There’s been much talk about communications and how the role of the communicator is changing. As part of this debate, I wanted to get a different insight. I spoke to Kate Hamilton-Baily, Director at the leading global communications executive search firm, Taylor Bennett, to get her perspective on what business executives are looking for from their communication directors and what we need to do to make sure that we’re prepared for today’s job market. Kate spoke at IABC’s Eurocomm 2016 event in Rotterdam. I caught up with Kate to ask her a couple of questions on issues such as skills, employability and the convergence of marketing and communications.
Alex: So tell me about yourself Kate.
Kate: I’m one of the directors of Taylor Bennett, an specialist executive search firm which focuses purely on senior communications roles. With our sister companies Heyman Associates in the United States and Taylor Bennett Heyman, in Asia and Australasia. We have fifty search professionals globally focused on senior communications briefs and we meet over two thousand senior communications professionals every year, so we have a pretty good understanding of what is shaping today’s top communicators.
Alex: So, what are the big communications issues that executives care about?
Kate: Reputational management has moved up the agenda following the financial crash in 2008. It is now recognized as having a tangible impact on the success of a business or organization or institution. In line with this has been the breakdown of trust between the public, government and many parts of the business world, alongside the growth of digitization and an incredible range of new social media channels. Internal communications and engagement has really come of age and is seen as a strategic and important discipline. Then there is the convergence between marketing and communications.
Digital has had a major impact on the communications role, as has the breakdown in trust between the public, government and business. Executives want someone who can cut through all of the data and tell the organization’s story in a creative, transparent way that will engage multiple audiences externally and internally. They’re looking for a talent that can marry the gap between what the organization says and means and what the public hears and understands.
Alex: What other issues are you seeing? What is driving communications?
Kate: We’re witnessing the need for both deep expertise in areas such as internal communications and engagement but also broad corporate leadership attributes and skills at the top end able to understand how to campaign effectively and get their message across in a very noisy world. Business understanding remains critical.
If I look into career progression, mid-career experiences are vital in terms of your future progression. So, for example, if you have only worked in an external communications role, or in government relations, spending a year in internal communications will give you a completely different perspective and really help as you go for more senior director level roles.
Alex: Tell me about convergence. What does this concept mean to communicators and their careers?
Kate: Convergence has been around for a while, especially in the B2B space. Marketing used to lead communications especially in the B2C sectors, but with concepts such as reputation management it’s become more complex. You’re now seeing communication directors who have responsibility for the corporate brand. And on the flip side, CMOs who are responsible for a far more fluid and complex communications landscape. However, there is an opportunity for communicators to learn from their colleagues in marketing especially around adopting a strategic and analytical approach and merge those skills with the storytelling approach that communicators are expert in. Measurement isn’t a natural focus for some communicators but this is changing. And then there’s the ownership of channels, such as social media. That can be a difficult internal debate. Communicators also need to be very well networked, to know the business and understand the challenges that other functions and colleagues, in operations, HR and IT face so, that they can step in and support them.
Alex: What skills, experiences and personal attributes do clients ask for?
Kate: This varies based on the business leader and the industry they’re in. There’s a real variance in what the ideal communications leader looks like based on the business, the organization and what the CEO is looking to do.
There are general trends, however. Internal communications and engagement has moved up the CEO’s agenda. And many business leaders are looking for a strong, integrated in-house approach featuring the full complement of skills communications, public affairs, sustainability and internal communications that can work across multiple markets.
What I’d add is that business leaders want a communications person who has good judgment, who can offer strong counsel in a crisis, who understands the business, is a good leader and who can make a meaningful contribution to the business whilst building a strong communications team. There is a long list!
Alex: How should a communicator assess their abilities and look to get ahead?
Kate: Firstly, we want to understand what you have done in your career and how you did it. The context of the challenge, the a-b journey. People in communications can change sectors and the ability to adapt to different cultures and industries is highly valued. We are also interested in your leadership and management capability. How have you developed your team, what lessons have you learned and what challenges have you faced. Who you are as a person and what motivates you is really important to understand. Some firms will use psychometrics within a process to help understand how people will fit in and behave in contrast to others. And there’s the interview process which can be multifaceted, in order to get different viewpoints.
Alex: What’s your one piece of advice to communicators in terms of what they should do to help their career prospects?
Kate: Challenge yourself, don’t be afraid of changing sectors. Ask to do different things, ask for more responsibility, to be seconded to a different country, or have the opportunity to work on a new project. Know your strengths and areas for development and work on them. Network. Most importantly enjoy what you do. And of course, get to know headhunters!