Leadership and communication

Defining the leadership characteristics of chief communications and corporate affairs officers


Today, corporate communications is a multidirectional conversation across a huge variety of channels and an even larger set of engaged stakeholders. Meanwhile, communicators are increasingly becoming a trusted counsel to CEOs across a range of responsibilities. Here, two of the leading minds in talent advisory share how they define the leadership characteristics of the new breed of best-in-class chief communications and corporate affairs officers.

The following are excerpts from seperately-conducted interviews.

COMMUNICATION DIRECTOR Gizem, one message that came across loud and clear from your session at the European Communication Summit is that, historically, there hasn’t been sufficient investment in the corporate communications function. Why is that?

GIZEM WEGGEMANS There are a number of different reasons. Traditionally, pretty much everyone who runs a business believed that the reputation of that business and managing the stakeholders is part of their job definition. So when people thought about the corporate affairs function they only had a subsection, mostly media relations, in mind because a lot of what they were doing themselves was managing the broader stakeholders as part of their own job. If it was about getting the licence to operate in a country, the GM for that country would go and have the conversations with the government. Or if it was about getting someone’s head around the consumer space, the chief marketing officer would worry about the consumer. So since many organisations did not think of stakeholder engagement as a discrete role, investment in the evolution of the function was relatively suboptimal. When you talk to many corporate affairs people, for example, very rarely will you hear that they’ve been sent on rotational development programmes. People were hired for their specialist skills and were tasked against deliverables in that specific space. By the same token, you will find very few people who grew up in other parts of the business who then came into corporate affairs because someone really wanted to make sure that they gained a holistic business perspective. The exposure other functions has received has evaded the function. It just hasn’t been done.

Richard, what can you tell us about changes in the backgrounds of chief communications officers?

RICHARD MARHSALL Historically people that have come into communication have either come from journalism, or perhaps from politics, and they may have had a narrower pathway in. But with the role expanding and expectations of the C-Suite increasing, the experience set needs to be broader as well. From a training and development standpoint it’s hard to be prescriptive around that. We’ve done a study among the “Uber professionals” and it’s interesting because not all of them are the same, they don’t have the same training or background. What really distinguishes them is the combination of their experiences. Most of them have been in politics or journalism and have multi-industry experience, and they’ve gained a rich tapestry of experience that has given them this other critical piece, business judgement, and a point of view that’s helpful to the organisation. For people that have come through the traditional corporate communications or public relations side, the focus has always been the “craft of PR,” writing great press releases or “getting ink,” which is an important part of the role but it’s a very narrow part of it. Looking forward, the role is evolving into one that requires greater strategic capabilities, and a broader set of leadership and advisory skills.

What are some of the reasons behind the changing demands of the communications function?

GIZEM WEGGEMANS One is the rise of social media and access to information, which suddenly lifted all the walls. Senior leaders were engaging in discrete conversations, yet the discussion has actually become one as opposed to a number of different conversations. In today’s world, what someone says on Twitter is reported by a journalist in a completely different geography, which then gets read by a consumer in yet another geography, who then complains about it so that it becomes a regulatory issue in a fourth geography. You no longer can afford to treat any of these conversations as separate conversations. Stakeholders are a lot more connected, the consumer of information is a lot more sophisticated, and reputation suddenly accounts for a lot more of your market cap. Suddenly a function in which you didn’t really invest before becomes something a lot bigger because the world in which the companies are operating is a lot more complex, a lot more connected. You needed a different kind of investment in this space to ensure that your voice, your purpose is devised and communicated by the best talent possible.

"Suddenly a function in which you didn’t really invest before becomes something a lot bigger."

Gizem Weggemans

Gizem Weggemans leads Egon Zehnder’s communications and public affairs officers practice globally, and is a core member of the consumer, hospitality and HR practices. Prior to joining Egon Zehnder, Gizem was a senior director at the Corporate Executive Board, an advisory firm based in London. Previously, she was a management consultant with A.T. Kearney, where she was part of the Global Business Policy Council in Washington, DC. She started her career at the World Bank.

Richard S. Marshall

Richard S. Marshall is the global managing director of the Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise at Korn Ferry based out of the New York and San Francisco offices. He leads the Firm’s specialty practice which focuses on corporate communications, investor relations and government affairs. His recent client work includes placing the chief communications officers at Alibaba, PepsiCo, L’Oreal USA, the National Football League, among other Fortune 100 organisations.