Some might say the debate about whether corporate affairs directors have non-executive potential is too niche to matter. Certainly, it is only one piece of a puzzle that is ensuring the boards of the future are peopled with adequate experience and diversity to guide the decisions that will make corporations prosper.

However, just as human resources directors or lawyers can lay claim to bringing new perspective to the boardroom so too can senior communicators. There is greater recognition that innovation happens when there is diversity of thinking among leadership teams. Together with the increasing importance of reputation, trust and advocacy across all areas of an organisation, the skills and experiences of a corporate affairs director should be in high demand at board level. That demand should convert into broader careers in business for communicators, at executive as well as non-executive level.

As our study shows, we are not there yet. It would be too easy to dwell on the negative points that this research report throws up. We would rather focus on the challenge that lies ahead. What surprised us in carrying out this work is that so many senior communicators were privately asking the question “What next?” for their careers – and that so few had a clear answer.

We hope that, far from providing all the answers, Cayhill Partners’ research ensures that chairmen and chief executives will at least have heard the question. And we should point out once again that in asking it, we have no intention of denigrating the value inherent in being a senior communicator. Rather, we would like to see many professionals build on their existing skills, not cast them off in search of an alternative. We understand that a significant proportion of practitioners do not feel the urge to diversify from their current roles.

Those that do want to broaden their careers must compete in a crowded field. The number of communications leaders keen to secure NED roles is completely at odds with the number attaining them. We think that many of the barriers they face, such as the inconsistency in and lack of understanding of the corporate affairs role, are surmountable. Others, such as reputation management not being sufficiently valued or measured will take more time and more effort.

The fact that communications directors are themselves so sceptical about their chances of securing NED and other leadership roles in relation to other corporate functions may go some way to explaining another fundamental challenge, which is that communications leaders themselves do not seem to have faith in their function or profession. In our opinion, the communications industry should take a far more confident view of its abilities and longterm prospects. After all, here is a function unrecognisable from 20 years ago. However, it still has a long way to go. Such a relatively young discipline is going to take time to be recognised by those responsible for board and other leadership appointments as a valid addition to the boardroom debate.

Even then, only a small proportion of corporate affairs directors 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. To become a more compelling candidate, communicators must expand their skills to demonstrate a breadth of knowledge and leadership. A number are already doing this.

The challenge then is trading up. Communicators already make excellent NEDs on a pro bono basis for charities and NGOs. There are benefits both ways. But for those looking for bigger, paid-for plc NED roles, the path is tougher still. Competition is fierce and to be successful, corporate affairs directors not only need to fight for their place with other more obvious candidates such as those from finance, operations, marketing and human resources, but also need to compete for air-time with their PR agency peers and other board advisors. It is worth it, to broaden and lengthen a career, but most NED work does not pay generously.

Those corporate affairs directors that have an in-depth understanding of corporate reputation and brand, who are commercially and financially astute, who sit on the ExCo and contribute beyond their remit, and who have authority, credibility and gravitas in equal measure could, in our opinion, make the grade. Yet it will need the support of recruiting bodies, including headhunters, chairmen and nominations committees to make this happen. We are certainly not there yet and it will require a sustained and intense campaign over a period of time before opportunities start presenting themselves.

In the meantime, communications leaders can start laying the ground work, increasing their skill base, expanding their network, further honing their leadership skills and making sure they become known for the breadth of their talent rather than their domain knowledge. And the communications industry as a whole needs to start working together to dismantle some of the inconsistencies and negative perceptions that remain. As more communications leaders begin to start to break through, it will inevitably smooth the path for others to follow.

Chairmen are requiring more from their NEDs and if candidates have what it takes, the role can be extremely fulfilling. But it is not without its risks. Being on the board is not for everyone, indeed for some it will be the wrong step. The risk to reward ratio for an NED is high and the time commitment increasingly onerous. Corporate affairs directors need to ask themselves if they want to take on the personal and professional risks that come with such a role, as well as whether they can really commit the time required. For those exploring a plural career this may well be possible, but for those looking to take on an NED post whilst at the same time holding on to their executive communications post, it will be extremely tough.

The research raises important issues for a number of stakeholders. For CEOs keen to retain their senior communications leaders, the research illustrates that giving them added responsibilities internally whilst sponsoring them for external NED positions can pay dividends. Over 80% of communications directors see themselves moving companies within the next five years. Helping them develop further inside and outside their existing company could help lift retention and satisfaction levels substantially.

For chairmen, particularly those that are keen to expand their boardroom talent pool, increase levels of diversity around the top table, as well as improve their long-term corporate reputation management and risk identification, appointing those with corporate affairs experience could add a unique element to their team. Additionally, the growing trend for boards to have corporate responsibility committees – and the challenges that some are having in finding suitably qualified individuals to chair those committees – offers an opportunity for communications leaders to introduce tangible value to the board’s makeup.

This issue is about influencing and educating over time. As this report demonstrates, Cayhill Partners intends to play its part. So too must a professional discipline that has grown up by changing mindsets, managing reputations, thinking strategically and planning for the long term. If corporate affairs professionals can better articulate their unique skills and the value they provide, the prize – a varied and long career path – is great indeed.