Why your next CEO should be a communications chief

Corporate comms specialists haven’t often viewed themselves – or been considered – as potential leaders, but the idea of taking the top job isn’t as far-fetched as it once might have seemed

Chief communications officer talking to boardroom of colleagues

Misha Dhanak had never led a tech company before, let alone one that was growing fast at the height of the Covid pandemic. But, having worked in communications with the likes of Facebook, Samsung, Spotify and Unilever for 20 years, she knew that she’d developed the skills required to become CEO of community fundraising platform Spacehive. 

While there is no set route to the top job, most prospective business leaders prepare themselves by running a division or group subsidiary first (common practice in the FTSE 100) or by heading a key function – usually, operations or finance. 

Dhanak is a rare example of a chief communications officer (CCO) who has become a CEO. People who have made that transition at blue-chip level in recent years are few and far between. They include John Fallon at Pearson and Sue Clark at SABMiller Europe, both of whom have since moved on. But the path they’ve trodden is looking increasingly attractive to people with comparable backgrounds, especially given the importance of reputation management at a time when social media has the power to destroy hard-won trust in a brand within hours.

CEOs need to be consummate communicators

Dhanak believes that her specialism has been “a good foundation” for her current job. Indeed, she argues that the “leap from comms to a CEO is smaller than that from finance because the importance of good communication is inherent throughout the leadership role”. 

She adds that her background has helped her in areas including “solving problems, delivering complex projects and speaking to team members, customers and venture capital providers”. 

Emma Kane, CEO of corporate comms consultancy SEC Newgate UK, agrees, noting that communications has come to be seen as a “mission-critical” skill for business leaders.

There is an inferiority complex among CCOs. CFOs don’t seem to worry about whether they have what it takes to be the boss. They just crack on

“This has been even more amplified since the pandemic, when they had to communicate on steroids,” she observes. “Successful CEOs are expert communicators who can’t make things up when they’re at the epicentre of a crisis. They must be well prepared and see round corners.” 

The importance of effective communications is reflected in the growing influence of comms chiefs over the past decade. A US-based survey published this July by Korn Ferry reveals that 40% of CCOs in the Fortune 500 report directly to their CEOs, compared with 37% in 2014. The researchers also found a significant increase (to 11% from 4% in 2014) in the proportion of CCOs reporting to the chief legal officer, concluding that this trend reflects “the function’s increased focus on employee communications, crisis communications and an ever more complex regulatory environment”. 

Moreover, an international survey of CCOs published by Gartner last year found that only 5% of respondents believed that they were less influential than their non-comms counterparts at C-level.

Comms chiefs tend to have collaborated with – and managed the expectations of – stakeholders at all levels, says Dr Nadeem Khan, a lecturer in governance, policy and leadership at Henley Business School. He believes that this kind of “multi-level engagement” is becoming increasingly vital for CEOs.

The work of a CCO tends to be “more about bringing people on the journey of change. That’s different from a CFO who comes in with a specific agenda. A good CCO will bring in more of a collaborative engagement,” Khan says. “This is important, because the CEO role leans more towards delivering strategy and building capacity as a team.”

The growing importance of reputation management 

Another reason comms chiefs are stepping into the spotlight is that businesses are coming under increasing public pressure to speak out on ESG matters, especially what they’re doing to address the climate crisis and societal problems

Dhanak, who believes that a career in comms is “in some ways broader than others thanks to the different complex issues it covers”, notes that anyone who progresses to CCO will have accumulated a large body of cross-functional knowledge and experience in corporate reputation management. 

Indeed, of the Fortune 500 CCOs polled by Korn Ferry this year, 95% cited reputation management as a key responsibility, up from 89% in 2014. 

David Broome, managing partner at executive search agency Broome Yasar Partnership, has observed “a convergence – almost – in skills” between CCOs and CEOs. 

“We’ve certainly noticed that softer skills are being demanded of the CEO,” he says, reporting that business leaders have been gradually assuming more responsibility for reputation management. “Businesses take corporate affairs much more seriously than they did 10 years ago. Communications roles therefore have a lot more influence and attract more sophisticated talent than they used to.” 

Broome adds that comms chiefs have at the same time been expanding their remits to cover areas such as brand marketing, sustainability and even HR matters. This reflects the increasing trust that companies have in their abilities – and the rising expectation on CCOs to master a wide-ranging brief.

Leadership skills that ambitious comms chiefs should work on

Broome, Kane and Khan all agree that comms chiefs seeking to become CEOs need to hone their commercial acumen and financial knowledge. Broome suggests that they would be well advised to seek work on mergers and acquisitions. This, he says, is a “particularly good way to evidence broader business leadership experience”.

Ambitious CCOs could look beyond their day jobs to gain such experience. Kane, for instance, says that her work as a non-executive director and vice-chair of the Elton John Aids Foundation has given her valuable insights into the financial issues that concern board members. 

Successful CEOs are expert communicators who can’t make things up when they’re at the epicentre of a crisis

Another prerequisite for business leaders is the ability to keep up with technological developments. Nearly half of the 4,400-plus CEOs responding to a recent poll by PwC predicted that disruptive tech such as artificial intelligence, blockchains and the metaverse would affect profitability in their sectors to a large or very large extent over the coming decade. That might be a worry for some CCOs. According to an international survey of comms chiefs at the start of the year by PR consultancy Purposeful Relations, two of their biggest challenges in 2023 are maintaining cybersecurity (cited by 34% of respondents as a serious concern) and making the best use of data and analytics (33%).

Noting that she has been able to keep up with all the tech innovation in Spacehive’s market, Dhanak suggests that a lack of confidence, rather than know-how, could be preventing several highly capable comms chiefs from attempting to become CEOs. 

“There is this inferiority complex among CCOs, which is absolutely maddening,” she says, suggesting that CFOs don’t seem to worry about whether they “have what it takes to be the boss. They just crack on and do it, even when they might not be as well rounded.”

It’s arguable that the top job, which wasn’t even a consideration for many CCOs until recently, has never been more accessible to those with a background in corporate comms. Ironically, the profession may not have spread that message effectively yet.