Corporate Comms Directors need to identify their successor

29 October 2014

In a recent front page article in the FT (19th April) it was reported that big UK companies are breaking with their global peers and hiring more chief executives from outside than ever before”.  According to research published by PwC, on which the piece was based, 58% of new chief executives came from outside the company, versus 23% globally.

Watson Helsby’s most recent FTSE 100 Group Corporate Communications/Affairs Director Survey (2015/2016) revealed that 7 of the ten companies (70%) that had replaced their group corporate communications/affairs director in 2015 had made an external appointment.  This confirmed a recent conversation I had with an existing FTSE 20 corporate communications director who said that he did not have a successor (not one that he was certain would command the confidence/trust of his peers across the organisation) and that he knew, from conversations that he had had, that this situation applied to several communications directors in other FTSE100s.

 It provided compelling evidence, if any were needed, that succession planning in UK companies remains work in progress.

There are normally two reasons why there is no obvious internal successor in a communications function.  First that the departure is sudden/unexpected and therefore the leader has not had the time to identify and ‘groom’ a successor, or second that proper succession planning has not been prioritised or thought through.  Either way the leadership capability gap is deemed unbridgeable, and therefore an external appointment is seen as the only viable option. 

 A number two has to be identified, assessed (so capability gaps are identified and addressed) and groomed.  Part of the grooming process will include ensuring that other senior leaders in the organisation are exposed to the individual concerned and that s/he earns their trust and confidence.  It is not just about their ability to command the respect of their function, since the individual also has to be recognised as business leader in the wider organisation itself.

 Two years ago, cognisant of the pressure being exerted by Boards who want to see evidence of a more rigorous and systematic approach to succession planning and talent management, we established a tailored leadership assessment offering for corporate communications/affairs leaders.  The demand has been limited but is increasing and, as the evidence above suggests, there is clearly a need for it.

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