The corporate affairs director: a creative change agent

Based on psychometric data, a new profile for an evolving function

As part of its wider research into executive leadership and what it takes to rise to the C-Suite, executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates in partnership with psychometric research firm Hogan Assessments have created a new profile for today’s corporate affairs directors and chief communications officers, a profile centred on being risk-takers, challengers and change agents.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash


Transformation, transparency of purpose and operational excellence are the new norm – societal expectations, greater competition and rapid globalisation are all contributing factors to how organisations need to be progressive and open to new ideas and new ways of working.

The importance of building a collaborative and inclusive corporate culture has never been more pressing as a means to engage meaningfully with all stakeholders. In this demanding environment, where brand and reputation are critical components of an organisation’s integrity and licence to operate, the corporate affairs director/chief communications officer (for reasons of space, we’ll refer to the former as CAD throughout this article) may be one of the most valuable members of an executive team. 

Our research shows that the typical characteristics of a CAD are those of change agents – comfortable taking risks and prepared to challenge established procedures. These traits feature as distinctive. They are hungry to make a difference, very comfortable with ambiguity and confident about finding creative solutions to problems. 

A smart CEO will welcome these strengths – recognising the benefit of what may often be a lone voice at the executive table, the “corporate conscience,” someone willing to bring the outside in and not necessarily be a “yes” person. CADs bring a unique skill set to the modern C-suite and can enhance corporate strategy significantly, particularly by being “in the tent” from the beginning.

The corporate affairs director’s contribution to the C-Suite  

Our research identified the strongest traits of leading CADs – leading through uncertainty, thinking creatively, focusing on outcomes and engaging socially (Figure 1). 

Executing through uncertainty. The data shows that this group values risk-taking and experimentation and that they are comfortable working in ambiguous situations. 
They are especially likely to value intuition and experience in their decision-making. They also prefer flexibility and autonomy, and value challenging established procedures or going against the grain. They are impulsive, like to test limits and take initiative. Compared with their C-suite peers, they are 12 percentage points (PPTs) less reluctant (less hesitant) in relation to decision-making – the second-biggest difference of any traits we measured. 

This openness to risk can be effective if the CAD has put in some groundwork. One participant commented, “I’m comfortable trying new things, going against the grain and being open to calculated risk.” 

Thinking creatively. Our study showed that CADs value innovation, creativity and self-expression. This creativity leads them to think outside the box and offer solutions that others may find impractical or unusual: “A part of my role is to throw ideas out there.” Another individual noted, “I do bring the ‘heart’ into the room. So many decisions are driven by the ‘head’ in the C-suite and I counterbalance that.” A good CAD will take time to explain their vision and bring the rest of the leadership team with them.

"A good corporate affairs director will take time to explain their vision and bring the rest of the leadership team with them."

Focusing on outcomes. CADs are often driven by their passion for outcomes. They are energetic, competitive and don’t rest until their objectives are accomplished. They are more likely to inspire trust through compelling influence and powerful charisma than are other members of the C-suite. They are capable of promoting an exciting social climate.

The data suggests that, particularly under pressure, these traits may need careful management to avoid the CAD being perceived as overtly contentious or controlling. Individuals need to remain flexible, adaptable and open-minded to see their plans through and successfully bring people with them. 

Engaging socially. CADs are often perceived as confident, articulate and comfortable being the centre of attention. They tend to be outgoing and talkative. 

When considered together, these traits paint a picture of the CAD as a creative change maker. Many participants were quick to note that the CEO had intentionally set out to hire a disruptor – the mandate was all about helping to drive the organisation forward. This could be about ensuring a more modern approach to communication, instilling a more authentic and meaningful approach to stakeholder engagement and/or building a collaborative and inclusive culture.

The CAD has become both a shaper and a curator of corporate strategy. “I was overtly hired to bring about change. You have to have a certain energy and tenacity to be a change agent, but you also need the support of your CEO.” 

Going forward

Dial up the pragmatism. The flip side of these qualities – the drive for action, willingness to challenge and valuing intuition and experience over hard data – is that CADs are not so strong when it comes to pragmatism. Pragmatism in the context of this research means showing due process and depth of rigour around drawing on raw data.

"Corporate affairs directors are not so strong when it comes to pragmatism."

Whilst they influence well through personal persuasion, they may miss a trick in terms of helping others to understand their vision by not setting out enough staging posts, realistic goals and implementation frameworks. Compared with the rest of the C-suite, they are 11 PPTs less likely to be strong, pragmatic implementers and planners. This lack of pragmatism can cause tension with other C-suite members who like to see detailed plans and due process. 

Some CADs are already well aware of the benefits of spending time on detail. One participant noted, “I’ve learnt that being reflective, pragmatic and focused on providing detail directly helps win over stakeholders and is something you have to do to make a change.”

Many CADs acknowledged that they specifically hired people to their team to provide the detail and underpin the “idea” with more specifics about timelines and deliverables. “I deliberately surround myself with people who are good at detail.” 

Our participants are confident that their experience allows them to rely on their intuition. “So much of the job is about experience – I’ve been doing this job for so long and have a great deal of experience that helps inform the instinct for the right thing to do.” The rest of the C-suite, however, is likely to feel more comfortable with greater attention to process and data to back up a point of view.

Become better “connectors”. For CADs to be truly successful, they will need to dial up their ability to reflect, listen more and let others contribute. CADs are 13 PPTs less strong than the rest of the C-suite in their ability to act as “connectors.” “Connecting leaders” in terms of the scope of this research is defined as the ability of a leader to let others take the spotlight and create a sense of meaning for followers, resulting in powerful alliances transcending the borders of the organisation. It is not all about the energy of just the individual leader, but more around shared values.

This data was surprising. CADs, it seems, need to trust and empower their team more and not feel that they have to “go it alone.” In talking to the participants, one cause for this “single voice” approach was the sheer lack of capability in the function and the other was the level of personal accountability the individual felt with the CEO. 

"For corporate affairs directors to be truly successful, they will need to dial up their ability to reflect, listen more and let others contribute."

We are in a new age, however, where strong leaders are those who not only galvanise but also empower others. CADs should ensure not only a strong team capability, but endeavour to build a “coalition” culture with their peers – link people, link energies and be more proactive in enabling others to ensure that wider networks flourish, both internally and externally. 

Summary 

It is worth bearing in mind that CAD hires remain highly contextual and, perhaps more than other corporate officers, are directly impacted by the culture, by the context of the specific corporate challenges and by their chemistry with the CEO. 

Our research indicates that current CADs’ core traits as risk-takers, challengers and change agents make them highly effective in helping an organisation drive through periods of uncertainty and multiple business pressures to achieve corporate goals. More rigour and patience will endear this group to their peers in the C-suite, increasing their credibility and long-term sustainability as influential and impactful key players. 

The C-suite should welcome and recognise the value that CADs bring in terms of their big-picture disruptive thinking and their objectivity – ensuring, critically, that the C-suite is less inward-looking and avoids group-think. In an era of increasing complexity and greater demand for transparency, engagement and innovation, a corporate affairs director can be a real game changer. 

Equally, we recognise that organisations and companies are all at different stages in their own evolution and in achieving their objectives. Increasingly we see that organisations are actively considering existing business leaders as potential brand ambassadors and multi-stakeholder influencers in the role of the corporate affairs director, particularly in light of regulatory pressures.

The role, in these cases, therefore shifts from being less about dynamic change and more about quiet influence and deep relationship building. The organisational knowledge and credibility that internal candidates bring are, of course, compelling drivers for an appointment. However, better understanding the key psychometrics and seeing how they “span” and where they will need support could also be incredibly useful to ensuring their success.


About the research

To advance the science of executive assessment, Russell Reynolds Associates has partnered with Hogan Assessments to build on a significant trove of scientific data (including psychometric data from over five million leaders) to understand better how to identify executives with both the potential to rise to the C-suite and the highest likelihood of long-term success. The result is a new leadership competency framework called Leadership Span™ (find out more at www.russellreynolds.com).  

Thirty-six leading corporate affairs directors/chief communications officers, based in Europe, were asked to complete three online psychometric measures that focus on behavioural characteristics relevant to leadership roles.

Twenty of the participants worked in companies with revenues over $10 billion and all sectors were covered. Results were aggregated and compared with the senior executive populations from Russell Reynolds Associates’ proprietary database.

In addition, the strongest traits among these aggregated scores were identified as distinctive of this corporate affairs/communications population. To build on the data and to gain qualitative feedback, Russell Reynolds Associates held individual conversations with the participants. 

Chantal Tregear

Chantal Tregear is a leadership consultant in Russell Reynolds Associates’ corporate affairs and communications practice. Based in London, she advises local, European and global clients with a focus on all areas of corporate communications and corporate affairs, including media relations and PR, government affairs and internal and change communications across all sectors. Chantal also undertakes searches for directors of investor relations.