The stakes for corporations have risen.
On one hand, the myriad opportunities to seize new high ground, open new markets and invent new products and business lines are unprecedented. On the other, the speed and intensity with which information travels makes preserving reputation and market value more challenging than ever before.
In this environment, it’s no surprise that the chief communications officer (CCO) has become an increasingly important member of the executive team. A talented CCO brings the ability to manage and influence media; interpret and evaluate market feedback; capitalise on new opportunities; and deftly navigate crises. These executives are adept at soothing an irate public, calming nervous investors, building bridges with policymakers and shaping influential media stories. They understand how to preserve – and grow – reputation and market value in a volatile environment where both can spiral downward at breath-taking speed.
It would only stand to reason, then, that communications executives might expect to see more demand for their expertise in the boardroom. However, as it turns out, few CCOs currently serve on corporate boards: only 16 directors who have held the top communications role sit on Fortune 500 boards, according to Spencer Stuart research. But that’s the current state of play — how might CCOs gain greater boardroom participation down the road?
Barriers to the boardroom
One logistical obstacle keeps communications leaders and other talented executives from becoming more widespread on boards: only a small number of seats become available on boards every year. And as we have seen, open board seats often go to current or retired CEOs whose broad-based experience and insight are greatly valued. Financial and legal expertise is also in high demand. However, beyond the numbers, CCOs and communication experts simply haven’t been top of mind when board seats become available. Fairly or not, the field of communications has been painted as a “softer” skill – similar to the way HR was viewed in previous decades – and therefore not as crucial to a board’s mandate.
"Fairly or not, the field of communications has been painted as a “softer” skill."
“When you’re looking for a new director, you don't typically think of the head of communications as your target,” says Hubert Joly, chairman and CEO of Best Buy. “You usually go to sitting CEOs or recently retired CEOs, functional leaders or maybe the heads of e-commerce. Essentially, you look more to business leaders or CFO types.”