Company secretaries are responsible for ensuring that an organisation complies with standard financial and legal practice and maintains high standards of corporate governance.

Although they are not strictly required to provide legal advice, company secretaries must have a thorough understanding of the laws that affect their areas of work.

Company secretaries hold a strategic position at the heart of governance operations within an organisation and act as a point of communication between the board of directors and company shareholders, reporting in a timely and accurate manner on company procedures and developments.

They can also provide an important link between the board of directors and an organisation's executive management.

Public limited companies are legally required to employ a company secretary and many private companies also have the role. Positions can be found across all sectors, in the public and not-for-profit sectors in particular.

Alternative job titles may include 'head of governance' or 'head of democratic services'.

Responsibilities

Company secretaries work in and around the board, usually reporting to the chairman. This provides the opportunity to offer advice and guidance on matters of law and governance at the very top of organisations.

The role covers a range of functions, and specific tasks vary depending on the type and size of the company. However, typical activities include:

  • organising and preparing agendas and papers for board meetings, committees and annual general meetings (AGMs);
  • taking minutes, drafting resolutions, lodging required forms and annual returns with Companies House;
  • following up on actions from meetings;
  • overseeing policies, making sure they are kept up to date and referred to the appropriate committee for approval;
  • maintaining statutory books, including registers of members, directors and secretaries;
  • dealing with correspondence, collating information and writing reports, ensuring decisions made are communicated to the relevant company stakeholders;
  • contributing to meeting discussions as and when required, and advising members of the legal, governance, accounting and tax implications of proposed policies;
  • monitoring changes in relevant legislation and the regulatory environment and taking appropriate action;
  • liaising with external regulators and advisers, such as lawyers and auditors;
  • taking responsibility for the health and safety of employees and managing matters related to insurance and property;
  • developing and overseeing the systems that ensure the company complies with all applicable codes, in addition to its legal and statutory requirements.

The work of a company secretary in a publicly listed company will be more specialised than in a smaller private company. For example, the liaison role with shareholders and compliance responsibilities may make up a major part of the work and can include:

  • maintaining the register of shareholders and monitoring changes in share ownership of the company;
  • paying dividends and managing share option schemes;
  • taking a role in share issues, mergers and takeovers.

In small businesses, other duties commonly undertaken by company secretaries include:

  • monitoring the administration of the company's pension scheme;
  • overseeing and renewing insurance cover for employees, equipment and premises;
  • entering into contractual agreements with suppliers and customers;
  • managing office space and property as well as dealing with personnel administration;
  • overseeing public relations and aspects of financial management.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for trainees are generally around £30,000.
  • Assistant company secretaries can earn around £40,000 to £70,000, rising to £54,000 to £102,000 for deputy company secretaries.

At the top end of the salary scale, company secretaries working for FTSE companies can earn significant six-figure salaries, with five figure bonuses.

Salaries vary depending on the sector, location and the size and type of an organisation.

Income data from ICSA. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

The work is mainly office based. Company secretaries generally work normal office hours, although it may be necessary to work longer hours to accommodate lengthy meetings and to complete reports, such as the company Annual Report, for regulatory deadlines.

Part-time work is available.

What to expect

  • Formal business wear is generally expected.
  • There are many opportunities for experienced company secretaries to be self-employed or to work freelance. Chartered accountants and solicitors in sole private practice often take on a company secretary role for small local businesses. Chartered secretaries - those qualified via ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators) - may also work as sole traders, in partnerships or companies, offering company secretarial services, or in professional practices, offering similar services as part of a larger organisation.
  • Jobs are widely available. Opportunities exist in most major towns and cities, although positions with blue chip companies are mainly at head offices in London and larger cities.
  • Travel during the working day and absence from home overnight may be required, particularly with larger companies that have subsidiaries or multiple sites.
  • Overseas work or travel is uncommon, unless working for an international company.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, the following subjects may be preferred and can offer some exemptions from the professional examinations:

  • accountancy and finance;
  • business and management;
  • law.

A good honours degree is necessary when applying to larger firms. Graduates are preferred by some employers, while others may consider candidates with relevant HND subjects and good interpersonal skills.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not needed, but professional qualifications, particularly the ICSA examinations, which lead to the designation 'chartered secretary', are essential for public limited company secretaries and strongly advisable for those in private limited companies.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • verbal and written communication skills;
  • interpersonal skills and the ability to work well with people at all levels;
  • attention to detail and a well-organised approach to work;
  • the ability to prioritise work and to work well under pressure;
  • the capability to work with numerical information, plus analytical and problem-solving skills;
  • a diplomatic approach and the confidence to provide support to high-profile company staff and board members;
  • management skills;
  • teamworking skills;
  • integrity and discretion when handling confidential information;
  • a sound grasp of corporate governance issues;
  • a commercial frame of mind.

Work experience

As most company secretary positions will demand a professional qualification or significant professional experience, it is unlikely that a recent graduate would enter directly into the role. Pre-entry experience is therefore desirable and also strongly recommended.

Some graduates qualify as lawyers or accountants with the aim of becoming company secretaries later, while others may consider a full-time diploma course leading to a full or partial ICSA qualification.

For the majority, however, formal training in company secretarial work starts after a few years of administrative work experience. Relevant roles may be administrative in nature rather than in name, so suitable experience can be gained in areas such as:

  • accounts;
  • credit control;
  • insurance;
  • office management;
  • pensions;
  • personnel;
  • purchasing;
  • sales administration.

Employers

Only public Iimited companies are legally required to appoint a company secretary. However, it is still necessary for private companies to take responsibility for compliance and liaise with regulatory bodies so many continue to appoint a company secretary.

Positions can be found in a range of organisations, including:

  • accountancy and solicitors' firms;
  • banks and building societies;
  • employers' cooperatives;
  • housing associations;
  • insurance companies;
  • investment trusts;
  • trade bodies.

There are positions with consultancies that provide company secretarial services to companies who outsource this function.

There are also opportunities within the public and not-for-profit sectors with local and central government, educational institutions, charities and hospitals. Since their resources come mainly from taxation or public donation, such organisations must ensure that their budgets and resources are well managed.

Some company secretaries run their own business, either as a sole practitioner or in a small partnership.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are handled by specialist recruitment agencies, such as DMJ Recruitment. For details on specialist recruiters see ICSA - Specialist recruiters.

Professional development

Most company secretaries gain chartered status with ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators) by completing the ICSA Chartered Secretaries Qualifying Scheme (CSQS), which consists of two sets of four modules.

  • financial reporting and analysis;
  • applied business law;
  • corporate law;
  • corporate governance or health service governance;
  • financial decision making;
  • strategy in practice;
  • corporate secretarial practice;
  • chartered secretaries case study.

The CSQS typically takes between two and six years to complete, depending on exemptions based on existing qualifications, as well as the number of modules studied simultaneously.

Anyone may register for the scheme and some companies provide time off and support while studying. Individuals may undertake self-study, part or full-time study at a college or by distance learning supported by on-the-job supervised experience. Completion of the eight modules gives you ICSA graduate status (GradICSA).

It is also possible to take an ICSA accredited Masters course in governance at one of ICSA's partner universities, which leads to the university's postgraduate award in addition to GradICSA.

Financial assistance for training may be available through the Worshipful Company of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators.

Once you have achieved GradICSA and have completed up to six years professional experience, three of which can be working while studying, you can apply for Associate status. On becoming an Associate, you are officially a chartered secretary and can use the post-nominal ACIS.

Public limited company secretaries may gain chartered status with other organisations such as:

Opportunities regularly arise for new graduates to train within public limited companies, share registration agencies, charities, local government, the public sector and professional services companies.

These are usually open to graduates in any degree subject. Some organisations advertise administrative-training schemes for general management trainees, and these types of roles can provide a broad range of experience across several departments. See the ICSA website for details of employers offering training schemes.

Career prospects

Gaining chartered status with the ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators) is one of the most popular routes to developing a successful career in this area, and requires tenacity and dedication.

Once you have passed the necessary exams to become a graduate of ICSA (GradICSA) and have the required amount of work experience, you can apply for Associate status, at which point you are officially a chartered secretary and can use the post-nominal ACIS.

Support with career development varies between employers. It is supported by ICSA through a range of resources, workshops, seminars and conferences. They also organise special interest groups to help professionals in specific sectors share working practices and support each other.

It is important that company secretaries keep up to date with developments in legislation throughout their career by reading professional journals (such as ICSA's Governance & Compliance magazine and website) and newsletters.

Experienced professionals also recommend networking and sharing working practices with other company secretaries, both formally and informally.

Company secretaries often have access to policymaking processes and confidential information quite early on in their careers, which can be excellent training for senior management. They frequently move between industries and geographical mobility is useful for career development in the early stages.

With experience, it is possible to progress to board level or move into a directorate head or department head role. Alternatively, you can set up a business advising clients, act as company secretary for small companies, or work as a company formation agent.

Company secretaries at senior level can apply to become Fellows of ICSA (FCIS) once they have at least eight years' relevant experience.

Experience as a company secretary can be a good basis for careers in other areas of administration, finance and law. The competencies and practical experience encompassed by the post of company secretary are a sound basis for a career in many senior positions.