Recently, I had the honor of speaking with an impressive group of aspiring CCOs. The program was sponsored by the Arthur W. Page Society, and it's a great opportunity for our next generation of leaders.
During the program, a few of us were asked to share our thoughts on what it takes to get the top corporate or government affairs spot in a major corporation and to succeed there. Since my five tips got a great reaction from the audience, I thought I might jot them down and share them in the hopes that these hard-won lessons can make it easier for someone else to succeed. Here they are:
Be a business person first
As the head of corporate and government affairs, you'd better understand public policy and be able to write an earnings press release or a CEO speech. That is the price of admission. Just being a great communicator will not necessarily get you the top job. Just being a smart business person won't either. But being a great business person and a great communicator certainly sets you up for success. I would be sure you truly understand your company strategy. You know where and how the money is really made. You understand your customers, consumers, and competitors - not just in the US or your home market, but in all of your company's key markets around the world. After all, you can't give good global advice if you don't really understand the world you're playing in.
Know your CEO
You can't help the CEO if you don't understand him or her. So, invest the time and effort to get to know him. Read what he's written. Study him in meetings. Listen carefully to what he says and remember well. When in doubt, ask. Through this, you can learn where his or her head is at; what keeps him up at night; what his personal passions are; what his preferred style of operating is, and what strengths and weakness he possesses. (Every CEO has both, so be sure you know what your CEO's are). Recognize that you have to earn influence. Start with what matters most to him or her. Once you've delivered on that, you'll have earned the trust and respect you need to push forward on other fronts as well.
Become a valued and trusted resource for the rest of the C-suite, too
While the CEO may be your ultimate boss, you will need the rest of the C-suite to really succeed. Without them, you could be sunk even if the CEO is a fan. Doubt this? Just think about the challenges you may face: increase employee engagement, re-vamp the corporate brand, integrate an acquisition, manage social media, increase employee volunteerism, broaden the shareholder base, secure plant incentives, etc. You name it, you're going to need the help of HR, marketing, the CFO, or someone else at the top. So, even before you need them, spend the time to build relationships so your support and influence extend beyond the CEO.
Be fearless, honest, and committed in your counsel. But be tactful in your delivery and pick your battles
The CCO has a broad view of the company, so you frequently see more than others. But you should look outside a lot, too. Don't squander what you know and learn. Use it to help your leaders make the best decisions possible. Know that sometimes that means you have to disagree with the CEO or others. Over time I've learned that it's ok to disagree. In fact, many CEOs really value an “independent” thinker, someone they know is smart and is going to tell them exactly what they think, even if it's not necessarily what they want to hear. As long as you truly have the best interests of your company and society in mind, do not back away from a difficult discussion. Pick your battles and pick your timing but don't think that being a “yes man” is the only or best way to the top. Good corporate reputations are the outcome of doing the right things and communicating them well. So if doing the right thing means you need to go to battle for your idea, so be it.
Make a difference.
The day of “caretaker leadership” is over - if it ever existed. Change is a constant in corporate America, so your goal must be to leave every job having made a demonstrable, sustainable, and positive impact. Part of how you do this is through focus. Our CEO always says, “We can do anything but we can't do everything.” We focus ruthlessly on what matters most. At the CCO level, your job is less about doing things right and more about doing the right things. So focus your team and your resources on what matters most and ensure you achieve something important that wouldn't or couldn't have happened without you. That'll leave a positive and lasting legacy for your company and build your career and your reputation at the same time.
Clearly this is not all I've learned or all the advice you'll need. But I hope it at least gives you some food for thought. If you really want to be a CCO, I hope it helps you get to the top. As I always say, life is not a spectator sport, so go for it and good luck!
Perry Yeatman is SVP of corporate and government affairs for Kraft Foods and president of the Kraft Foods Foundation.