UK: Interview: Sara Drake

Last Updated: 29 July 2019
Article by Sonia Sharma

We talk to ICSA: The Governance Institute's new Chief Executive

Sara Drake studied law at the University of Cambridge and has spent much of her career working in the media sector for both publishing and television companies and as a writers’ agent. In recent years she has worked with professional bodies in the built environment and construction sectors as managing director of the Home Builders Federation and the Royal Town Planning Institute. She was appointed Chief Executive of the Association for Project Management in 2015, which was awarded a royal charter in 2016 and launched its new chartered standard for the profession in 2018. Sara is an Honorary Fellow of Kingston University, a board member of the Quality Assurance Agency and holds non-executive directorships in the private and charity sectors. 

Why does good governance matter? What attracted you to the sector?

It is a great privilege to be appointed Chief Executive of an institution which has been at the heart of good governance for 128 years. I was attracted by the vital public service role ICSA plays in helping to ensure that organisations are well run. We have all seen examples in recent years of what happens when governance fails, but given the number of businesses and other types of organisations that exist it seems clear to me that someone somewhere is doing a very good job of keeping the wheels turning effectively. That would be our members. In senior leadership roles I have always valued the governance professionals I have worked with and I am delighted to have the opportunity to promote the work of this important profession.

Whether you are a FTSE 100 company, a small and medium-sized business, local government, charity, NHS Trust, academy school or sports body, good governance brings value across all areas. It provides the infrastructure needed to improve the quality of the decisions made by those who manage businesses and other organisations. This is important as good quality, ethical decision making strengthens organisations and enables them to create long-term value more effectively. I firmly believe that all organisations can benefit from having a qualified governance professional at board level. They are the people with the knowledge and expertise who are best placed to keep organisations on the straight and narrow and it is essential for boards to listen to their wise and impartial counsel.

We have members working within all sectors and they have unique insight into how organisations are run based on practical experience and influence in the boardroom. They work very hard to ensure that their organisations are the very best that they can be and in doing so contribute to national economic growth and development. Governance is not just an obligation of our royal charter; it is something that we believe to be truly important.

How does ICSA use its expertise to advance the governance debate?

The Institute’s good work with policy makers and regulators in the UK and in other jurisdictions has enabled us to develop best practice and represent the interests of our members. We contribute thought leadership to stimulate and inform the debate on such key issues as boardroom diversity, the future of audit, Next Generation Governance and The Future Board. We also produce guidance on a wide range of governance topics, and sector-specific or cross-sectoral research that encourages debate about topical governance issues.

It is excellent to see respect for ICSA’s governance expertise across all sectors, with a particular focus on corporate governance, charity governance, education, housing, NHS and sport. We have also benefited from the acquisition in 2018 of ProShare, which gives us a powerful voice in promoting the the role of responsible employee share ownership in good corporate governance.

We have jurisdiction specific conferences which we offer in many countries, as well as sector specific conferences and we also hold a highly regarded annual conference in London, which deals with the important issues of the day and attracts delegates from all sectors. We are represented at all external industry events where there is an opportunity to use our expertise to advance the governance debate.
And, of course, we are also providing the ‘go to’ qualifications, training courses and publications which underpin the highest standards for governance professionals, and delivering bespoke training to boards.

Does ICSA see a role for itself across sectoral divides?

We certainly see the Institute as the membership and qualifying body with responsibility for training, informing and representing the interests of governance professionals across all sectors. So, yes, we have an important role to play right across the governance spectrum.

Organisations tend to thrive or fail based on the effectiveness of their governance arrangements. Some of the challenges facing organisations are unique to their sector or individual circumstances, but research has identified some common themes. Good governance plays a crucial role in preventing or at least mitigating these so there is definitely a role for ICSA to play whatever the sector.

We have an essential role as an educator. I am passionate about education and learning, having served as a university governor and now as a member of the board of the Quality Assurance Agency. The importance of lifelong learning is one of the most significant things we can teach our students, which is why I am delighted by the breadth and range of qualifications offered by ICSA. We have a world-class qualifying programme, which we relaunched in its new form in July, as well as specialist qualifications in Corporate Governance, Charity Law and Governance, Health Service Governance, Academy Governance and Sports Governance, all of which are helping people to invest in their own professional development.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in the governance arena and how can ICSA/its members help organisations to meet these?

The past decade has seen such an erosion of trust in business, charities and organisations in all sectors.

High-profile governance failures have resulted in scathing front-page headlines and increased regulatory scrutiny. Add to this the uncertainty caused by Brexit, geo-political tensions and increasing pressure from the public for organisations to solve big societal issues including climate change and financial inequality, and there has never been a busier time for people working in governance.
Whatever a post-Brexit Britain will look like, governance will be crucial in rebuilding trust and company secretaries will have a key role to play. As ICSA’s 2014 research with Henley Business School demonstrated, high-performing company secretaries help build trust, which results in good governance. Their individual discretion, freedom of choice, personal values and ethics are important in positively impacting corporate judgement.

Clarity of organisational purpose, transparency and accountability will be key in future, along with strong, ethical leadership and integrity. Nowhere will ethical conduct be of more importance than in the navigation of the digital age. Advances in new technology and artificial intelligence bring new responsibilities which boards must address, such as ensuring against system bias, invasion of privacy and loss of security and all boards will need to understand the ethical consequences of this and what is needed in terms of the regulatory agenda. 

New skills will be required in the boardroom to deal with the impact of the fourth industrial revolution. Directors will be required to be more digital savvy, as will company secretaries. New ways of working have been facilitated by technology, such as the rising gig economy, that will require oversight and company secretarial expertise. Advances in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning might see robots introduced into the boardroom with greater frequency. The structure of the board itself might need to change to adapt to new ways of working, but whatever its future shape, there will always be a need for the provision of oversight and for governance professionals to help steer this.

On a more personal note for governance professionals, technological advancements have already helped to move the role up a gear. Technology has enabled reporting and data management and automating the more mundane, time-consuming tasks has freed up time for company secretaries to become more of a strategic partner to their board. More automation seems likely in the future, but the one area in which machines cannot yet outperform humans is in emotional intelligence, something which governance professionals have in bucket loads.

How is ICSA raising the awareness of the profession and the strategic importance of the role?

Almost every aspect of our work helps to build awareness and promotes the contribution the profession makes in supporting organisations to achieve their goals. We are extending our network of relationships with key stakeholders and influencers, including the media. We are engaging with the big debates around the future of the professions and the challenges for these from new technology. We will actively seek new partnerships and opportunities for collaboration with other professional bodies which see the work we do to promote governance as complementary. We have valuable partnerships in the higher education sector with the academic courses we accredit and the research agenda. The ICSA qualifying programme meets the needs of the modern governance professional and is truly international and valued for its portability. It is supported by our Competency Framework for Governance Professionals and a seasoned programme of events and awards. All of this reinforces the value of our members and is recognised by employers.

We are supported by the dedicated volunteers in our branch network who are great ambassadors for the profession and increase its visibility through a wide range of free and low cost CPD and networking opportunities. They are a really effective resource and I have been so impressed with their energy and dedication.

I am delighted that we have a new programme of events looking at the company secretary as changemaker. The series started back in April when we looked at the impact that technology might have on the future of governance. The next in the series will cover leadership. As the Henley research showed, company secretaries have similar leadership qualities as chairmen: humanity, humility, high intelligence, an understanding of agendas, negotiation and resilience.

The company secretary role is a critical component of effective boards and the best way that we can raise awareness of this is through the hard work and determination of our members themselves. By excelling at their jobs, they can show the strategic importance of the role in the most effective
way possible.

Do you feel this is an exciting time to be taking on a role at a professional body/organisation such as ICSA?

The complexity of the global governance landscape means that the demand for high-calibre individuals to lead good governance is greater than ever. We need to ensure that the profession is equipped to rise to the challenge.

ICSA is a well-established professional body, which is going through a period of change as governance becomes so much higher on the agenda and public awareness of the consequences of poor governance is so much greater. The interest for me is in looking widely at all those engaged in governance across multiple sectors and seeing how we can support them so that ICSA – soon to be The Chartered Governance Institute – is the natural home for them.

There is a continuing debate about sustainable models for membership organisations as expectations increase of free access to information online and the value of virtual communities.

We have an exciting challenge in making this work for all members wherever they are in their professional career. This is such a great career for young professionals and I am looking forward to seeing how millennials will help us shape the organisation, particularly as they move into leadership roles and exert influence at board level.

All professional bodies are grappling with the challenges of creating a sustainable model and the need to address inclusion, diversity and the relevance of the membership offering.

When I made the move from media and publishing to the Home Builders Federation, housebuilding was making a significant contribution to GDP, but it had no profile with the UK Government. This presented a major challenge, but housebuilding is now front page news. In the same way, I believe that governance has a good story to tell and that we need to tell it even more effectively.

There is no sector where good governance does not contribute to long-term economic success, so for me, my role is about driving growth. The demographics of our membership will change as we reach out into other sectors and help people doing the governance job to recognise their status within the profession and the support that ICSA can give. I hope that our name change will help to facilitate this and bring awareness to a wider audience.

While no-one knows quite what Brexit will bring, the context of professional bodies never stands still and we will need to face whatever operating environment we might find ourselves in with agility and clarity. All professional bodies need to take time to do some serious future gazing and to ask what more they can do to meet member expectations.

I have had a great handover period working alongside Simon Osborne and I am looking forward to building on his legacy. I want ICSA to meet the needs of all modern governance professionals and to support members at every stage of their professional development: from students to leaders. We shall be working with them to establish a strong profile for the Institute as the voice of a profession which makes an essential contribution to the credibility and effectiveness of organisations in every part of every sector. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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