Many organisations use an external corporate governance specialist or freelance company secretary. There are various reasons for doing this. Perhaps you don’t need a full-time resource in-house, or perhaps there’s a preference to have the distance and perspective of an outside view. Whatever your reason for engaging a governance specialist, it’s important to find the right one for your organisation – or risk the pitfalls of the dark side of corporate governance.
As you’d expect, every governance gun for hire has a slightly different approach. These are the most important things we think you need to look out for as a bare minimum.
Your governance specialist needs to be a technical expert
The most important thing is to find someone who is an expert in the field. But if you’re not a governance expert yourself, how do you know? That’s why you’re looking for someone after all!
Do your homework. Make sure the specialist you engage holds formal qualifications in corporate governance. Find out what additional qualifications they might hold in related fields like business, accounting, law, or risk management. Ask about how they keep their continuing professional development up to date. Ask for referees. The best way of knowing if they do a good job is to ask people they already work with.
Find someone who will embed with your organisation
Being at arm’s length and bringing an objective view is important, but you also need someone who’ll gel with your organisation. Ideally, you need someone who’s prepared to take the time to get to know your business and work alongside your key people.
A governance specialist can’t do their best for you when they’re completely removed — this isn’t a set and forget kind of gig. Ask your prospective consultant what their approach is to business strategy. Will they pitch in and help with development and implementation? Getting involved with strategy is key to them making your governance structure work for you.
Your governance specialist should be committed to helping you get the best outcomes for your organisation. By being prepared to roll up their sleeves, they’ll quickly get their head around your business.
Trust in your governance specialist is essential
When you’re engaging someone outside your organisation to take on such a pivotal role, your board and your senior team must trust them implicitly. Trust is essential to nurture an environment in which people can speak their mind and challenge assumptions. Ultimately, better governance comes from open, frank, and positive communication.
Talk to potential advisers about how they’ll build relationships with your CEO, directors and senior executives. Ask them about their communication style and how they interact with people at all levels.
But beware of engaging someone who is overly similar to you and your team in experience and background. It’s true this will make it more likely that you’ll have similar values, beliefs and assumptions, which will make you naturally more inclined towards open exchanges, but there is also a risk of building groupthink that not only reinforces the status quo but diminishes diversity of thought.
The trick is to find someone you trust enough to ask each other the tough questions and challenge each other’s viewpoints for the benefit of the organisation.
Get added value with governance coaching
If your organisation is a start-up or has early career directors and managers, good coaching for your key people can prove invaluable. Real life advice that is often only gained from years of experience can help things run more smoothly at the pointy end of the business.
Coaching can include practical things like putting together a meaningful and concise board paper, how to run a good meeting, or how to ensure the board stays on track and focussed on the right strategic, things. It might also help your team to have some support for interpersonal business matters like dealing with difficult people and navigating opinions around the board table.
Look for breadth beyond their speciality
Notwithstanding the importance of specialty technical expertise, a governance specialist with access to other experts in related fields can bring a whole lot of extra value to the service they provide. Operating within a broader network also means that your governance adviser isn’t professionally isolated from all the other things that happen in the world of business.
When talking to potential governance experts for your organisation, ask about their professional network. Find out if they have relationships with people who work in risk management, finance, law, corporate communication, or change management. If your trusted governance adviser can make a recommendation about other professional services, you could save yourself time and angst in finding the right practitioner for another part of your organisation.
Image credit: Jordan Ladikos