Corporate Affairs and Communications leaders face more challenges and opportunities than ever before - be it the rise of activism, communicating in the digital age, delivering ROI to the business, or driving culture change and employee engagement, to name a few.

To face this challenge head on, the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) is collaborating with the world's largest Leadership Development Consulting firm, Korn Ferry, to launch a proactive leadership development journey for senior Corporate Affairs/Communications Leaders who need to drive a high-performing function with the necessary functional, interpersonal and organisational mastery.

To mark the launch of this new programme, we asked Korn Ferry's Andrew Lowe and Desi Kimmins about their research into the evolving Communications/Corporate Affairs function, Rising to the Challenge: Defining Success in Corporate Affairs Leadership. Adding his practice-based insights is EACD President, Hans Koeleman (Chief Corporate Communications and CSR at KPN).

How has the phenomenon of corporate purpose affected the elevation of the Communications/Corporate Affairs Director to the C-Suite?

Andrew and Desi: As the organisational ‘North Star’, Corporate Affairs leaders have a critical role to play in culture transformation, engagement and change. Transcending the functional silo and demonstrating personal, values-driven leadership is vital. If an organisation is to be driven by a sense of corporate purpose, then the transformation requires authenticity, long-term thinking and, above all, time. This can create tension with short-term performance pressures. As a ‘purveyor of purpose’, Corporate Affairs should drive that evolution – it is a constant journey and not a destination. This all combines to say that the Corporate Affairs Director can be the CEO’s/C-suite’s greatest ally, bringing culture transformation to life through courage, risk-taking and collaboration.

Hans: We all have to be more aware of the necessity to deliver on our promise, and that is where we corporate communicators come in. A reputation is built on a zillion moments of truth, moments where you prove that your purpose and values are not corporate window dressing but something you truly live, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. If your plane has just landed in the Hudson River, you will act according to your values. Companies are constantly challenged on how they live their purpose, and that is something Corporate Communicators have to bring to the table in the C-Suite and give clear and consistent advice.

The Korn Ferry report Rising to the Challenge: Defining Success in Corporate Affairs Leadership highlights the need for communications leaders to obtain the “license to interfere". What kind of relationship has to be in place – between the Corporate Affairs Director, the CEO and the Board – to win this license in the first place?

Andrew and Desi: Trust is vital. If Corporate Affairs is to earn its place and trust at the Executive Committee table, then it must contribute as a credible business leader. This requires business insight – you have to understand the CEO agenda, business strategy and the fundamental drivers that lead to commercial success. Contributions must be content/data-driven if they are to prove influential, and you will also need to demonstrate courage and judgement in terms of exerting influence. Trust is also built through putting the organisational agenda ahead of your own and not being afraid to ask the difficult questions early. This is all built on a foundation of functional mastery and expertise, rather than in place of.

Hans: The license to interfere is based on facts and figures. Build the best example of a Corporate Affairs function, with examples of how you act, how you bring the right arguments, how you take accountability for your portfolio and how you push the organisation to do the right thing in Communications and related functions – in my case, Corporate Social Responsibility, which is a very important area in which we should build and strengthen our role. I don’t believe in noisy advisers that always have the last word. Listen carefully and make them ask for your opinion, because they know the results of your previous work. A good relationship is very important, because trust builds over time, not in a day. However, the results speak for themselves.

In the age of echo chambers, surely the act of challenging groupthink (one of the key competencies identified in the Korn Ferry report for successful Corporate Affairs leaders) is harder than ever? How can leaders fight corporate complacency in order to find and present to the Board challenging alternative viewpoints?

Andrew and Desi: Five ingredients to challenging groupthink (which is less of an issue than it used to be. Bigger issues now are alignment around big strategic themes and translation into action) are:

  1. Pick your battles. Challenge the big organisational bets only when there are compelling strategic/cultural/reputational/legal reasons to do so.
  2. Have strong evidence to back up your challenge.
  3. Be credible regarding how the business operates, espercially on the front lines. Theoretical concerns aren’t interesting unless they reflect a deep knowledge of the business model and competitive realities.
  4. Focus on ideas, not people.
  5. Disagree, but align. Once decisions are made, align and support.

Hans: Make sure that you know what is going on outside. Enable your internal and external stakeholders, including the critical ones, to comment and advise the organisation on the way forward. Be aware of new trends in society and what they mean for your organisation, especially for the business. Because it is more important what your company does business-wise, in the first place, than what it says it will do. Have a broad view; read about things you would never consider reading. If your political view is left wing, read content from the other side, and vice versa. Be open-minded and try to create empathy in yourself for what somebody is saying, even if you do not agree. At the same time, be relentless when it is about the values and purpose your organisation stands for. 

Korn Ferry research finds that leaders need to see ahead and anticipate changes around the corner, while also retaining the ability to react in the here and now to change and deliver results today. What’s your advice for leaders to handle both these short and long-term perspectives simultaneously?

Andrew and Desi: Balancing short term versus long term is a classic leadership paradox. We address these in the programme. Keys to managing paradox are: identify them, understand the values and concerns associated with each side of the paradox (in this case, short term versus long term), identify indicators that suggest lack of balance, put in corrective actions so that imbalance is never extreme.

Hans: They have to manage both. The most important thing is to learn about priorities, every day, all the time. The short term is critical and needs to be managed, but in our role we also need to clear our agendas and organise space to reflect, for us and for our Executive Committee, for long-term developments. CSR, Reputation and Purpose are by nature long-term commitments; that should be clear. So there needs to be a vision and ambitious goals for the long term. For example, the company I work for has a three-year business plan, but also targets for CSR and Reputation.

How can corporate leaders identify their own purposes and align it with the strategy and operations?

Andrew and Desi: Identifying what gives you energy and focus is the key to sustainable effective leadership. We think of purpose as the intersection of strengths, values and the difference you want to make through your leadership (or, at the organisational level, the difference the organisation wants to make in the world). Good purpose work identifies these essential ingredients and distils them down to a core message, a purpose statement that the leader can call upon.

Hans: This is a very personal matter. You can only truly survive in this game if you develop yourself constantly to adapt to changing contexts. There are many ways of doing this: a good coaching/training environment is an excellent way to challenge your thinking, vision and behaviour. The more you can do this, for example with this top-notch programme by Korn Ferry, the better. Make sure that you also connect with your own team and with your external network, for that is a great source for new ideas. And develop your attitude constantly. It’s how you do things and with what attitude that is usually key to getting the right results.

Andrew and Desi, why has Korn Ferry decided to partner with the EACD on this new leadership programme?

Andrew and Desi: Korn Ferry and the EACD share a mission centred around supporting individuals to achieve their full potential and as such we were delighted to partner, with the aim of ensuring the continued growth and elevation of Corporate Affairs leadership. In developing the Corporate Affairs Leadership Institute programme (CALI), our partnership allowed us to blend expertise and co-create a Leadership Development programme uniquely tailored to the needs of Corporate Affairs.

What differentiates it from other leadership programmes?

Andrew and Desi: Individual depth plus in-group learning, working with real-world challenges (again, deeply), and designed for sustainability: the community of learning will keep the learning process going long after the official programme is over.

To learn more about the Corporate Affairs Leadership Institute programme, click here. To register, click here.

This is a collaboration between the EACD and Korn Ferry.

(Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash)