Suite life

What does it take to be a trusted advisor in the C-suite? Here are a few takeaways from an excellent panel discussion last week at the National Summit for Strategic Communications.

Our panel included two current CCOs at leading aerospace and aviation companies, the speechwriter at a global pharmaceutical company’s CEO and a senior exec at a firm that provides briefing materials for CEOs and government officials. I spoke from my experience as a former CCO and now as an advisor on high-performing leaders and teams.

We began by discussing the nature of the special relationships CEOs have with their direct reports. I chose to characterize these as complex and fragile, among many other things.

Turnover at this level occurs with some frequency, especially when CEOs change. Some studies have found that CMOs change jobs every 2-3 years on average. Another study found that 13% of CCOs at Fortune 500 companies change annually. Of course, industry trade media report on the churn of leadership changes every day.

The complexity in the relationship stems hinges on the interplay of several variables, including the:

  • Company – Is it public or private? Global or national?
  • Industry – Is it relatively stable or undergoing disruptive change?
  • Position – Is the company a dominant leader or emerging challenger?
  • CEO – Is s/he experienced or relatively new in the top job?
  • Function – Does it drive the business or serve it?
  • Function leader – Does s/he advise on business operations or just her/his specialty?

The best function heads are masters of their specialized expertise, superb leaders and fully fluent in all aspects of the business. One panelist said his CEO asks everyone on the leadership team for input on all business matters, not just from a narrow functional perspective.

At PR Week’s global conference this week, Edelman’s Bjorn Edlünd spoke to a function’s scope of responsibility: “The CCO role is either expanding or shrinking, depending on your perspective. If you think it’s just about reputation management, then it is shrinking. If you think it’s a cross-functional role dealing with marketing, HR, sales, and communications, then it is expanding.”

Back at the summit, I shared a comment I heard not long ago from the current CCO at one of the world’s most respected companies. For annual performance reviews, the CEO contacts other heads of business units and corporate functions to ask not just how the CCO has performed, but how well his team has advised and supported the company’s businesses and departments during the year. The clear implication: you are only as good as your team.

It’s no surprise, then, that many CCOs and other function heads are starting to take more proactive, structured and disciplined approaches to boost performance on their team. By making talent management and professional development priority, these leaders are securing and even strengthening their place in the C-suite.

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