What Do I Need in My Next Communications Chief?
April 6, 2017
By Mark Behan, President
It’s a question we hear from CEOs frequently. The short answer: Hire a conductor with the courage to ask: “Why?”
When I started in this business nearly 30 years ago, clients often had small internal communications departments if they had them at all. Typically, one employee put out the company newsletter, represented the company at community events and answered occasional news media inquiries. A second employee worked with the sales staff to develop marketing materials to attract customers. The CEO was the only true communications strategist. Communications was not considered a core, strategic function -- until a crisis struck and the CEO had to step in and quickly recognized that an indifferent approach to communications no longer worked.
Many small and mid-size organizations struggle with establishing communications departments that are at once strategic in orientation and possessed of top-of-the-game communications skills. Add to that tall order the requirement that communicators have sufficient intellectual bandwidth, judgment and experience to effectively communicate in hyper speed across multiple channels with diverse audiences who have disparate, often conflicting, interests.
Sometimes the means and the ends become confused. Communications is a tool. The goal is a credible, productive working relationship with all of the people and organizations capable of influencing the destiny of a business or organization.
Just as human resources professionals transformed outdated personnel departments into “people centers,” and CFOs who were once scorekeepers became strategic growth architects, a new generation of Chief Communications Officers is remaking the communications function into the Strategic and Critical Relationships Department.
My grandfather, a composer and musician, claimed that the best conductors had eyes in the backs of their heads, the better to see both musicians and audience. Best-in-class CCOs come similarly equipped with 360-degree vision, capable of peering inside and outside the organization simultaneously. Looking outside, they are the chief scout, alert to risks and opportunities of every kind. They are growth champions who amplify an organization’s creative energy, help find new markets, customers and innovations; help identify potential collaborators, and sense emerging trends before they have a name. They study the competitive, economic and cultural landscape and help shine a light on multiple paths forward for their colleagues.
Internally, they are the CEO’s confidant, emissary and protector, completely in tune with the strategy, aspirations, style and substance of the boss. They understand an organization’s true purpose and are aligned with its goals. With the inside-the-organization gravitas to dig out the truth and courage to tell it, they are capable of helping the CEO (and other senior leaders) overcome blind spots and see the organization as honest critics do. They also serve as an organization’s conscience, the illuminator of its true good, the protector of its brand promise and reputation, and, when appropriate, its leadership voice on divisive business, social and political issues important to customers and employees.
They are authentic to the core, genuine relationship builders who recognize that the daily competitive battle is not just for customers, orders, market share growth and profitability, but for all of that and continued investment, outstanding talent and sustained public and political support, too. They humanize their organizations by leveraging their knowledge, experience, empathy and relational skills and serving as the organization’s chief story teller, liberating its most appealing characteristics. They are astute diplomats, acutely sensitive to the needs of diverse constituencies and capable of shaping a political and public opinion environment necessary to business success.
CEOs need and deserve communications chiefs with both the competence and the confidence to ask why, to challenge internal narratives, old assumptions, and accepted truths. Most important, they need communications advisers who can say no to them when necessary and who, just as quickly, will follow their lead even when they disagree.
Every complex organization has many publics: Customers, shareholders, employees, bankers, investors, retirees, unions, regulators, competitors, vendors, affiliates, elected officials, community leaders, social activists and trade groups, among others. Consequently, the best communications departments are holistically integrated functions that bring cohesion to all internal and external communications and relationship-building: marketing, branding and customer engagement; employee recruitment and engagement; shareholder communications and investors relations; government, community and news media relations, and corporate social responsibility initiatives.
For CEOs looking for their next communications chief, this genius is rare but not impossible to find. Remember the conductor’s true gift is not making music, but extracting an exquisite symphony performance from 100 talented individual musicians, all the while keeping an eye on the audience.