Rolling up your sleeves

One of the toughest things about leading a communications department is that it requires a kind of bi-polar operating style.

One of the toughest things about leading a communications department is that it requires a kind of bi-polar operating style. 

On one hand, it demands the skill set of a member of upper management, yet on the other, this same senior leader must also function as the world’s highest-paid account executive.

In other words, you need the gravitas to sit in a room with a board of directors, but have no qualms about banging out a statement for the media with a 20-minute deadline. It’s a strange dichotomy. You run a department with anywhere from 15 to 300 people in it and annual budgets ranging from $5 million to $200 million.

You probably sit on an executive or operating committee of the corporation and weigh in on the most critical and substantive issues facing the company. But back in your office, the afternoon might be spent drafting personal letters for the CEO, ensuring that his conference room is prepped properly for the upcoming town hall broadcast, or responding to a journalist on a sensitive story they are working on. 

When I worked as an executive recruiter filling senior communications roles, clients often requested that candidates be able to helicopter up and down – meaning they needed the capacity to assess a situation from 30,000 feet, but also drop down into the details. 

I knew that if a candidate could not roll up their sleeves and write or shape a message, they probably wouldn’t survive in most corporate cultures. 

For me, and for many of my colleagues, the rise to the top was propelled by an ability to execute: to write, place, stage, and respond. Beginning with our roles as account coordinators in agencies or corporations, it was our competence, tenacity, and mastery of messaging that propelled us. And while we ultimately learned to manage and strategize, these early, core skills stayed in demand.

Even at the highest levels, it is not uncommon for a CCO to draft speeches, letters, and handle media enquiries on behalf of the chairman.

In the ’90s, I worked for a prominent CEO who also happened to be a multi-billionaire. One year, he decided to personally submit a bid to bring a football team to Los Angeles. A friend of mine reported for ESPN and asked to speak to my boss about the bid.

We set up an interview in our boardroom, and I staffed the session, as I often did for CEO interviews. As the ESPN crew was setting up, my boss looked up at me and said, "Don, could you please get me a glass of water."

It was not an unreasonable request, particularly since he was about to be interviewed on camera. But my ESPN friend gleefully seized the moment, and just to bust my chops, said that he too, would like a glass of water. To this day, when we get together for drinks or dinner, my friend asks me to get him a glass of water. 

At first I bristled at the joke, but over time I actually came to like the routine. It was a humorous, but important reminder that even though I might be an officer of a publicly traded company, flying business class, and staying in five-star hotels, I still had a job to do, and it required me to roll up my sleeves and do the dirty work.

Or as Bob Dylan put it in his song "Gotta Serve Somebody," "You may be the heavyweight champion of the world. You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls, but you are gonna have to serve somebody."  

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at

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