“You need to be able to have robust conversations.”

The Roche chief communications officer on his road to the executive board

Among the highlights at the 2018 European Communication Summit was the main-stage debate about communicators on the executive board.

We continued the discussion with panellist Dr. Stephan Feldhaus of Swiss pharma giant Roche, and asked him about gaining a seat on the executive board, long- versus short-term investor demands, and why being a theologian and leading a communications department have more in common than it might seem.

When you moved from Siemens to F. Hoffmann-La Roche, you joined its executive committee. What was the biggest challenge for you in stepping onto the executive board?

Roche has a multi-dimensional matrix organisation and a deeply ingrained culture of decentralisation and personal freedom. Our innovation derives from its diversity of approaches and the company's ability to put that diversity to work through inclusion. So as a leader, even as a member of the executive group at Roche, having an impact depends on your ability to influence indirectly. In the long run, this is very satisfying, but it requires a different skill set than when working in a more directive culture within a centralised environment.

At Roche, authority is not derived from what is on your business card. It is derived from experience, the ability to rally people with different backgrounds and, ultimately, the trust you build with your executive team peers. For communicators, trustworthiness begins with your credibility as a professional, but requires clarity of your role as an individual and member of the executive team. Clearly, your skills are important, but even more important are the relationships you build with your peers, which also means staying true to your role – and yourself – as your peers see it.

What advice would you give communicators who are about to take that step onto the executive committee?Personally, I am a strong believer in joining organisations that have a strong, clear and well-articulated purpose. Communication leaders can make a tremendous contribution by leading the strategy for companies to find and articulate their purpose. A strong purpose is the foundation for any successful long-term engagement, whether internally to motivate employees or to manage change, or externally to differentiate against competitors and engage with stakeholders. A strong purpose provides you with the ingredients needed for compelling and distinct positioning.

Stephan Feldhaus

Dr Stephan Feldhaus is head of group communications at Swiss healthcare company F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG., which he joined in 2010. He studied Roman Catholic theology and philosophy at the universities of Muenster, Zurich and Lucerne, worked as scientific assistant and editor at Cusanus Werk (the Academic Foundation of the German bishops) and completed a doctorate in theology at University of Munich in 1997. He joined the Integration Office of Siemens AG Power Generation Group in 1999, before becoming head of internal communications in 2001 and head of group communications in 2002. He then joined Siemens AG in 2005 as head of market communications/head of employee communications, before becoming the group’s 2006 head of communications for the healthcare sector in 2006.