Fostering the Next Generation of Corporate Communications Leaders
I’m so impressed by the corporate communications curriculums offered by today’s universities. When I was in school, there really weren’t degrees in the practice, and at the first company I joined out of school, corporate communications wasn’t a defined business function. I began my career at Oil-Dri Corporation, a manufacturer and marketer of sorbent products. I was doing the work of a professional communicator—simplifying complex subjects for a variety of audiences—but I was applying the skill set across a number of business roles spanning customer relations, product management, marketing, public relations, and investor relations. I had the opportunity to work across the business and advance business strategies using communications skills. Over time, I linked up communications responsibilities into an integrated corporate communications function for the company.
Today’s young corporate communications professionals don’t generally take such circuitous paths; many come freshly minted from undergraduate communications programs or from public relations agencies. As a result, they have strong backgrounds in the theory and practice of corporate communications. But, what they may be missing is business acumen.
So how do we help the next generation of communicators become brilliant business communicators? Here are a few things that my own experience has taught me:
- Encourage communicators to become intimately familiar with how business works.
By developing my business experience, I became a good business communicator. My early career was like an “on-the-job MBA” because I was given the opportunity to shoulder business responsibilities—not just communications responsibilities. I walked factory floors in my steel-toed boots, developed marketing plans for specialty agricultural products, saw how an innovation pipeline worked, and answered tough questions from analysts on business performance.
We should all invite young communicators to get into the trenches of business. And we should make sure that they are engaged early in problem-solving and opportunity-assessment conversations—versus being brought in at the end to communicate the outcome of the discussion. By being a part of the strategic discussion and journey to decision, our teams can better understand why certain choices are made, what the consequences of those choices may be, and who is most impacted. That background engages them on the business challenge—not just the communications challenge—and equips them to deliver their best.
- Help your communicators find business mentors.
In my first company, I had a tremendous mentor. At the time he was CEO and Chairman of the Board, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have a busy schedule. Yet he generously took the time to share context and explain nuances. He shared his perspectives on business. He also encouraged me to have a point of view from the perspective of a valued business leader—not exclusively a communications specialist. The level of authenticity that he demonstrated in sharing the challenges of his role also helped me to become a strong communications counselor to other C-suite leaders I’ve worked with over the years. Make sure your team members have strong mentors in the business.
- Encourage young communicators to put their strategic recommendations in business terms.
When I moved from leading Corporate Affairs at The Wrigley Company to Mars, Incorporated, I moved to a larger and more complex organization, but the big enticement was the opportunity to build a corporate communications practice pretty much from scratch. As a private, family-owned business, corporate communications and engaging with the public hadn’t been a focus. An important element in convincing the organization to invest in building a robust corporate communications practice was my assessment of risks and opportunities that the business faced and how communications could help. Young communicators need a perspective that allows them to make recommendations that resonate with business leaders and demonstrate the return to the business.
- Look for diversity in recruiting your communicators.
At Mars, my immediate team includes a variety of backgrounds: one came from business consulting; one has an undergraduate degree in communications and an MBA; another has a PhD in communications with a specialty in survey design and data analysis; and another came from marketing and new product development. They all share a firm grounding in how business works and that’s an important part of what makes them good at what they do. As a result, they are appreciated for being able to grasp the business problem, see it from multiple angles, and bring communications to bear not just to support the strategy, but to shape the strategy itself.
Great communicators can come from uncommon places, or they might follow a traditional communications career path. Regardless, as senior leaders, we can help them develop the business intelligence that will make them stronger corporate communications leaders.