Adapt or die

New technologies are transforming how, where and when people work – so how are some leaders adapting their approach to developing the people on their teams? We recently interviewed a dozen Chief Communications Officers (CCOs) at leading B2B and B2C companies and here’s what they had to say.

The CCOs began by listing five top priorities for themselves and their teams today:

  • leveraging paid, earned, shared and owned media
  • collaborating with colleagues in other functions
  • selecting, developing and retaining talented communications professionals
  • being a trusted advisor to the CEO and other senior leaders
  • organizing the team for optimal performance.

With that as context, CCOs said functional (communications) skills are the price of entry to work in the function but just a portion of what’s required to excel. Increasingly, they said management/leadership and interpersonal skills are what distinguish talented communicators from trusted advisors on communications and business matters.

The CCOs also said:

  • Business fluency is now the paramount priority – more important than writing and storytelling. Fluency is more than the ability to read a balance sheet; it’s a deep understanding of how the company sources, makes, distributes and markets its products and how corporate culture drives choices and behaviors. As one CCO put it: “If you don’t get the business in 100 days, you’re toast.”
  • Sometimes called “soft skills,” interpersonal skills are anything but soft. CCOs said this skill set turns communicators into valued colleagues and business partners. Top interpersonal skills cited were collaboration, organizational savvy, influencing, empathy and an ability to deal with ambiguity.
  • To become a CCO today, you must be a superb manager and leader, not just a gifted communicator. As one CCO noted: “Separating great from good comes down to leadership skills and how well you manage teams.”
  • Progressive CCOs are taking a more disciplined approach to managing talent. They use individualized plans to set expectations and then systematically manage, measure and recognize performance. They also emphasize clear, continuous feedback on performance. One CCO shared: “We established a vision and values for Corporate Communications and our competencies are established and published. They are complementary to the company’s standard performance management system.”
  • CCOs really want to strengthen team skills and performance but they encounter several barriers. One is the crush of business, which makes it difficult even to accomplish goals. Lean corporate staffs and budgets are another issue, along with limited support from HR. As one CCO said: “The development road here is open, but you are going to have to pull out a pickax and do some carving.”
  • CCOs are looking for best practices and standards for communications staff development/training. Training spend per employee is not top-of-mind yet, and the definition of “world-class” approaches to talent management and development seems to vary greatly.

The research suggests that CCOs are alive to the disruptive impact of new technology on their people, and professional development is rising in importance. Some are starting to take more deliberate steps to select, grow and manage their people, driving toward higher performance. But there seems to be ample room for improvement.

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