As part of our series of seminars for senior communications professionals Ellwood Atfield hosted a breakfast on Thursday 30 June to explore who Communications Directors turn to for moral and professional support.
Communications can be among the friendliest and supportive of corporate departments, but when you find yourself leading the function, reporting to the CEO and counting fellow ExCo members as your peers, life can suddenly become a bit more lonely. If your boss is the CEO, they’re unlikely to see it as their role to mentor you. So, who can you trust to give advice? Who can you admit your weaknesses to?
Rebecca Shelley kindly agreed to share her thoughts and experience. With Group Director of Communications experience from two major FTSEs (Tesco and Prudential) under her belt plus time at PR consultancy (Brunswick), she was well placed to talk candidly about what worked and didn’t work for her.
In the discussion that followed with 20 Communications Directors discussed this topic and some of the common themes that emerged were:
- Your CEO – It is easy to forget that your boss is also a human being, indeed it is often overlooked that during particularly stressful periods the simple words, “how are you?” can be a much underused expression of empathy. Similarly, whilst you are the expert in communications, the insight which they can provide you in matters of business should not be ignored.
- Your Team – the definition of a strong team is a group of individuals with complimentary areas of expertise. What one person lacks another should have in spades. It is therefore essential that you are open to using your team in a consultative, open and respectful way. Of course the manner in which you gather this advice is critical. Theatrical displays of panic or stress are not going to solve whatever issue you face but then again nor will pretending that you have all of the answers. If you approach your team calmly and without ego then there is no reason why their advice should not shape your own decisions. Indeed it is an imperative factor.
- Your Brokers – For listed businesses then the advice of your brokers can have a huge influence over a CEO or business leader. If you can develop a relationship with the brokers and find a consensus in opinion then they will be able to use their considerable influence to communicate the best course of action for the business. Something that any CEO would find difficult ignore.
- Your Peer Group of communication directors is often very supportive so do not overlook the importance of networking groups, particularly those which cater exclusively for Communications Directors. An evening given to a networking event if approached in the right way can provide you with huge insight and release you from the pressure that you may feel. By discovering that other Communications Directors are going through or have been through the same things as you can be a great leveller.
- Your PR Agency – a carefully selected agency is not just there to provide you with additional operational support when needed but if you work with them correctly and are open to their advice then it can take you in directions you simply did not think of.
- “Work husbands or wives” – it is enormously helpful to have an individual within your own company who you respect, with complimentary skills and who you can draft in to mutually and privately express any frustrations you might have. Of course trust is an essential part of developing a relationship with a work husband / wife but they are incredibly helpful.
- Your Expert Head Hunters – in matters of talent then an expert head hunter is an incredibly useful and knowledgeable source of advice on how to bolster the expertise in your team. They also can provide you with insight as to how other businesses overcome their challenges through structural changes. More than that, it is always useful to know that they might, one day be able to help you take your next step!
In conclusion there is never a single individual who should be used as a mentor for pastoral care or to provide you with advice. They simply cannot know the intricacies of your particular situation and will fail to provide you with a comprehensive support network. Instead develop a pick’n’mix approach, nurturing counselling groups which each has their own area of expertise only with a common thread that they are trusted and they are respected.
Furthermore it helps to realise that simply because you are the Communications Director you cannot possibly have all of the answers to all possible communications challenges. Your role as Director is to absorb expert advice with openness and with trust and then make the best decision you can with the information that you have. That is what makes you the leader; you make the decisions; you do not need to have all of the answers.
Ellwood Atfield runs regular breakfast seminars for senior leadership practitioners in communications, internal communications and public affairs. If you are interested in attending any of these events please do subscribe to our blog.
Written by Tom Ewen, Director of PR & Corporate Communications
Tom specialises in executive search for senior level corporate communications professionals including Director of Communications, Directors General and Head of Communication roles. More stories from Tom.