As present, only a small proportion of communications leaders can expect to develop non-executive and other leadership positions. Being a good corporate affairs director is a start, but not enough on its own.
We asked chairmen, communications directors (particularly those that are already NEDs) and NED advocacy organisations what senior communicators can do to increase the likelihood of securing NED or other senior leadership roles. Along with our own insight and findings, we have compiled the following 10-point action plan to help improve communications leaders’ chances.
To be able to make this transition a corporate affairs director needs to do more than just be a brilliant communications director. Being an NED is not just about bringing excellent core skills to the table (companies can either have those skills in-house, or use service providers).Being a NED is about having the ability to contribute across the full range of discussions. As such, they need to have broadened their executive roles to encompass all aspects of a company’s business, and gained experience of other companies and cultures. Before being appointed to my first plc NED role, I had been a NED of a hedge fund, a trade association and a charity – and my executive career had spanned different industries and functions.
Communications leader with NED role
BE AN EXCEPTIONAL CORPORATE AFFAIRS OPERATOR
Ensure that you’re at the top of your game as a communications leader. Don’t work in a silo and make sure you contribute beyond your remit. Actively seek more responsibility; it’s easier to take on a wider remit when you are trusted to deliver so build that trust across the business. Ensure that you have regular access to the board and have a voice in the business.
Speak out and be heard. Directors are given credit for their ability to carry clout and therefore you need to be seen as a genuine contributor to the business.
CEO (former communications leader)
MAKE SURE YOU SIT ON THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
Potential NED candidates who have not previously sat on the executive committee are at a distinct disadvantage. If you are not on the ExCo, start lobbying now to become a member. If you are a member, make sure that you are contributing above and beyond the corporate affairs brief. You need to participate in proceedings, talk about the business and engage in the wider business debate.
It’s unthinkable that a potential NED for a FTSE hasn’t sat on the Executive Committee.
Both communications leaders and chairman pointed out how important it was to forge ahead and carve out career opportunities rather than sit passively and wait for openings. Communications leaders need to push for development opportunities, both executive and non-executive, to take risks in their careers and make relevant, non-linear choices.
This onus on self-promotion, personal growth and pro-active career management is particularly relevant for communications directors as many CEOs and other business leaders don’t necessarily think about developing their communications leaders, as they would with say operational managers or the like.
One important consideration is to build a career across multiple sectors where possible. That breadth of understanding – especially of issues-rich, heavily regulated sectors – is a big component in making corporate affairs chiefs more employable at the point at which they aim to branch out.
You should own your future and need to take ownership of your career, no one else is going to do it for you.
BUILD YOUR NETWORK AND YOUR PROFILE
This means getting out there, building up your professional and personal network. It’s about getting better known and brokering yourself, so speak at conferences, contribute to research, pen op-eds or blogs, join business forums and engage in relevant debates. Tell people you’re interested in NED roles. Ensure your profile is up-to-date on social media sites, particularly LinkedIn.
Financial literacy is a prerequisite for an NED role and it is of great importance that NEDs are able to read and deconstruct a balance sheet; every person on a board is responsible for the accuracy of its accounts. There are a number of good training organisations, including Finance Talking and the Investor Relations Society which also offers some very practical training modules, including ‘Demystifying company accounts and valuations’.
An MBA from a well-recognised institution can also be useful, but by no means essential. Having gained one shows that you’ve committed to improve yourself and can grasp complex business models and balance sheets.
To avoid being just a ‘nodding dog’ at the board table, as a bare minimum, NEDs need to be able to read a balance sheet.
GET A MENTOR (IDEALLY YOUR CURRENT CEO)
Many of those who have gone on to successful careers beyond corporate affairs did so with the help of a mentor to guide, train and support them in the relative safety of their current organisation. This works particularly well if the mentor is your CEO as they will usually help in a number of different ways including coaching, sponsoring (i.e. helping open doors and promoting your talents to others) as well as supporting you to take on added responsibility. Communications directors need a good commercial understanding of how businesses operate, so ask to spend time in key functions, whether on sabbatical from your current role or as a development opportunity. You will also need the CEO’s blessing to take on NED roles.
Onward careers for corporate affairs directors largely depend on the commercial experience the individual has. I was very keen to gain that experience before moving into communications, simply because I wanted to approach PR and marketing from an added value perspective, rather than simply brand building or reputation building. I wanted to help drive footfall into the retail space and impact sales and revenue within the organisation. That has always been my goal and if I am not able to sit at the table as a revenue provider, I move.
CEO (former communications leader)
PICK THE RIGHT HEADHUNTERS AND WORK CLOSELY WITH THEM
Headhunters can cross the divide and help you drive your portfolio career. Build your connections with executive search firms but choose which ones you work with carefully. Don’t register with too many.
Ideally select those ones that understand the value of corporate affairs. Select a couple of niche NED operators, as well as one or two generalists that have NED practices. Stay in contact with them regularly; elegantly timed calls and updates ensure that you are kept top of mind.
DEVELOP YOUR USP
There are not many NED board seats to go round, fewer still if your background is in corporate affairs. In the rare event that a seat is allocated to a communicator, there is competition from ex-politicians, regulators and the like.
Work out what your pitch is. Are you the challenger to orthodox thinking that every board needs, or a potential chair of the risk committee? What extra skills do you need to position yourself for that? Or are you a technology specialist or the ideal chair for the new breed of corporate social responsibility committees that consumer-facing companies are setting up? The boardroom is like a game of chess, so get your best moves ready. Chairmen need to see you are multi-faceted. If you can, play the youth card.
JOIN NED ADVOCACY AND TRAINING GROUPS
Opinions vary about whether NED training and membership of NED advocacy groups are important. The chairmen we spoke to said that whether someone had undertaken an NED training course or not surprisingly made no difference to their eligibility. However, these groups and the courses they run ensure that individuals have a thorough understanding of what is involved in becoming an NED and how to go about securing a role. We found that too few corporate affairs directors understood the responsibilities fully. Groups such as the FTSE Non Executive Directors’ Club (www.non-execs.com) and Women on Boards (www.womenonboards.net) are among the most popular. These organisations will also help candidates with their networking as well as with the creation of a NED CV, which is a very different animal from that of a functional CV.
GAIN EXPERIENCE WITH NED ROLES AT SMALLER ORGANISATIONS
Consider starting with a small, pro bono NED role. This is not an established path to larger, paid-for NED positions but it brings experience and builds confidence nonetheless. Though take care when accepting your first NED role as it will set the tone of your future portfolio career. An NED position with a charity or NGO provides valuable experience of how to operate as a board member as well as gives an insight into board etiquette and politics. Many charities value the skills a communications leader can bring, since they often don’t have full-time, in-house communications talent and so need the help.
My advice to corporate affairs directors wanting to further their careers is to look at sitting on a charity board. Charities are crying out for help and the skills that a good communicator possesses.
Sometimes NED opportunities can also present themselves at start-up companies. Among a team of young entrepreneurs, experience will be in heavy demand – but business-wide experience, not just corporate affairs. These roles are usually found through your professional network.
The same is true in smaller, lower-profile organisations, perhaps in the FTSE250. These organisations don’t generally have dedicated in house functions. However many of these firms use external agencies as a remote press office or for one-off crisis assistance and so don’t necessarily know what good corporate affairs looks like. It is a case of going where the critical eye that communicators bring is missing.
The step up to FTSE100 NED roles is a difficult one. Most headhunters are focused on the FTSE100 end of NEDs so these roles will be usually be via executive search companies.
Perhaps the biggest impacts we could have are in smaller companies – FTSE 250/AIM/start-ups. I’ve been on the advisory groups for two start-up organisations and it is very clear the benefit and impact you can have.
CEO (former communications leader)