Karen O’Donnell who was recently announced as one of the 2023 Governance HOT 100 winners in the Governance Trailblazer category, sat down with David Press to discuss her achievements and her career journey to date.
Karen is currently the Head of Governance and Company Secretary at Red Kite Community Housing, where she has been for the past two years. Prior to this, she worked at Livv Housing Group.
1. How did you become a company secretary/governance professional?
I had always had an element of company secretarial and governance work in my early career, even though it was an “add-on” to my main role. I spent 10 years working in professional theatre as an Administrative Director (where I was also Company Secretary) and then six years with a symphony orchestra - managing their funding trusts, so there were a lot of governance and Board meetings happening there.
When I had both of my children, I found working in the arts sector too much, I just wanted a nine-to-five that would let me be around more for my kids. I started as a PA in a housing association. Once they discovered I could take minutes I was drawn in to meetings everywhere, including the Executive and then the Board. The Chief Executive offered me the opportunity to start my journey on the Institute qualification and the rest, is history!
2. What has been your biggest career achievement to date?
Quite simply, passing my exams. I didn’t go to university so had nothing to qualify me for any waivers of, what was then, the full 16 exam qualifying program. It was the Certificate, Diploma, and then Qualifying Scheme offered by the Chartered Governance Institute. I was working full time, my sons were six and 11 when I started and I found adjusting to studying and exams a huge challenge.
I made it though, qualifying and winning three of the Institutes economic awards for three of my exam sessions. That was such a surprise and a delight, I didn’t consider myself academically inclined at that point, so getting through my exams and winning awards, was a personal achievement. Nothing else has ever really come close.
3. Looking ahead, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing the governance profession?
I think it’s the sheer breadth of topics and issues that now have to be brought into the governance sphere and for Boards to consider. Working through compliance with the UK Corporate Governance Code was one thing, now that’s been enhanced with reporting on equality, diversity and inclusion, environmental, social, and governance elements, more focus on Board independence, shorter terms of office, succession planning, more pressure on individual Board members as legislations are passed that give them more accountability. It’s the sheer amount of compliance that’s needed. Boards and companies have to focus on their culture and their mission, it’s not going to be easy as more demands come, to balance the need for transparency across the organisation with actually getting the job done in the right way.
4. What does winning in this category mean to you?
I’m actually amazed to have won the category. As I read the pen portraits of all the other individuals in the category I don’t feel I’m any more worthy than anyone else. Everyone in the HOT 100 has made a massive contribution to governance and I’m honored to be considered among them.
I will say that I’m delighted the social housing sector is appearing, as well as charities and other not-for-profits. Not a slight on my corporate colleagues, but it can be easy to forget that great work happens in every sector, but it’s great to see the diversity in roles and organisations represented.