The career destination of a typical professional is the C-suite. But not all arrive that cadre.
Those who are privileged to attain the executive positions often start their careers as specialists and, in the process, become subject matter experts.
In my career sojourn, I have come to realise that while you might need to be a subject matter expert and carve a niche to rise to the top, being at the C-suite requires critical general management qualities in addition to being a subject matter expert. As they say, it is easier to get to the top than to remain there. And one of the general management requirements to ensure sustainability and longevity at the top is effective communication.
Effective communication is a quality that enables C-suite executives to engage meaningfully with their audience at internal or external levels. This goes a long way to define their success or otherwise, in addition to driving sustainable business performance for their organisations. While this ability could come as a natural flair to some, it is a major challenge for others.
For the latter, it is not that they are not good on the role or not delivering results, but that it is better to have a C-suite executive that is both a solid subject matter expert and a generalist who can engage on diverse issues. Clearly, at the C-suite level, it requires more than just being a competent person to succeed and sustain strategic leadership impact.
Many C-suite executives, at some point, become the faces of their organisations. They come to mind when their organisations are mentioned directly or indirectly. This implies that they must have a personal brand that is admirable and loved. If the person combines a solid subject matter expertise with the ability to communicate effectively and engage diverse audiences, it rubs off positively on both his/her personal brand and the reputation of the organisation.
Public Relations practitioners can play a significant role in helping C-suite executives to succeed in their roles, especially in building their personal brands and that of their organisations. The nature of PR is such that practitioners report directly or indirectly to C-suite executives as strategic communications business partners. This puts the onus on PR professionals to help them succeed in their roles for the collective interest of the organisation.
One way we can support C-suite executives to succeed is to help facilitate understanding when they engage their audiences. From my experience with them, I find that C-suite executives are very technical people as subject matter experts in their fields. Consequently, they, by default, use certain technical terms that may be commonplace within their circle but completely strange to their audience, especially when they are not addressing or engaging their direct teams.
It is also worthy of note that in a bid to simplify their technical terminologies, they mostly use acronyms instead of the full technical terminology. For example, in a typical core business performance meeting, you hear acronyms like USG, UVG, GM, PMU, NRM, GDP, BW, EBITDA, among others. While you might know the full meanings of these acronyms or at least some, the reality is that the generality of the audience we engage, even as businesses, cannot make sense of them. This is because it does not translate to anything that they can relate with, even as they are impacted by the workings of the acronyms.
Amid this seeming dissonance between the C-suite executives and their audience, it is your job as the strategic communications business partner to immerse yourself and develop a deeper understanding of the technical terminologies, know how they impact the organisation and be able to simplify the communication of the same to enable meaningful audience engagement. It, therefore, means that as a strategic communications business partner, you must be familiar with the topline meanings of these technical terms and acronyms across any discipline/sector your job takes you. Whether tech, science, manufacturing, agriculture, supply chain, medicine, consulting, marketing or sales, you must have knowledge of how those terms are used, and why. You cannot be aloof to them if your goal is to operate with excellence and in alignment with the overall business goals of your organisation.
It is your level of understanding that will determine how much impact and advisory you can provide to your C-suite executives, to ensure they communicate in ways that engage, inspire and influence your audience in the direction you want them to go, to achieve the organisation’s strategic objectives. A strategic communications professional must get involved at the topline, at the least, and not be a silo player in any setting they find themselves. Your role is simply to get to know and be able to advise the C-suite executives to communicate better in any way you have planned – be it in writing, creative designs, videos, vlogs, blogs and podcasts among others.
The impact and disruptions of the Coronavirus Disease to the future of work, with tech driving and leading innovations at a geometric pace, has called for retooling, upskilling and reskilling of workers’ capabilities and competence. This has placed a burden on the C-suite executives to drive effective change management processes in their organisations. In itself, the process is both positive, as it creates new jobs and opportunities on the one hand, and negative, as it impacts jobs of those that are not able to adapt to new realities and the future of work. Strategic communications business partners have a role to play in helping the C-suite executives to navigate this challenging path of driving organisational transformation. Their job is to help their organisations remain in business and be sustainable in the short, medium and long terms. The process of driving this change and strategic shift in the workplace is never a rosy journey. They will need to engage layers of stakeholders, from the Board of Directors to employees, investors and many more.
As the strategic communications partner, you must have a strategy in place to drive organisational changes to achieve set objectives. If not well managed, it can go south, create acrimony and batter the reputation of the organisation. Therefore, you must support the C-suite executives to land their messaging in ways that inspire, engage and give a sense of belonging to everyone. You must have sit-down sessions with the C-suite executives to brief them on what should be said, when, how and why.
Create channels to deliver these messages with clear timelines, simplicity, clarity and excitement. Do not make the tone of the messages intimidating, scary or create panic in the organisation. Be sensitive to people’s emotions, know when to start, pulse and stop.
These change management projects or initiatives are given different names across organisations. Be careful what name it is given, even if it did not originate from you. You may need to have a perception audit through focus groups, surveys, virtual session(s), to determine and check what people think about the initiatives.
Depending on the outcome of the perception audit, review your strategy and engage the C-suite executives to determine the next line of action. Where the feedback is good, sustain the momentum. But where it is not, have a sit-down with your team to understand what the issues are and proffer realistic bespoke solutions to address them from a strategic communications perspective.
The endgame is to manage the reputation of the C-suite executives, and that of the organisation positively while driving transformational changes. It must be clear that your role in the process is to ensure that all stakeholders are properly engaged with clarity and understanding of why the initiative is the best at this time, for the business to remain sustainable and maintain its growth trajectory for the benefit of all.
In the business of handholding C-suite executives to succeed in their roles, I like to state that strategic communications practitioners must realise that they play an impactful role that defines the perception of the C-suite executives and their organisations. Therefore, you must wake up every day with a renewed mindset to be better at what you do and the value you bring on board to support them to remain loved and admirable to their publics. This process is not a knee-jerk reaction. It must be planned, structured and deliberately executed to achieve its objectives. The plans must be subject to constant reviews, feedback and adaptability to make them relevant with the realities of the times and meet the expectations of people to shape the perception of the C-suite executives and their organisations in the right direction.
It is not for nothing that we have brands whose reputations precede them. The strategic communications partners are behind the scenes orchestrating and influencing what should be, how and when. As strategic communications practitioners, we must not fail in our duties to help maintain the reputation of the C-suite executives and their organisations. Where it is negative, it is our job to support them to turn things around following a clear plan over a period. Where it is positive, we must be deliberate to help them sustain the momentum to remain appealing to their stakeholders.
You must make it a regular habit to have sessions with the C-suite executives to understand their minds, what their plans are for the present and the future. Do not wait to be called upon to have these sessions. Do not make yourself a dumping ground for the operational execution of what has been decided. Be intentional to have a sit-down at the table where the future of the business is being discussed, reviewed and deliberated upon based on merit, competence, and the value you have to offer. Make your recommendations to the C-Suite executives based on the impact on the reputation of the organisation and themselves as individuals. Be genuinely interested in providing strategic support at every stage and life cycle of the business.
While your contributions and value cannot be measured by cash and numbers, compared to the marketing and sales team, they can be measured based on the perception of the business stakeholders about the organisation’s operations, people, regulatory and policies compliance. These intangibles play a significant role in helping to ease the challenges of the operating environment for the organisation to thrive. No matter how brilliant the marketing or sales team of a company is, they cannot thrive when the operating environment is hostile due to issues like lack of compliance with government regulations and policies. Hostility is never a fertile ground for business operations especially in the service industry, and Fast-Moving Consumer Goods sector. In addition, your value can be measured based on how your advice, over time, has enhanced the productivity of employees through effective communications and engagements that drive them to deliver consistent performance for the business, month-on-month, quarter-on-quarter and year-on-year.
How your C-suite executives and organisation are perceived is largely dependent on your efforts and willingness to make an impact. Do not shy away from doing your job, even if you have been ignored in the past, as it happens in most cases. This should not stop you from playing your role as a strategic communications business partner. If you stay consistent, given time and chance, the business and the C-suite executives will see reason with you. It is either the circumstance will force them to – as it happens in many cases – or they become better informed and enlightened after the fact.
However it plays out in your space, you must understand that you matter in the future of work. You are needed in the contemporary dynamics and operations of managing C-suite executives and organisations. You need to keep building your capabilities to lead the conversation in managing your executives and the business.
If you remember nothing from this article, please remember that you are an asset to any organisation you find yourself in. It is in your hand to manifest that value and steer the organisation towards its business goals through strategic communications.
Adejumoh is a PR and Strategic Global Business Communications expert based in Lagos, Nigeria.
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