Forging a great career in governance — tips from ANZ Australia Wealth’s Head Company Secretary

Jane Bowd heads the company secretarial team at ANZ Australia Wealth, which is responsible for the governance, compliance and board/committee operations of a group of 65 entities spanning the insurance, superannuation, managed funds and financial planning industries.

Jane’s challenging portfolio includes overseeing highly regulated APRA entities, Australian Financial Services Licensees and Australian Credit Licensees, as well as an ASX participant and online trading platform. It goes without saying that it’s a highly demanding role where keeping on top of complex, ever-changing regulatory frameworks, expense management and board affairs is just the tip of the iceberg.

In this Q&A, Jane shares insights on her career and what it takes to be a successful governance professional today. 

Can you give us a snapshot of your career history?

I have a law firm background. I worked at Clayton Utz in Brisbane and then Sydney for just under 10 years. I had a mix of front-end and back-end roles in that time, but towards the end of my career in corporate M&A, I got to see from a closer perspective what a company secretary role entailed, and I knew that it would be an excellent career path for me.

How did you transition into a company secretary role?

Given it was such a step away from being a private practice lawyer, I actively planned my transition to becoming a company secretary. In my view, the Governance Institute’s Graduate Diploma of Applied Corporate Governance was instrumental to that transition. It was a pre-requisite for most of the blue chip co sec roles I had seen, and from my own hiring experience as the Head of Secretariat, it is something that I also require from candidates I have employed over the past five years.

Part of my plan included securing secondments to financial services companies while still working at Clayton Utz. It was on secondment that I saw co secs operating first-hand, and in complex, highly regulated environments. Watching them in action assured me that I had the right skills and aptitude for such a role, and that I would get diversity of work and be challenged enough to keep me motivated and interested in my work.

What’s the secret to becoming a successful governance professional?

Becoming a successful company secretary with a good reputation, who has the support and respect of the most senior stakeholders in the organisation, does not come overnight. As with anything, you must prove yourself. The secret to a successful governance career is to focus on building your career day-by-day — do the best job you can on everything; be committed; be technically correct; always deliver; be commercial but ensure governance is not overridden; and most importantly, be professional and have integrity. Follow these steps each day, and a great career in governance will be yours. 

What’s your advice for those in a governance role wanting to progress their careers?

There are a number of guiding principles that I’d like to share because they have worked well for me.

  1. Be inquisitive. Always ask why or how, and look at things from different angles.
  2. Challenge yourself. There are elements of co sec work that can be cyclical. However, it is important to not simply be content with what you have done in the prior year. Even on cyclical tasks, you should ask yourself, how can I improve on that, what can I do differently next time? You will not win awards in co sec or governance roles for such continual improvement, as it is the sort of role where you do not get noticed when everything is tracking well. It’s not until management has a co sec or governance professional who is not doing such a great job that they truly appreciate a quality governance professional.
  3. Read widely. It is important to read widely, about governance issues and the industry within which you work. You definitely need to try to find the time for reading and development, but don’t be too hard on yourself if it is not as consistent as you would like. To help counter the potential for inconsistency or a wane in professional development, it is a good idea to ‘check yourself’ a few times a year, and ask, am I current enough? You could also sign up to LinkedIn groups on governance. Some groups post regularly on current governance and regulatory issues. They give you bite-sized intelligence, which is easy to digest on a daily basis.
  4. Be positive about your job. You are responsible for governance and compliance. It may not always be ‘sexy’, but you play a really important function.
  5. Learn how to market yourself and what you’re doing in your role in a way that management and your business stakeholders understand. Push yourself to speak your stakeholders’ language. For example, if I am talking to our CFO about our boards and efficiency improvements, I talk in metrics and numbers. I tell him that in over a 12-month period we have reduced the length of our board pack by 40 per cent from over 1000 pages to 600 pages each quarter. This is language he understands, and it makes it easier for him to ‘get’ what I’m doing.
  6. Put yourself on an equal footing with your business stakeholders. You must understand their industry, their products, their financials and their operational issues. Governance must operate in this context — you are not responsible for their area, but you must understand them. This is a critical ‘must do’, and it is something that no one else can do for you.
  7. Have a backbone, and be authentic and comfortable with who you are. You need to have a view on all governance issues, and there will be times when you will need to influence stakeholders on a governance view when either the stakeholder or the situation itself is tough … you will need a backbone. This does not mean that you have to be aggressive or overly assertive. Rather, in a governance role, particularly as you progress in seniority in your career, you are going to need to have a certain strength of character. You need to accept that not everyone is going to like you — if you are a co sec, your day-to-day job requires you to hold people to account (and not everyone appreciates this). However, you do need to be able to build effective relationships with a broad range of stakeholders, and to hold their respect.
  8. Take up the chance to work flexibly. If you are offered flexibility in your workplace, I encourage both women and men (particularly those with children) to be brave and take up that flexibility. However, you must perform and be visible when doing this, so that your stakeholders know you are still contributing. It is fair enough for people to have doubts when they cannot ‘see’ you, so be productive when at home so they can ‘see’ you without actually seeing you.
  9. Be brave in asking for career development. You need to use your judgment about ‘when’ it is the right time to push for a development opportunity. However, it is something that you should keep sight of, and not become complacent about — development opportunities broaden your skillset and the lenses that you bring to governance issues in your current (and future) role. On the counsel of one of my mentors, I did this myself recently, and I spent some time understudying the co sec of a top three ASX listed board. This was a great opportunity, and I am applying some of those learnings in my current role.

Jane Bowd delivered the keynote address at Governance Institute’s recent Women in Governance Lunch, held to commemorate International Women’s Day.  This blog article is based on parts of her address.  

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