Dear comms exec: Basic business skills are still required

The need for general leadership skills is stronger than ever given the complexity and inter-dependency of enterprise functions.

I’ve often written about the changing organizational landscape, given the new skills and capabilities required in the corporate communications function. But recent research suggests much of what’s required inside corp comms functions is not new at all.  

I have the privilege of co-chairing the Arthur Page Society’s skills and capabilities committee. We’re studying this issue and trying to assess what skills and capabilities will be required over the next five years, especially among senior comms professionals.

While much of the talk has been about data analytics, content publishing, creative storytelling, and so on, the fresh insight - to me, at least - is that "soft skills" are being ranked among the greatest needs in our business.

Based on feedback from a meeting with a few dozen Page Society members, and then nearly 100 Page Up members, the following five capabilities were identified as being most critical in importance and in need of being better developed by staff:

  • Strategic business thinking
  • Dealing with ambiguity and complexity
  • Offering courageous counsel
  • Problem solving
  • Business acumen

This is a wake-up call. The challenge with soft skills, ironically, is that they’re harder to learn, but not impossible. And hard skills, such as writing, analytics, etc., are typically much easier to grasp.

The consequence is that we don’t see very much in the way of real teaching going on inside corporations for these critical, yet softer skills. So what has to change?

First, for the long run, hiring. We tend to hire for short-term, tactical needs. "I need a speechwriter;" "I need an editor to manage our publishing operation;" or "I need someone who knows about employee engagement."

Hiring is often done to immediately fill a void and for a specific set of deliverables. That won’t change, but the hiring process must incorporate the longer-term requirements of your key staff. 

The rise of the entire function in the eyes of the C-suite depends on the stature, business acumen, and performance of the individuals in the organization. Strong business acumen is not perceived to exist now in the function, meaning it will often be viewed as a tactical, not strategic, weapon.

Second, training. Training is often viewed inside a company as either a luxury or expensive, and as a result, it’s done sporadically. A little creative thinking is all that’s required to fix this problem.

Company CFOs, business affairs execs, general counsels, and so on are a wonderful source for training. Bring them into regular comms meetings for insights into those functions to gauge how they optimally work with other enterprise functions. 

A company’s business partners are often a great source for training staff. Maybe one of your bankers would make a great teacher. Perhaps a McKinsey or Bain or BCG consultant. And so on. These are high-value resources that likely cost nothing for a one-off workshop.

Third, performance metrics. Force collaboration with business partners to develop performance metrics that demonstrate the business impact for which you are comfortable taking accountability. You get what you measure. There isn’t a viable business strategy without critical metrics; the same should be true of comms.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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