The collapse of trust in big business and its leaders has become the biggest corporate issue of our time, along with the rise of citizen journalism, the demand for greater transparency and the increasingly hostile nature of shareholders.
As a result, the need for boards to better manage their company’s reputation and identify risks has never been more critical. Yet when looking at the make-up of boards, particularly those in the FTSE, non-executive directors with these very skills —those with corporate affairs and communications experience—are noticeable by their absence.
The majority of corporate affairs directors in the FTSE are keen to secure non-executive roles, but most struggle to take a seat at the top table. And this at a time when chairmen are being pressed to ensure they have a diverse range of voices in the boardroom—diverse defined not just by gender or race, but also by professional discipline.
The corporate affairs director is arguably the steward for an organisation’s corporate reputation. Executive responsibilities can be extensive and usually include corporate communications, media relations, financial PR, public affairs, government relations, corporate responsibility and internal communications.
As the role has evolved so too have the skills and competencies of post-holders. These individuals are generally highly regarded internally with many seen as a critical component of an organisation’s success. However, at present, very few of them are being considered for non-executive director roles.
The good news for chairmen and nominations committees is that hiring people with corporate affairs and communications experience can create tangible benefits around the board table.
After all, here is a group of professionals with a unique skillset, from managing corporate reputation to bringing in perspectives from outside the business, engaging with multiple stakeholders, taking complex information and distilling it to its core, influencing and advising at senior level, and understanding how company decisions would play out in the public arena.
They often have extensive, senior-level networks across a broad spectrum of stakeholders from the media, community influencers and NGOs to local and national government.
It is also worth pointing out that corporate affairs directors offer a deep pool of talent from which to address diversity. Not only do they bring a new skill set to the boardroom table, but, with the possible exception of human resources, this role is more likely to be filled by a woman than any other on the executive committee.
Corporate affairs is a relatively young discipline, having only emerged as a dedicated discipline in the past 15 to 20 years. As a result, it is going to take some time to be recognised by those responsible for board appointments as a valid addition to the boardroom debate.
Clearly not all corporate affairs directors can expect to develop non-executive roles. However, there are many that have an in-depth understanding of corporate reputation and brand, who sit on the executive committee and contribute beyond their remit, who are financially literate and who have authority, credibility and gravitas in equal measure who could make the grade.
Opportunities for communications directors to take on non-executive positions will likely increase as the importance of corporate reputation grows and with it the stature of the corporate affairs function.
The growing trend for boards to form social responsibility committees is creating opportunities for those with corporate affairs experience, particularly as many organisations are struggling to find people to chair these committees.
Additionally, the growing need for social media experience around the board table—often an area of expertise for corporate affairs directors—is also seen as valuable boardroom asset.
There is greater recognition that innovation happens when there is diversity of thinking among leadership teams. Ensuring that boards of the future are peopled with those with adequate experience and diversity to guide the decisions that will make corporations prosper is vital.
For those organisations keen to expand their boardroom talent, increase levels of diversity around the top table, as well as improve their corporate reputation management and risk identification, appointing people who have strong business acumen coupled with corporate affairs and communications experience could add a unique element to their leadership teams.
Dee Cayhill is director of Cayhill Partners, the communications executive search, capability benchmarking and coaching firm. Their report, ‘Beyond Corporate Affairs: How can senior communicators secure non-executive director roles to broaden their careers’, has just been published.