Confessions of a Former Chief Communications Officer
By Mark Bain, President
upper 90 consulting
A friend and former colleague in London recently asked me if I had any regrets from my time as the head of global communications for one of the world’s largest law firms.
The question caught me off guard, partly because I thought I had developed, through years of experience, a sixth sense for anticipating difficult questions. And because my nature is to look forward with unfailing optimism, I rarely dwell on past disappointments or, for that matter, accomplishments.
After a moment of thought, I told my friend that while I had no real regrets, I did wish that I had moved more quickly to make some key hires before the Great Recession kicked in. The downturn prompted a two-year hiring freeze that left my team severely short-staffed and stretched. My cautious approach to hiring made things more difficult for all of us.
Following that exchange, I gave my friend’s question a broader think, reflecting on my nearly 15 years as head of communications worldwide in two organizations, as well as my decade in management and leadership roles at a leading public relations firm. I also thought about more recent conversations with peers in a wide range of companies and agencies.
This bit of introspection affirmed an important insight into my own approach to leadership in the past – an insight that might resonate with others in senior leadership roles in marketing and communications today: we love what we do – to a fault.
Many CCOs and CMOs are so consumed with our disciplines that we too often shortchange one of our other duties as leaders – to attract and develop the people on our teams. Like the proverbial shoemaker, we’re so focused on our clients and our work at a given moment that we don’t do all that we can and should to grow our people.
That’s a serious issue in any era. But it seems especially risky today, when business, marketing and communications are undergoing what most of us believe is radical change. Mega-trends – including continued globalization, the growth of social/digital media and the rise of big data – are transforming the work we do, the skills our people need to do that work, and the way we organize and manage that work.
As a result, I believe we need to significantly change how we allocate our time and investments as leaders. We need to make more room in our strategic plans, in our budgets and on our agendas for attracting, developing and retaining top talent.
Top talent has always been precious, and it’s destined to appreciate in value in the years ahead. Demand for communications and marketing is rising.
Expectations of CEOs and boards are rising too. According to one recent study, about 13% of the CCO positions in Fortune 500 companies turned over last year. Another study reports that the average tenure for CMOs at 100 top branded companies is now less than 23 months. Some of this change is due to retirements and other natural occurrences. But CCOs and CMOs have no doubt that corporate leadership is demanding higher performance from them and from their teams.
It’s not a question of desire. CCOs and CMOs sincerely want to develop and grow their people and to create high-performing teams. They know it’s vital to engagement and retention, and they recognize that their own success depends on the quality of the people on their team. It’s the right thing to do.
In the crush of business, however, several barriers get in the way of fulfilling this desire. Here are three of the biggest ones:
- Time – Leaders never have enough of it. Working in global organizations and connected by the latest technology, we are always on. The pace of business no longer slows in summer months or around holidays. All this conspires to push training and development further down the priority list.
- Budget – Funds remain tight in the uncertain economy following the global recession. Training and development, often viewed as discretionary expenditures, are easy to cut in lean years. But in reality, even when spending has been at its strongest in these areas, it has been inadequate.
- Expertise – Even if they had the time, most agency leaders, CMOs and CCOs don’t have the talent management expertise to create and implement comprehensive development programs. They are talented marketers and communicators, but many of their talent-related initiatives are homegrown, lacking the scientific rigor, scale and continuity needed to produce material changes in behaviors over time and across their organization.
One way to break through these barriers is to identify and adopt best practices that are specific to communications and marketing and supplemental to existing enterprise-wide performance management and professional development programs.
What does best practice look like? Here are some of the steps that the most progressive organizations are taking now:
- Competency models – Some agencies and corporate marketing/communications departments have identified 20-35 critical competencies that are central to their work, today and tomorrow. For senior professionals, the emphasis is on management, leadership, interpersonal and international skills because they already know communications or marketing. For example, business acumen, data management, project management, and management of multi-cultural teams are competencies that are assuming elevated importance in our more global and interconnected operating environments.
- Assessments – 360 assessments are being used to set performance expectations on critical competencies upfront. They are being followed by more frequent performance reviews (annually/biannually) to assess progress against agreed performance and development goals.
- Development plans – Every communicator and marketer at all levels – not just underperformers – receives a detailed development plan. These plans tie directly to the aforementioned competency models and detail specific actions that both employee and employer are committed to taking to ensure progress in a given timeframe.
- Coaching – Because of time and other pressures on leadership, executive coaches are being used to accelerate the development of high-performing employees and teams. As another one of my friends recently observed, CMOs and CCOs strive to become trusted advisors to their CEOs, but many would benefit from having a trusted advisor, an external coach, of their own.
- High-performance programs – High-potential employees are being spotted and groomed early in the career cycle, long before they have assumed senior roles. The most cherished development opportunities – overseas postings, job rotations, executive education, etc. – come their way early and often. Higher compensation does too, because these are valued contributors that CCOs and CMOs cannot afford to lose.
- Outside training – Staff at all levels receive more training from professional organizations, universities and other providers. Often, this is bespoke training, tailored specifically to marketing and communications work by professionals who know the disciplines and their employers.
- Mentoring programs – These are more formal in organization and structure, with leaders taking an active role in sharing knowledge up, down and across their teams. There is more reverse-mentoring; for example, junior people teaching social/digital media skills to more senior and less tech-savvy managers.
Looking back and thinking ahead, I’ve learned that it’s no longer enough to love what we do. CCOs and CMOs now must do much, much more to develop the people we lead. The success of our careers, and the arc of our disciplines, will increasingly hinge on how well we nurture our future leaders. It’s time for a more disciplined and rigorous approach to managing and developing talent.
Mark Bain is President of upper 90 consulting; a firm that helps CCOs and their direct reports become more effective managers and leaders. Previously, he headed global communications at Baker & McKenzie and Amway, after starting his career with Burson-Marsteller. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 616.401.5260.