"The best way to ensure your voice is heard is to know when to contribute"

A highlight of the European Communication Summit (June 13 & 14) will be a special main stage panel discussion “Talk to the Chiefs: Communicators on the executive board” at the beginning of the second day.

Among the panel of chief communication officers will be Dr. Stephen Feldhaus, head of communications at Swiss pharma giant Roche. As a teaser for his appearance on Thursday, we present this short excerpt from am longer interview to be published in the September issue of Communication Director.

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

Joining Roche was a challenging and inspiring experience. 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 it is seen by your peers.

When you work as part of an executive group, how do you ensure that your voice is heard?

The best way to ensure your voice is heard is to know when to contribute - and when that opportunity presents itself, to speak concisely in terms your counterparts can relate to. The CCO is a counsellor and mediator, and should speak with empathy and confidence. Empathy is especially important because you are like a translator, taking the signals you are receiving from a company's stakeholders and translating them into terms that resonate at the executive table. Empathy is also important from your counterparts' perspective. Today's business leaders are under enormous pressure to make effective decisions in increasingly short periods of time, with less data and certainty about the impacts of these decisions - particularly in complex industries. This means that they want to trust that you are aware of their challenges and needs, and can relate to their situation. Conviction has always been important, but is growing in importance today. Your counterparts want you to contribute in ways that increase their confidence and reduce complexity and uncertainty.

What do you do when you have to say something that’s uncomfortable to the CEO, or draw attention the others on the executive team don’t feel with comfortable with?

In the eight years I have been with Roche, I believe I have developed a relationship with the CEO that allows us to speak in an open and frank way. Of course sometimes the situational context dictates timing of such conversations. And you need to be empathetic just as with anyone else.

I have found that many leaders are very open to any difficult conversation, as long as the timing is right and the feedback is given directly in a 1:1 discussion. In fact, they welcome it. No one likes to be “exposed” in front of their peers or others.

Regular exchange via one-on-ones, both formally and informally, help to develop the relationship with the CEO and your peers that will hone your timing skills, providing your work experience has matured your instinct. Particularly for a leader in communications, people-to-people interaction is essential to how we perform our roles. 

Stephan Feldhaus

Dr Stephan Feldhaus is head of group communications at Swiss multinational healthcare company F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG. He joined Roche in 2010, having previously lead several roles in communications and marketing at Siemens AG.