7. Successful breakaways

There are very few examples of corporate affairs directors having left the communications function to take on other non-communications leadership roles, including NED positions.

However, despite the low numbers, we were keen to identify whether there was any commonality in the backgrounds and experience of those who have made the break successfully.

We have identified 11 such executives. Whilst the following list is not exhaustive, it does include some of the most well-known corporate affairs directors who have moved into other leadership roles over the past years.

 I earned my wings by working in tough, testosterone-fuelled environments that took no prisoners. It was difficult at the time but that experience has definitely opened doors which would otherwise have been closed to me.

CEO (former communications leader)

Former corporate affairs directors who now have other leadership roles

Pre-communications backgrounds are broad

Almost all have a degree, but no one subject predominates. Two have MBAs. Their route into a senior in-house communications roles is divided between four launch pads: finance, journalism, politics and PR agency.

Almost 50% made the move out of communications with their existing employers

Of the 11 individuals we feature here, five made their first move out of a dedicated communications role by being promoted or moving into a different business unit with their existing employers. In other words, in addition to having their talents recognised, it was by transferring into another part of the business with the same company that allowed them to start a career beyond corporate affairs. A number of these former communications directors commented that this was often the easiest way, as, if they are well regarded and trusted within their current organisation, the company will often take a risk on them that others would not be prepared to do. Supporting the benefits of staying put, three of those five have had only one main communications role, averaging 10 years with the same company.

Almost all have worked for big brand, high profile organisations

Reviewing the list of current and previous companies that these former communications directors have worked for, it is clear that almost all have worked for big brand, high profile and often publicly listed companies. Many are multinational firms. Experience in FTSE100 organisations is extremely common with all individuals featured here having worked for a major plc on at least one occasion during their career.

 My CEO was a great mentor and he actively encouraged me to take on additional responsibilities beyond my corporate affairs remit. That meant that I was able to learn new skills and occasionally make mistakes without jeopardising my career. 

Communications Leader

Experience in heavily regulated, issues-rich industries predominates

Most of the industries that these individuals have worked for have been in heavily-regulated firms in issues-rich environments such as financial services, utilities, oil and gas, food and drink, mining and pharmaceuticals.

Running a trade body is a common first step out of communications

Just over a third made their first move away from communications into a CEO position with a trade organisation. This is no surprise given that running a trade body requires many of the same skills such as advocacy, strong communications abilities, policy and government experience and multiple stakeholder engagement. It might pay less, but clearly the move is even more obvious if staying within the same industry or sector.

Wide breadth of industry experience

Also of note is that almost all have worked across different industries and sectors as they progressed through their career. Very few have stuck to the same industry.

 I made a point early on in my career to make sure that I wasn’t pigeon-holed in any one sector. In my view, the longer you stay in a specific industry, the harder it is to break free.

CEO (former communications leader)

50% have a political background

One half of these former corporate affairs directors have political backgrounds, with at least two having been active members of a political party. Others have held a variety of senior roles in government and a number are still actively involved in Westminster.

Average of 10+ years leading corporate affairs before moving on

Almost all were experienced communications leaders before leaving the profession, having held an average of 2.5 corporate affairs director roles over an average 11 years before moving out of the communications function. They were at the top of their game.

Personal attributes

Having talked to and met a number of these former corporate affairs directors over the years, we can attest that most are confident, credible and very articulate. As one noted,

  I’m rarely touched by self-doubt.

CEO (former communications leader)

 When I left my role, the assumption was that I would go to another big corporate affairs post as that was what I was good at. However, moving to become CEO of a trade body made for perfect sense and a smooth transition as there are many similarities between the two roles.

CEO (former communications leader)