The difficult balancing act of comms director and CEO

The relationship between comms director and CEO requires a delicate balancing act and independent thinking to be effective, writes Nicola Green.

The difficult balancing act of comms director and CEO

The relationship between comms chiefs and CEOs has long been agonised over. A few names stand out in the comms adviser history books – those able to strike a balance between perfectly poised and ruthless counsel, and the need to fall in line. As with all relationships, it is a two-way street. But, as ultimate subordinates, it is only right to reflect on how we as comms directors can influence the tussle with the top brass.

This particular business relationship requires a delicate equilibrium. Too close and you lose the ability to give honest appraisal – especially if that appraisal is challenging. Not close enough and your advice can fall on deaf ears. It is a constant test of your own will, coupled with showing willing – the right mix of which can, of course, be extremely powerful and rewarding.

Naturally, personality and form have a role to play. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that many comms directors rank highly on the ‘introverted thinking’ scale of Myers Briggs-type models – examining minute detail in situations and gleaning motivation from inner satisfaction. That absence of need to be publicly applauded can chime well against a business leader’s more extroverted and abstract tendencies.

And there are undoubtedly pairs that ‘just click’. This fortunate union typically strengthens over time, but for those where a long-established bond has yet to form, it is the building of professional trust, rather than personal, that should fuel the most successful working relationships. At least in my view.

If I have a game plan, then this has always been it – trusting that diligence and successful outcomes will lend themselves to organic relationship strengthening. You might say the proof is in the pudding. And rightly so – you can gain far more satisfaction from being rewarded for good work than simply good humour. Being gut-led and outcome-driven in your upwards comms counsel is a sure-fire way to stay on track, even in the face of pressure to conform.

This is why I think the organisational independence of the comms function is so important. That debate is not just about budget justification and having a voice at the table alongside marketing, but about the ability to remain autonomous and agnostic in our responsibility to counsel the business. I challenge any comms director reporting into HR or marketing to give an utterly unbiased steer at every turn, and would wager that their CEOs and board members also query the influence of reporting hierarchy when we’re in the line of fire.

But, regardless, diplomacy is fundamental. No matter how confident you are of an approach to regulate your CEO’s reputation, being tactful to sensitive matters should never be overlooked. It is lonely at the top and your chief executive may be seeking a confidante, but this should never be at the expense of being able to speak the truth. This is in our gift to guide. Our role is to keep our eyes on the prize – the right organisational outcome – rather than delivering what someone simply wants to hear. Trust me, it’s a winning formula.

Nicola Green is director of comms and reputation at Telefónica UK

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