Life in the current normal as the company secretary of a national women’s organisation

Life in the current normal as the company secretary of a national women’s organisation

Kate O'Donohue

When Kate O’Donohue tells people she works as a company secretary, some still respond by asking if that means she can “type really quickly”.

“Yes, I tell them I do happen to type quickly,” Kate tells me, “but there’s a lot more to it.” 

Indeed, such positions are essential to the governance and smooth operations of an organisation. And it’s during time like this – the COVID-19 pandemic – that their importance becomes even more essential, given their role in ensuring risk management and mitigation, compliance and board operations. 

For O’Donohue, who is now the company secretary of YWCA Australia, the role has taken on new significance during this period. Like all organisations, YWCA is facing plenty of challenges as it works to protect staff, manage risks and pivot for the future. But the YWCA has the added challenge of being a voice advocating for women across Australia – and with a health and economic crisis on our hands, that voice has never been more essential.

In the lead up the Governance Institute of Australia’s upcoming online forum I spoke to her about just what her role involves and how it’s evolved during this period.

Working from home right now, along with overseeing remote learning for her two kids, 11 and 7, O’Donohue’s been adjusting to life and work in the current ‘normal’. She’s determined to maintain the nuts and bolts of an organisation that provides essential work advocating for the needs of women across the country but also employs hundreds; mostly women.

“We’re trying to advocate and encourage our members to advocate for vulnerable people, including foreign workers. And that obviously includes so many women, particularly the cleaning staff we have in our hotels. We are trying to work with our employees, but those employees are just a drop in the ocean when you consider just how many people are affected by all of this,” she said.

“It’s great that we’re flattening the curve in Australia, but as we are reflecting on how Australia has done so well, we can’t take the focus off how many people are suffering in the economy,” she said. “We can’t get so busy patting ourselves on the back at how well we’re doing that we lose sight of how people are coping.”

These are challenges that very few senior leaders have faced previously, and boards are being asked to grapple with decisions they never would have expected to make. In many cases, boards are also having to meet virtually for the first time. It’s the professionals like O’Donohue that help put structure around the decisions and bring them to life.

“On a typical day, it’s planning for the actual board meetings and committee meetings. It’s a very heavy governance schedule,” she said on her role. “I speak with the CEO daily, along with many of the other directors involved. There is a lot of planning, negotiating and even training, given the diverse range of directors involved.”

Of course, those typical days have changed considerably since the pandemic hit. The YWCA moved to identify the health risks for staff and put in place procedures for those on the frontline – including the necessary social distancing and cleaning requirements. They then moved on to grappling with the economic consequences.

And it’s now, that the risk frameworks and management mechanisms Kate’s been working on come to life. All directors need to get familiar with what’s involved.

The ability to identify risks and opportunities and have your organisation prepared to manage or take advantage of these is crucial to long term sustainability.   

O’Donohue’s made a diverse and international career in governance since completing a masters of corporate governance while working as a temp at a FTSE listed company in the UK 15 years ago.

The career, she said, suits her personality perfectly. “My family jokes that I have a rule for everything, including what to put in the dryer and when,” she said. “Governance as a structure just really appealed to me. Having a framework of rules and procedures, setting out relationships between stakeholders, I’m drawn to all that as a person. Your role is to make it easy for everyone to do their jobs once they have the governance structure in place.”

And the career’s enabled her to land in an organisation she feels passionate about. “As a feminist organisation, and as a feminist myself trying to raise feminist kids, I was drawn to the opportunity to support and advocate for young women, the idea of it struck a chord with me.”

She arrived at the YWCA just as it had completed the merger of eight of its state and territory-based organisations. It was a challenging time, trying to bring multiple people around different tables together, a process that’s taken over two years.

“It involved creating a new structure post-merger, creating a parent entity, two subsidiaries and four board sub committees. Plus, a fairly substantial governance structure.”

Asked what she thinks has changed for governance professionally during this pandemic – and what may continue to change in the future, Kate says agility is essential.

“We need to be aware of being agile,” she says. “We saw COVID hit, there was a lot of floating going on, then the webinars starting, the Zoom calls. I think it’s great to see the agility of some of our professional advisers who are providing guidance during this period.

She asks if all boards have been as agile as they could have been. And questions whether some more traditional boards are still pushing to meet face to face.

“Are people thinking outside the box? Because right now we must be. We need to be aware of what’s going on in the economy and learning from people, constantly.”

One way that the YWCA has thought outside of the box is the development of their board traineeship program, open to those under 30. Kate’s thrilled that they will announce the recipients shortly, enabling two women to attend all YWCA Australia board meetings as observers, among other things. “It’s an excellent way to support the future of these decisions makers,” she said.

“We want to support more young women to access opportunities to develop their skills, experience and confidence so that they can pursue leadership positions.  We all know there’s a gender imbalance at Board and Senior Management level and we all know that organisations benefit from diversity at those levels.  Not only that but if we can continue to promote good governance principles and practices then the better our organisations and companies will be which will in turn positively impact our communities.

“The impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on organisations across all sectors has been immediate and extraordinary. “

Join Governance Institute’s first-ever Virtual Governance and Risk Management Forum for practical insights to support you as you respond to this evolving crisis.  

Registrations close this Friday, 8 May.  Register today.

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