THE New Year brings new opportunities and challenges for communications practitioners. However, there is no more a significant challenge than when one becomes chief communications officer (CCO) after being selected to lead the communications team of an organisation. I write this having in mind colleagues who have taken up new posts in 2023.
I know exactly how this feels, having found myself in that position on more than one occasion and also sitting on several interview panels. Those that are hired carry the hopes and expectations of the executive in injecting new ideas and making a visible impact. The pressure is on for them to prove their worth after being employed through a rigorous selection process or head-hunted through some recommendation.
My communications career is replete with times where I was to create a new department from scratch, or to solve a huge reputational challenge in the organisation. A predecessor would have dazzled their new employers with an impressive CV but fell short on delivery. Or in one case, the organisation just wanted someone who would reclaim their reputation after the top executive messed up big time.
In all these cases, I found it wise to develop a game plan to ensure that the contribution I made would be visible while maintaining continuity, causing no disruption to the organisation’s flow.
The first 100 days of a newly hired CCO are critical for one to find direction and start implementing their strategy. It is essential to establish a firm foundation for their role and create a positive impact on the organisation.
I have identified priority areas for the CCO to consider when taking up office.
First, get rid of that chip on your shoulder. Yes, you may have been a star performer in your previous organisation, but this is a different ball game altogether! There is always the temptation to hit the ground running (and you may have no choice) but, at this stage, patience is a virtue.
Slow down and get aligned with the vision, mission, and objectives of the new organisation before you can make any assumptions about changes or actions. Do not make the mistake of comparing your new home to your old organisation. Keep an open mind and learn to accept your new circumstances. Be ready to change your assumptions and perceptions.
Spend more time learning about the corporate culture and getting to know their business operations. You cannot do enough due diligence, says Don Spetner, executive vice-president, corporate affairs at Korn/Ferry International.
“The toughest and most vital information to find about a prospective job isn’t available online. You must figure out the expected behaviour, how the senior team interacts, what the CEO demands of direct reports, why the previous communications person failed, and what the political landscape is like,” advises Spetner.
The CCO should assess the organisation’s communications strategy to understand the current state of the organisation’s communications and identify any areas that need improvement at an early stage.
Create your own strategy. Build one that you can drive in order to be seen as a change agent. Evaluate your team earlier on and see how you can fill the gaps, if any. No matter what you do, avoid criticising your predecessor. You may never know what allegiances they have built in your team. Do to avoid alienating key people.
Gain the respect of the CEO because you serve them at their pleasure. Adopt him as your mentor. It may do you a lot of good. I used this strategy to good effect at Dunlop Zimbabwe when I latched on to the wisdom of the then MD Don McDevitt. By aligning my plans with his strategy, I earned his unfettered support, much to the chagrin of some colleagues in management. That is a story for another day!
“CEOs are looking for leaders and strategic thinkers in this function; people with vision and strong execution skills. It’s important to be seen simultaneously as a source of a unique perspective on the executive team, a well-organised leader who can deliver tangible results,” says George Jamison III, corporate communications practice leader at Spencer Stuart.
The CCO should establish strong relationships and build trust with key internal stakeholders, including peers leading other business units and other employees. They should get the views of the business unit through the functional leaders in the organisation.
It is important to build internal advocates at this stage. Meet them individually, attend business unit meetings and ask lots of questions. I should add that most CEOs are keen on busting silos in the organisation, and by being a willing advocate, this should give you the opportunity to be an influential cog in managing change.
Find out about internal power structures and organisational politics in order to position yourself more confidently. Your peers are watching you and they know what they need most from your function. Find one initiative where you can achieve a good, quick result to get people on your side.
When all this is happening, do not lose sight of what is happening on the outside. Conduct an external audit of key stakeholders regarding the company’s reputation. We usually see things from an internal point of view. Look at things 80% from outside of the company.
While lecturing, I often define a communications person as one who sits on the fence, keeping both ears to the ground. Ensure top decision-makers and other personnel remain aware of stakeholders’ responses to the business’ products, regulations, and procedures. To effectively listen and understand, involve a wide variety of stakeholders through open dialogue.
Establish your relationship with the media from your new organisation’s perspective. The media represent a huge constituency among your stakeholders. Proactively keep them in the loop, lest they come snooping for a scoop! Get to know the clients, customers and other partners in your new environment.
The CCO should develop a new communications strategy that focuses on leveraging existing resources, improving existing channels of communication, and creating new ones.
Potential issues could arise from the proposed plan. As a CCO, you should be able to identify and address them with the stakeholders. Before enacting any strategy, it is important to evaluate how it will affect your stakeholders. This could include potential communication barriers, legal considerations, financial implications, and other potential risks.
Ensure that the plan is well-documented and that all stakeholders are aware of the goals through well-crafted and targeted messaging. The CCO should evaluate the plan regularly to ensure that the goals and objectives are being met. Like I mentioned in a previous article on how a CCO deliver value to his CEO, aim to prioritise measurement in all your projects. This is what the top executive is looking for. Use digital tools at your disposal to deliver tangible results.
Be prepared for some surprises. The lack of understanding in organisations of how strategic communications can help drive business success always shocks us. I have also encountered situations where the skills of many long-time employees would have atrophied, requiring a great deal of up-skilling to keep up with the fast pace of change.
Not least of all, use your network of fellow communicators. If there is an agency on your tab, they make for important allies in getting counsel, ideas and much needed back-up on how to enhance the impact of communications in the organisation.
Finally, embrace the highest professional standards as espoused by the Arthur B. Page Society. Let the seven proven principles guide your actions and behaviour.
1. Tell the truth.
2. Prove it with action.
3. Listen to stakeholders.
4. Manage for tomorrow,
5. Conduct PR/Comms as if the entire enterprise depended on it.
6. Realise its people who express an enterprise’s true character.
7. Remain calm, patient and good-humoured.
The first 100 days of any chief communications officer are critical. With careful planning and execution, it can be a period of significant progress and lasting impact in the post. It sets the tone for the rest of their term and establishes their effectiveness as a leader. By listening to stakeholders, leveraging the right channels, and deploying the right messages, this leader can ensure the success of the organisation for years to come.
About the writer: Lenox Mhlanga is a consultant communications specialist with over 22 years’ experience. He has advised organisations from across the region. A recognised thought leader in the profession, you can contact him for PR counsel, media training, and crisis and reputation management. Mobile: + 263 772 400 656 and email: [email protected]