Seeing eye to eye: The role of corporate secretaries with Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser
Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser
Podcast “The Agenda”

This season, on The Agenda podcast, we’re driving straight to the heart of corporate governance, addressing issues ranging from sustainability to cutting-edge technology. Follow this unique series of conversations hosted by Ingo Notthoff.

In this podcast episode you’ll hear:

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser, who has a doctorate in law and has been Corporate Secretary of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis since 2011. She talks to podcast host Ingo Notthoff about the role of trust when working with the board of directors, why collaboration with all functional areas is important, and how the role of the board has changed in recent years. Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser also describes her responsibilities as Corporate Secretary and how important diversity is for the company's success. This episode answers the following questions: 

  • What are the responsibilities of a Corporate Secretary?
  • How has the role of the board changed in recent years?
  • How should a board be set up for the future?
  • What role does diversity play in the success of a company?
  • How does a trustful collaboration within a board work?
  • What will board members have to prepare for in the coming years?

*Please note: The podcast episode is available in German


Episode highlights

Ingo Notthoff: Ms. Pamer, you’ve been Corporate Secretary of Novartis since 2011. What is your personal recipe for success?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: I believe that the role of Corporate Secretary is performed differently in every company. That's why it's very important to start by listening and talking to people, asking questions, and getting to know people. And I think it's really important to build trust, to develop a real relationship with the employees in the company and to create the space for trust.

Ingo Notthoff: How do you build this trust? 

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: I really sought out a lot of conversations. I actively approached people. I arranged meetings, went for coffee, for lunch, and I still do that. I really like it. It's important to make this offer in the first place so that people can come to me and talk to me without having to be afraid that it will go in the wrong direction.

Ingo Notthoff: What responsibilities do you have, exactly? 

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: In my case, it's the first time I support the board president in his work. It can be very diverse [...]

Then, there is the board of directors — the board of directors' meetings. The Corporate Secretary is involved in the preparation, agenda setting, and the timely distribution of documents. I always want to give enough time for the board of directors to study the documents properly. And then of course the board of directors' meeting itself, guiding best practices, and preparing the meeting minutes.

I am also responsible for the General Assembly of Novartis. I work on other projects with the Novartis Business Report. I have other teams that have nothing to do with the Board of Directors. 

Ingo Notthoff: Responsibility usually also means pressure. How do you deal with this?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: I have good teams, very good employees who support me. The most important thing is the relationship with the board of directors, so that you can ask questions, or bring in concerns. And then, in private life [...] look for a balance and find this balance, which is sometimes difficult. 

Ingo Notthoff: There are certainly many freedoms that you have. Which ones do you have exactly?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: [...] When you have built up trust, people will listen to you when you come up with an idea or a proposal. I have a lot of freedom and I practise it. Always in cooperation with the board of directors, but I can then really shape my areas of work. 

I have different areas that are my responsibility. Here I can look at the strategy, for example, I can design it, set up the right teams, and then change and improve something. 

The board must be set up very broadly in its composition, so that different perspectives are welcomed, and diversity, too.

Ingo Notthoff: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: One challenge is always when there is a change at the leadership level. For example, when the board of directors changes, because you work very closely together. For me, it is central that I understand how the new person thinks and how the person wants to fulfil the office. In my case, there was this change after two years.  Also, changing a regular board of directors member, or changing a CEO. 

Ingo Notthoff: In your opinion, how has the role of board members changed in recent years?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: The requirements have changed. You are asked a lot more “why do you have this board of directors? Why do you have this composition?” We also talk about the skills matrix more. Which skills do I need for a board of directors at Novartis? What is important for us to see reflected in the board of directors?

Ingo Notthoff: Let's take a look at the geopolitical changes that are currently very present. In your opinion, how should a Board of Directors be set up for the future? 

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: The board must be set up very broadly in its composition, so that different perspectives are welcomed, and diversity, too. And then, what is also central for every company, is the risk assessment — look at where potential risks are for the company and that this is discussed and discussed on the level of the board of directors and that measures are already taken.

Ingo Notthoff: You just mentioned the topic of diversity. How important do you think this is for the company's success and what role does diversity play for you?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: I am convinced that this is very important. Diversity, and the various aspects of diversity. Usually only gender diversity is considered. I'm convinced that with a diverse group, with very different views and different approaches, better decisions are made. [...] 

In the end, I think it's important to make better decisions. It requires mutual understanding and mutual respect, and also that someone thinks differently. And if that's the case, I think it's very, very enriching. 

Ingo Notthoff: May I ask how diverse the board of directors of Novartis is?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: If you look at gender diversity, we have 31% women. We don't think that's good enough, we're working on that. And then there's ethnic diversity, geographical diversity. It really depends on which countries and continents you're in as a company. And there you have a mixed composition. And then diversity, also when it comes to background. We have scientists, we have finance people, we have CEOs, lawyers. So it's also this diversity. 

Ingo Notthoff: How do you prepare meetings of the board of directors and what role does cooperation with other departments play in particular?

Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser: I’m responsible for the board of directors and for two committees. Some of them have recurring agenda items [...]. The whole organisation knows that these topics will be on the agenda, and then there are the ad hoc topics. There is a very central and close collaboration with different units, for example with the CEO's office. The better our internal collaboration works, the easier the entire process is and the better the preparation is too. 

You have to imagine that within the board of directors, most members spend a lot of time with other work, while the Corporate Secretary is 100% employed. So, the rest of the board of directors have other tasks that they do in other companies or are self-employed. 

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Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser
About the author
Our guest Dr. Charlotte Pamer-Wieser has a doctorate in law and has been corporate secretary of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis since 2011. Her previous roles include being a senior associate at Bär & Karrer AG, lecturer of law at the University of Basel, and associate at Walder Wyss Ltd.