Mark Bain, President, upper 90 consulting LLC
What do hard-core pornography and world-class communication have in common? Perhaps it’s the phrase, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Of course, that’s the famous line offered in 1964 by former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a landmark obscenity case. By coincidence, it was essentially the same response I received a few decades later from two separate CEOs who were interviewing me to lead their respective global communication teams. Both said they wanted to have “world-class teams” within 3-5 years. But when I asked them to describe such a group, their responses were mostly vague and varied.
Even today, as “high-performing” has supplanted “world-class,” it is difficult to pinpoint, with specificity and consistency, the factors that distinguish the very best teams from the rest.
Like all functions, communication teams must be fit for purpose, and the underlying fitness factors will differ by company and industry. These may include the organization’s business model; its competitive framework; its size, scale and maturity; its financial health; its corporate culture, and more. The CEO’s work style and preferences matter, too.
But from personal experience, my inquiring mind wanted to know more. Have top communication teams mastered certain capabilities? Do they possess certain assets and tools? Are they especially creative or innovative? Do they have a wider scope of responsibility, more staff and higher budgets? Are there similarities in how they are organized and operated? Does their functional culture lead to more favorable behaviors and outcomes? Are they closely aligned with marketing, or are they an equal-opportunity partner with all corporate functions?
With so many questions, I decided earlier this year to conduct some research into factors that drive and impede performance in communication teams. My partner for this work was Dr. Tim Penning of Grand Valley State University’s advertising and public relations program. The results are not definitive, but they provide some insights and a foundation for further analysis.
Here are some of the most significant findings from our research:
- CCOs believe the communication function is important to business success.
It was no surprise that CCOs view finance and information systems as more important functions than theirs for business success. But it was interesting to see that CCOs see their function as more important to business success than marketing, legal/government relations and human resources. Would their colleagues in these areas agree?
- Many CCOs think their function outperforms other communication functions.
Most CCOs gave their own teams higher scores relative to peer teams at other companies. They are proud of their own teams, of course – probably because every team reflects its leader. But statistically, if there were an objective, external measure of actual performance, we would expect to see a bell curve in which a smaller number of teams excel, a smaller number underperform, and most fall somewhere in the middle.
- CCOs believe 8 factors are vital for high performance in their function.
Specifically, they spoke about a function that is tied to the business, works well with others and works well as one team.
Tied to the business through:
- Alignment – our function’s work is aligned with business goals;
- Acumen – the people in our function understand the business;
- Role – our function has a clear role in the organization.
- Collaboration – the people in our function collaborate effectively with others;
- Respect – the people in our function demonstrate respect for others.
- Agility – our function adapts quickly to change;
- Culture – our function has a culture that allows people to do their best work.
These findings came from an online survey sent to 500+ CCOs or equivalent title. Seventy-four responded, with 70% or more working in the top communication position at large, publicly listed companies operating internationally or globally. More details are available here.
What does this mean? Obviously, it depends on you, your role and your organization. But for starters, it might help to ask yourself these questions:
- If I’m being honest, is my team in the top 10-15% for performance? What sets us apart? Would my C-suite colleagues agree?
- If we’re not in the top 10-15% now, is it important for us and for the business to raise our performance? What will happen if we do – and if we don’t?
- Given business needs, what specific changes should we make, at what time, to elevate our individual and team performance? How will we ensure those changes occur?
Almost every one of the CCOs we heard from believes that high performance matters in business and communication today. Accordingly, we would like to see the profession make functional performance and excellence an area of greater focus moving forward.
Mark Bain heads upper 90 consulting, a practice that helps leaders and teams adapt, grow and excel. He works with teams in large companies to assess business priorities and develop functional strategies, to define and activate functional culture, and to design and implement new operating models. Previously, he was the head of global communication at Baker McKenzie, one of the world’s largest law firms, and at Amway, one of the world’s largest direct selling companies. He began his career with Burson-Marsteller, a leading global public relations and public affairs firm. Mark can be reached at email@example.com.