussed in detail at the conference, through varied and engaging breakout sessions. But why were these themes so prominent at an event focused on the Future Board?

Boards should not, and cannot, function in isolation. A business is only as strong as its people and how they are empowered. Listening to your employees to provide an optimal working experience means that your top talent is nurtured, and ensures a business adapts to changing markets and environments. It guarantees its long-term sustainability.

4. Driving Culture and Behaviour
In the August edition of Governance & Compliance, an interview with Sara Drake, the Chief Executive of ICSA was featured where she describes governance as: “providing the infrastructure needed to improve the quality of the decisions made by those who manage businesses and other organisations”.

She also states that: “Clarity of organisational purpose, transparency and accountability will be key in [the] future, along with strong, ethical leadership and integrity”.

These statements corresponded with much of the discussion at this year’s conference. Governance should be seen as more than a tick-box and technical exercise. Robust governance allows for clear decision making, the formation of an enabling culture and the transparency investors and stakeholders demand of a modern organisation.

After having the opportunity to speak to so many committed and intelligent people over the two days of the conference, it is clear to see that the company secretary community is well placed to take governance forward into the future.

They are not only playing the role of ‘guardians of the truth’ but of ‘guardians of the future’. 

By Brett Simnett

This article originally appeared in Governance + Compliance. To read it in full, click here.

Brett is the Investment Engagement Director at RY. He advises clients on reporting regulation and best practice and developing messaging, content and structure for investor communications.

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