A different route to the top

In business, opportunities for communications and corporate affairs leaders to fill the ultimate position of CEO are rare. In the non-profit sector, however, richer leadership opportunities at the very top of the organisation are available.

Communication and corporate affairs professionals have long adopted a metric and KPI driven approach, to ensure parallels between their work and the role it plays in the commercial success of the businesses they work for.

However, senior communications/corporate affairs professionals are not selected for broader business leadership roles, with only a few examples of transition into CEO roles.

(Image: Christopher Burns on Unsplash)

Whilst the professionalisation of corporate affairs and overall investment in the function is encouraging for those at a junior level, there exists a glass ceiling and lack of broader business opportunities for highly skilled, experienced professionals. After you have reached corporate affairs director level, what next?

"After you have reached corporate affairs director level, what next?"

Profit from a change

The not-for-profit and public sector can provide a rich ground of opportunities for those who are willing to look beyond the business sector for the next step of their career. The perception of these roles as early retirement options has changed enormously as the demand for experienced, commercial leadership can provide the opportunity to have an impact at a scale which would not be possible in comparable roles in business.

" The demand for experienced, commercial leadership can provide the opportunity to have an impact at a scale."

Trade bodies and membership organisations often actively head hunt corporate affairs directors for CEO and leadership roles.

Alex Hamilton-Baily, who leads CEO recruitment for Trade and Membership bodies at Odgers Berndtson, expands on the opportunity: “Providing a voice for a complex and sometimes divergent group of stakeholders can be challenging – members often have competing interests. Thus leading a membership organisation is a very specific role that requires exemplary tact, diplomacy and leadership of people and relationships – corporate affairs directors have this in spades.

“This is not to make light of the commercial demands on professionals – the mark of success for an association is linked to two metrics, impact and value for money. Creation and demonstration of both is frequently the challenge set to new CEOs.”

Meaty challenge

Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), illustrates this point well. Having had a distinguished career in politics and in corporate affairs at health and beauty retailer and pharmacy chain Boots and multinational alcoholic beverages company Diageo, he joined the FDF in 2015. Ian made a deliberate choice to move away from a functional specialist role. He was attracted to the FDF by the leadership challenge and broader business responsibility that the role presented. Ian joined a business which was punching below its weight and has transformed it into one of the most highly regarded trade bodies in the UK.

When discussing his achievements, Ian states that managing the “vast” pension deficit, selling the old building, making the organisation finically robust and maintaining the membership during a time of significant economic challenge are the areas where he has been most able to add value. Achievements unrelated to his, perhaps more obvious, corporate affairs skill set.

During his 14 years at Diageo, Ian had an executive committee seat and was also given responsibility for running business programmes including corporate social responsibility, the anti-counterfeit division, and the long-term settlement of the thalidomide case.

Towards the end of his time with Diageo, he was effectively chief of staff for Paul Walsh, then CEO, advising on a variety of business, political and economic issues. Therefore he had a track record of experience across a range of business disciplines. In contrast, the FDF have an income of £10million with 70 staff, so decisions concerning financial management and business strategy were on a far smaller scale than Ian had been used to around the Diageo board table. However, Ian points out that whilst scale was not a challenge, his learning has come from managing a staff who have different motivations, a group of members who often want to pull in different directions, and a business that has many more subtleties in terms of what it is trying to achieve.

Building on confidence

Ian has been able to get things done quickly and efficiently through his “confident decision making”. This is based on experience gained from his previous roles, which also inspired support from those in governance positions around him. It is notable that Ian has been involved with his own industry membership organisations, including as president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

An area where Ian’s corporate affairs pedigree shines through is his campaign to tell the story of food production from ‘field to fork’ and help the food industry be seen by the consumer, government and big business as one coherent supply chain. He explains, “The food industry is the biggest manufacturing sector which exists in Britain – who knew that?” This storytelling approach, complemented by a suite of forward-thinking content, has helped to elevate the FDF members’ voices, putting food and drink front and centre, on the same footing as others industries such as automotive and defence.

Would Ian hypothetically consider another corporate affairs role? He says not… “This type of challenge massively increases your taste for being in charge. I am dealing with issues at the heart of British survival – food is a matter of national security. There is much still to achieve and Brexit will bring with it challenges on a new level. It may drive the opportunity for consolidation amongst the membership organisations – which can only be a good thing.”

City supporter

Miles Celic has been the chief executive officer of TheCityUK (the industry-led body representing UK-based financial and related professional services) since 2016. He joined from international financial services group Prudential where he was director of group strategic communications. Previously, he had a successful corporate affairs career at HSBC, Fishburn Hedges and Water UK.

Miles was attracted to TheCityUK for the opportunity to run a small enterprise. Indeed, he draws more parallels between TheCityUK and small high-profile businesses than he does most not-for-profits. He points out that many membership and trade bodies have significant commercial revenue streams, as well as traditional membership income.

Miles runs TheCityUK “as close as possible to the culture and structure of a listed business”.

Many of his board members are also on the boards or executive teams of commercial companies and find it helpful to have a familiar style of reporting.

As with Ian Wright, the scale of leadership has not been the chief challenge, but rather the variety of overseeing such a broad suite of corporate services, specifically HR and talent management and development. Miles has recruited corporate affairs professionals to various roles in TheCityUK, recognising that the skill set required by membership businesses is, at its heart, “being a good stakeholder manager and representing members’ interests effectively”.

He rejects the notion of membership organisations as somewhere slightly sleepy people go to at the end of their career. In the case of TheCityUK, “the breadth of issues presented by Brexit, talent and technological change are huge. You have a key role in shaping the arguments and policies around these agendas for the whole industry.”

While remuneration is not comparable to the private sector, Miles comments, “what we are seeing is a professionalisation of the trade and membership sector – this has led to a higher quality of leadership and a greater premium on skill sets.” Salaries may not yet be market leading, however, Miles adds, “you can offer people at a relatively early stage of their career access to senior media and parliamentarians – individuals they would never have had access to working in a large business.”

Miles could see ex-corporate affairs CEOs returning to the commercial sector in broader positions, running divisions of businesses. However, he acknowledges that it might be difficult to give up the “ultimate leadership role.” Alongside the potential of broader commercial roles, becoming CEO has opened many doors for non-executive positions spanning business, government and the not-for-profit sector. Miles has “no regrets” about his decision to pursue an alternative career and is thoroughly enjoying the intellectual challenge and entrepreneurial outlet that his CEO role provides. As he concludes, “if you are looking to test yourself and think more widely about what you can do, there is no better place to be.”

Another option

Trade and membership bodies are not alone in recognising the importance of a corporate affairs skill set.

Jennie Younger has had a distinguished career working at executive committee level for Deutsche Bank and pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca. Having left AstraZeneca, she was interested in a role that would build on her rich tapestry of corporate affairs experience.

Jennie was appointed as the executive director for development for King's College London, King's Health Partners and in 2017. She is responsible for fundraising across the university and its three hospital partners (the latest, award-winning campaign at King’s, raising £610 million, closed in 2016). She leads a team of 125 fundraisers, reports to the president and principal of King's College London and is a member of the Senior Leadership Team, equivalent to the executive committee.

The combination of Jennie’s financial, communications and public affairs experience, together with her knowledge of the healthcare and life sciences, have allowed her immediate credibility. She can talk to business, donors, clinicians and academics about how they can support a philanthropic investment, and the transformational impact it will have. The learning for Jennie has been the technical fundraising principles, how to ‘bring in’ a multimillion pound gift, understanding the scale and impact of philanthropic giving and the governance surrounding it. Fundraising is a global function with many donors coming from the Asia, the Middle East and increasingly the US.

Internally, the stakeholder group is immense. Jennie spends around 60 per cent of her time working with academics, clinicians and various leaders across the university and hospitals to facilitate engagement with potential donors. She has not found the cultural move from big business to a university as challenging as she thought, although she admits it is less structured than you would have with an executive and CEO set up – “the same centralised processes do not exist, it’s more federal”.

The hospital rhythm is constant and 24/7, with many business meetings starting at 7.30am- the hospital leadership echoing the shift-based culture. The University has a ‘term’ feeling to it as the students come and go. Jennie commented that unsurprisingly “there exists a very intellectually-driven, hard-working environment, in so many different subject areas and disciplines across arts, sciences and health”.

Cause drive

Jennie described her team as “highly motivated, driven more to bring in money for a cause than their own pay check.” Jennie has not felt it necessary to change her leadership style, but has brought in a more performance-related culture whilst respecting what motivates good fundraisers. Jennie thinks there are many parallels between a corporate affairs skill-set and fundraisers. Fundraising is about communications and she is very open to hiring staff who are looking for an alternative career, and who have not worked in fundraising and development.

In terms of next steps, there are few fundraising roles which exist in the UK at the same scale of Jennie’s and she and her team are now embarking on the next significant fundraising campaign at King’s. However, with her combination of experience she would be a highly desirable candidate for broader leadership and CEO roles in the charity and wider not-for-profit sector. The role has certainly also expanded her non-executive appeal across the public and not-for-profit sector, as well as in business.

Jennie has found the next stage of her career intellectually challenging and highly engaging, commenting that she is “learning so much every day”. She warns against anyone who thinks a move into the not-for-profit sector might lead to long lunches and shorter hours – “This is not a walk in the park – it is hard work but extremely interesting and rewarding! It’s also a great feeling to be putting something back.”

Wider ambitions

Corporate affairs professionals must be more proactive in their pursuit of wider leadership roles – in not-for-profit or business. Their portfolio of skills are unique, and the learning perhaps not as steep as one might expect.

"Corporate affairs professionals must be more proactive in their pursuit of wider leadership roles"

As Ian Wright comments, “Having had responsibility for a complete organisation, I now think I should have been more ambitious to manage a business unit at Diageo or Boots. I see no reason why corporate affairs should be overlooked in favour of those with legal/finance/marketing or HR experience.”

Top tips for pursuing an alternative career path

  • Start early. You cannot start to build your non-executive career early enough. Choose a cause that you are already engaged with or genuinely care about, and an organisation that is operating at some scale. Consider who else is on the board. This wider leadership responsibility is invaluable.
  • Volunteer. When you join a board, suggest chairing the finance committee, to gain experience in financial management.
  • Observe. If you do not have investor relations as part of your function, push to have oversight of this, taking you closer to conversations about broader business;
  • Get experience. Offer to take on projects that are outside of your remit, but will allow you wider operational/ financial/HR experience.
  • Tell your story. Corporate affairs is less understood as a profession compared to other functional areas. Make sure your CV breaks down all your areas of responsibility and includes metrics and data concerning explaining what you have achieved for the businesses you have worked for. Think about how you explain your experience, again drawing parallels between your contribution and the overall business success.
  • Reach out. Be proactive thinking about opportunities you would be interested in, speaking to contemporaries who are in those roles and connecting with recruiters who oversee a broader suite of appointments. Your current contacts book might not be best placed to position you for an alternative career route.

Hannah Peech

Hannah Peech is the head of the corporate communications practice at executive search company Odgers Berndtson. Hannah spent four years working in Odgers Berndtson’s not for profit practice managing CEO and board recruitment before moving to lead its communications work as a functional specialist. Before joining Odgers, Hannah worked for a boutique marketing and communications recruitment firm. Hannah is a trustee of the International Refugee Trust.