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Is today’s corporate affairs director tomorrow’s CEO?

Oskar Yasar, managing partner of Broome Yasar Partnership, explains why communications skills are so highly valued among today’s corporate leaders following the publication of the consultancy’s report: From Corporate Affairs to Corporate Leader: Today’s corporate affairs director, tomorrow’s CEO? 

Chief executives have traditionally been accountants, corporate lawyers and consultants, entrusted with the top job as guardians of finances, organisational structure and strategy.  As the corporate world globalises and embraces technological change, however, chief executives increasingly need to engage with employees, shareholders, customers, government and other key stakeholders. With one-third of a chief executive’s time now estimated to be spent communicating, a growing proportion of future leaders will learn such skills from periods of employment in corporate affairs, according to the findings from the report.

Drawing on research with 120 corporate affairs directors and frank and insightful interviews with communicators-turned-executives including amongst others Pearson chief executive John Fallon, SABMiller Europe managing director Sue Clark and Institute of Directors director-general Simon Walker, the study found that: A greater alignment between the communications capability expected of today’s CEOs and the vast experience in this field of corporate affairs leaders, is starting to generate more corporate leaders with a predominant background in communications;

One in five UK corporate affairs directors have considered progressing into a broader general management role; Aspiring CEOs increasingly see corporate communications as a learning experience where they can hone core skills such as the ability to build a narrative, remain calm in a crisis, multi-task, think fast and communicate succinctly and quickly; The increasing importance of reputation management is pushing corporate affairs and communications executives to the frontline to protect and enhance brands and values that organisations now consider their greatest asset.

“The stakeholder environment has become more complex; with more activism, more opinions and greater connectivity, which in itself requires a more connected form of leadership,” says Rupert Younger, co-founder of PR agency Finsbury and director of Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation. “To do well in communications, you need a combination of high IQ and EQ – a tricky balance. You need to understand key business drivers, talk in extreme detail and be a useful antenna for the company.” High-profile role models exist for the transition from communicator to leader, with Prime Minister David Cameron having served as director of corporate affairs for television company Carlton. However, communications has often been regarded as lacking a direct link to revenue generation and the depth and diversity of skills needed to run major organisations.

In contrast, the research finds that a new generation of leaders have developed their skills and outlooks in a digitally-connected 24/7 world where communication is at the centre of the way they work. With an ever greater complexity of audiences and stakeholder groups, CEOs have no choice but to spend more time communicating. Those that have spent time in corporate affairs and communications say it helped them learn how to manage and influence corporate reputations – an art frequently overlooked by corporate recruiters. 

“Leadership issues are the same, whether you are in charge of a larger corporate affairs team or elsewhere in an organisation,” says Sue Clark, managing director, SABMiller Europe. “It’s learning how to deal with them that is important.” Simon Walker, director-general at the Institute of Directors, adds that working as a director of communications before entering general leadership positions helped him develop a sense of how people are going to respond. “If you are dealing with investors or politicians, as well as the public, it helps enormously in terms of maximising positive perceptions and minimising negative ones,” he says.

The report warns, however, that communications skills alone are not sufficient to progress professionals into senior executive or CEO roles and that executives in the industry need to be proactive about widening their portfolios to develop their commercial acumen and financial management knowledge. Such experience can be added through training, mentoring or volunteering for new opportunities. The journey from communicator to leadership is unlikely to be straightforward and it may be necessary to move sideways into a role that may not be high-profile or report directly to a chief executive but can equip individuals with new skills, improve their operational knowledge and help make connections to fuel future progress.

“As a corporate affairs director you get access to all areas so you are used to engaging with the board, the CEO, divisional P&L directors and non-executive directors, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for serving your time and improving yourself,” says John Fallon, chief executive at Pearson, who left the company’s corporate affairs to run the group’s educational publishing business in Europe, Middle East and Africa.  “It can be quite a big wrench. As a senior member of the executive, I essentially took a step backwards in compensation in the short-term to get a chance to prove myself. If you want to make the move, you do need to be willing to sacrifice that.”

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