Corporate affairs: Redefining 21st century business

A quartet of in-house leaders gathered in New York at this Pfizer-hosted panel to discuss how corporate affairs executives continue to gain influence in the C-suite and how that is impacting the broader business landscape

Download an ebook from this event containing key insights on what CEOs expect from corporate affairs leaders, case studies underscoring the broad oversight and responsibilities of the role, infographics, a vox pop, and 10 top takeaways.

-Sally Susman, EVP of corporate affairs, Pfizer
-Torod Neptune, Corporate VP, corporate communications, Verizon
-Maggie FitzPatrick, CCO, Johnson & Johnson
-Paul Gennaro, SVP of corporate comms, CCO, Voya Financial

Bravery is a foundational attribute to success in the corporate affairs role, according to Sally Susman, EVP of corporate affairs at Pfizer.

"Courage is just so important in this post," she says. "You must be able to tell the CEO the truth, no matter how hard it might be. Of course, you need to establish yourself in the C-suite’s eyes to do that. How? Ask a lot of questions to gain as great an understanding as possible about the culture in which things operate. You can only have courageous conversations if you’ve taken the time to build relationships and listen very carefully."

The trio of leaders who joined Susman at Pfizer’s New York City headquarters for this panel discussion concur that courage is a foundational quality. Of course, it must be supplemented with myriad other characteristics that are necessary to build trust, credibility, and respect for their function in the organizations at which they work.

The business of collaboration
Paul Gennaro took on his role as SVP of corporate communications and CCO at Voya Financial earlier this year, so efforts taken to establish his role remain top of mind.

"I met with every business leader, every function leader," he recalls. "I wanted to understand what their goals were, not what they wanted from communications. It was a lot of reconnaissance and data gathering. Beth Comstock [now vice chair of GE’s Business Innovations unit] advised on a LinkedIn posting not to do anything for six months, but just listen and take things in. So I did."

"At that point," he continues, "I was able to sit down with the CEO and effectively lay out what we should be doing based on everything I learned from all the top people in the company. It was logical, transparent, and collaborative. That’s how you build trust, but it’s also how you do this job."

"Perhaps more than any other role in the company, corporate affairs and communications leaders really have to understand the business strategy and objectives," adds Johnson & Johnson CCO Maggie FitzPatrick. "What are the factors driving business outcomes every day? To be effective in this job, to gain the companywide trust and standing you need, you must know the answer to that question."

For Verizon’s corporate VP, corporate communications Torod Neptune, it’s more about proving by example.

"I encourage my team to constantly think about the balance between activity and outcomes," he explains. "Far too many people in our roles focus on volume, but we need to drive business outcomes. We must not slip into the mentality of bean counters. We impact the company’s bottom line. We can also prove it. And that’s how we gain the trust for the function."

Global outlook
Trust is also a global objective for all companies operating abroad. Corporate affairs leaders are essential drivers there, as well.

In certain cases, this comes into focus during global crises, as Gennaro can attest from various episodes from his career, including one during his time at AECOM that basically came to light while he was doing some weekend shopping near his home (see case study, p.8 in the eBook).

However, establishing trust with global audiences equally demands proactivity. Susman makes a point of getting to know as many US ambassadors around the world as she can, a strategy influenced in part by the fact her father, Louis, is a former US ambassador to the UK.

"As an American company," she explains, "having that local connection can really help you navigate behind the scenes."

In addition, regular calls with Pfizer’s country heads around the world are part of Susman’s weekly agenda.

Neptune underscores the pursuit for consistency as an essential goal for establishing trust globally.

"We’re always challenged to be relevant to our stakeholders, which is even tougher globally," he says. "We are constantly working to provide contextual value to many different audiences around the world. But there is a core narrative to which you must remain true. That helps build trust."

Leading healthcare companies truly take to heart their responsibility to make a difference in the world. FitzPatrick recalls a recent meeting in London between herself, her CEO Alex Gorsky, and Zoleka Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter, who spoke before J&J’s global team to emphasize the great work the company was doing through her foundation.

"That put things into perspective," notes FitzPatrick. "It further incentivizes me to build the right kind of corporate affairs capability around the world so that J&J can deliver on the promise of what a company such as ours can do across the globe."

Craving creativity
With all the responsibilities today’s corporate affairs leaders have, they remain PR professionals at their core, so fostering an environment where creativity is allowed to flourish is certainly a crucial part of their focus. For FitzPatrick and J&J, the recently established content lab is a testament to that.

"It’s a great platform to unleash creativity and dynamic content," she explains. "And it’s been incredibly energizing for our global team. They can tell their own stories in different ways and, with the content lab, they are becoming co-creators of a new manner in which to express J&J in their marketplaces. Whereas they felt restricted before, they are now empowered."

Neptune’s focus on content has also intensified recently, as he tells of Verizon’s ongoing efforts to create an internal agency that is focused on content and creative thinking. "Our external partners are maniacal about bringing in supremely creative talent," he notes. "We can learn from them and this can have a significant impact on the way we hire."

Taking this a step further, Susman feels content’s increasing importance necessitates leaders such as herself to truly support people who take chances, especially as it relates to social media. "Episodes can come up that will make you anxious, but you have to allow things to happen," she suggests. "You have to encourage the risk."

In addition, adds Susman, the best corporate affairs heads also allow – in fact, welcome – other senior team members to work directly with other business leaders, even the CEO, without them having to be there all the time.

"One of your biggest responsibilities in this role is to help your team members grow," she explains. "Working with the most senior leaders of the organization is so important to their development. The knowledge and experience they gain helps them, you, and the company. It’s your job to facilitate that."

The CEO’s perspective
Throughout the panel discussion, the conversation often returned to how trust in the corporate affairs function is increasingly rising in the CEO’s eyes.

Richard Marshall, global MD of the corporate affairs practice at executive recruiter Korn Ferry, spoke about this evolution during his keynote (see p. 6 of the eBook). However, one need look no further than GE’s iconic former CEO Jack Welch for validation.

During the 2015 Arthur W. Page Society Spring Seminar, Welch emphasized how leadership, at the end of the day, boils down to truth and trust. "And truth will only come if trust has been relentlessly built over the years," he said. "Companies that establish that truth and trust don’t have a problem dealing with crises that come up."

While establishing companywide truth and trust is not easy, corporate affairs officers are uniquely qualified to facilitate such a culture, one of the many skills they are bringing to bear as they cement their crucial status at every level of the organizations at which they work.

Go here for more coverage from this event, including insight from Richard Marshall, global MD of corporate affairs at Korn Ferry, as well as additional insight from our panelists on topics including working with government and adapting to a digital age.

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