Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
March 19, 2024

Future of the Function: Communications Leaders at a Crossroads

As I reflect on my communications career, from my current executive search and communications advisory vantage point, there’s so much I’ve learned over the past two years that I wish I had known as a chief communications officer (CCO). I suppose perspective is a gift we give our older selves.

As an executive recruiter for communications leaders, and a communications coach for executives, I feel fortunate to meet some of the most impressive chief executive, financial and human resources officers, as well high-performing communications leaders in their respective roles. These conversations have helped shape what I believe is the future of the successful communications function, one that is highly valued by companies, but one that will also require our continued growth has leaders.

The past several years have catapulted the CCO into the spotlight, as companies strive to find the right balance of social and political involvement, employee engagement, reputation risk mitigation and business focus — all in a highly polarized and divided society. No small task for the best of organizations, though, I’ve noticed three key areas that seem to set the successful CCOs apart from the rest: a future focus, a convening capability and a desire to be of service.

1. Future focus

I know all too well the challenge for today’s CCOs, who are pulled in all different directions by daily news cycles, business challenges and the stress of managing large teams. This job is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when the demands of today are so consuming, but stand-out CCOs know they must walk arm-in-arm with their leadership team in preparing for what’s to come.

To do this, they structure their teams with issues management leaders (in addition to the crisis communications function), whose sole purpose is to assess the landscape, anticipate future issues and develop plans to address them today. They stay abreast of trends and consistently share this perspective with their leadership team, peers and communications colleagues, knowing that it will be easier to influence in the future when everyone comes from the same knowledge base. They train their staff on new technology, like AI, so team members embrace the future, rather than fear it, and these CCOs look for ways to improve processes with agility and an openness to change. They anticipate where the hockey puck is going and prepare the team to be there to receive it (this will be the only sports analogy).

2. Chief convening officer

Great communications leaders know their power comes through influence — and rarely through direct control. Communications is an advisory function, without an ability to force decisions and control outcomes. With this reality, our only lever is influence and ability to convene groups to come to collective decisions. These high-EQ (emotional intelligence) leaders know that to give a CEO a narrow communications perspective is to give him/her a problem to solve, knowing that the legal, financial and human resources leaders may have opposing views. CEOs have enough problems; they need problem solvers.

Enter the chief convening officer, who surveys their legal, financial and human resources colleagues, as well as peer companies and external thought leaders, and gives the CEO a gift: a collective perspective from the team that weighs all possibilities and suggests the best path forward. This is no easy task. It requires relationships of trust and respect that have been forged well in advance. If you want a seat at the executive table, this is what the great executives do: They think outside their function and work collectively with their peers to come to the best possible outcome.

3. Be of service

I’ve worked with some wonderful humans over the past 25 years, but one of my favorite colleagues is one who I never met in person. We were both working remotely and he ran an adjacent function — we’ll call him “J” to “protect the innocent.” I enjoyed every conversation with J. He was smart and experienced, but what I loved most about him was that he just wanted to help me be better. He gave thoughtful counsel in challenging times, and I felt like he was always working behind the scenes for my good — sharing my ideas, recommending those I should get to know and offering supportive comments in high-stakes meetings. I want to work with more people like J. His desire to simply be of service was infectious and I was certainly not the only person who felt that way. Corporate life can be hard, but people like J make it better. When we take care of others, others can’t help but to reciprocate.

• • •

While I will never pretend to have all the answers or come from a place of doing anything perfectly myself, I share these observations in the hope that those in the chair will have every chance of success.