What qualities do CEOs seek most in corporate affairs professionals?

By Anna Whitlam 

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I have been interested in this topic for a while and after the response to my previous article The New Corporate Affairs Leader, my interest was further sparked in the skills that CEO’s were seeking in other jurisdictions. I reached out to my colleagues and peers who lead Corporate Affairs executive search firms around the globe to gain a true cross-cultural answer to the question: what exactly are the most highly-prized skills among corporate affairs professionals?

The responses were fascinating because they revealed there was much common ground in Europe, the US and Asia – but plenty of points of difference, too.

A proactive manager who is a great communicator, has the ability to lead teams, can think globally, is financially literate and has political nous. That seemed to be the minimum skillset for successful leaders of the function, according to our group of experts.

But there were other suggestions. Megan Shattuck, Teneo Talent in the US, for example, said that CEOs and Boards at US HQ companies were increasingly looking for Corporate Affairs specialists who had the ability to anticipate risk. It wasn’t enough that they deal expertly with problems as they arose – they needed to be two or three steps ahead of the game so they could foresee any possible issues.    

From an Asian perspective, Jean Tan, at Anna Whitlam People (AWP) Asia felt “high social and cultural intelligence” was a particularly important trait in her region. “Asia is not a single country, and the communications partner to a CEO would need to be highly attuned to the social, cultural and political nuances across multiple countries and their interdependencies,” she said.

Based in London, Alex Gordon Shute at Ithaca Partners said the uncertain political landscape in Europe meant that corporate affairs leaders needed to be fully across the political scene. ‘Political nous’, she said, was now a key skill – more so than three years ago.  

Alex listed eight qualities that European CEOs most prized in their CA professionals:

  1. A true business leader not just someone with craft skills in Corporate Affairs – CEOs want each member of their Executive to be a valuable contributor at the top team level, that means being able to input on strategy for the business, collaborate easily across functions, have views on areas that you are not a specialist in.  It also means being a good leader of your own function (so your leadership credibility is high with your peers) and being prepared to speak up when you have a view.  This is something that every CEO has emphasised in every brief Ithaca Partners has taken at ExCo level in the last two years.
  2. Financially literate – Corporate Affairs leaders can’t just be ‘wordsmiths’.  They need to understand the financial drivers in the business and certainly the complexity of how shareholders and other numerate audiences will be reading the business.
  3. Deep commercial understanding – financial literacy is related to commercial understanding but they are different.  Having a deep and solid understanding of market conditions for the business, the competition, and how the company makes money is the strategic underpinning of most effective corporate affairs activity.
  4. A good leader of teams – in the Corporate Affairs function, and when leading cross-functional teams.  Setting vision, objectives and accountabilities; motivating team members; being visible; and championing the people that work in that team.
  5. High EQ as well as IQ – being able to build trusted relationships, gauge when to intervene, how to couch a controversial view with different individuals or audiences, working collaboratively.
  6. Strategic vision and brilliant tactical execution combined – sounds obvious, but there are too many stories from CEOs of Corporate Affairs they have worked with who do not combine these two crucial qualities
  7. Political ‘nous’ – as business is more and more concerned about the instability created for future planning and activity by an uncertain political landscape, helping the business (particularly if it’s highly regulated) deal with this increasing area of risk is a core area of responsibility.  More so than three years ago.
  8. Warmth and humour – as business life gets more pressured, someone who can stay calm when things heat up and retain their human warmth and humour is particularly appreciated.  Often the Corporate Affairs Director and the HR Director are the two confidantes of the CEO, so maintaining a sense of humanity is an important fuel to keeping relationships strong.

Giving the Asian perspective from her workplace in Singapore, AWP’s Managing Partner Jean Tan felt there were obvious base requirements for corporate affairs leaders. But CEOs in Asia were searching for technical competencies over and above those elementary skills.

These qualities – and they included the need to be aware of cultural and social differences within the region – enabled candidates to stand out from their peers.

Jean listed six of them:

  1. Financial literacy and commercial acumen – the ability to understand an organisation’s financials, business drivers and other attributes that underscores a company’s performance and anticipated reaction from key stakeholders (shareholders, media, employees, etc.)
    1. High social and cultural intelligence – Asia is not a single country, and the communications partner to a CEO would need to be highly attuned to the social, cultural and political nuances across multiple countries and their interdependencies.
    2. Strong collaborator and relationship-builder – as a “high-touch” region where relationships and connections are highly valued, strong internal and external collaboration skills and ability to drive win-win outcomes even under pressure would be highly valued.
    3. Resilience and the ability to anticipate/manage challenges – particularly when it comes to managing change or crisis across multiple markets, dealing with the dynamic pace of change in the region, leading remote teams and working at a fast face in a highly matrix/multi-cultural environment.
    4. Global mindset – local insight and having a high cultural quotient must be complemented by having a global mindset when it comes to driving the function, problem-solving and approaching different stakeholders.
    5. High learning agility – the media and communications landscape is constantly evolving and being disrupted, businesses are constantly undergoing to change and restructuring etc – so being intellectually robust aside, having the ability to learn and apply new knowledge/thinking/skills quickly would be critical

Jean did make the point that none of these skills were exclusive to the Asian market. “I would also look at what qualities would make CEOssuccessful and what traits a Board would expect a CEO to have – and mirror the most relevant ones onto a corporate affairs leader,” she said.

Megan Shattuck said there were four priorities which the CEOs of US headquartered global companies often mentioned: business acumen, the ability to proactively manage and a genuine understanding of global markets, collaboration, digital fluency and a results-oriented leader who can manage/develop and grow his/her team.

She elaborated on those qualities by listing these points:

  1. Be Proactive - Most CEOs today recognize that reputation requires proactive management to create business value.
  2. Risk Management - CEOs – and Boards - increasingly expect communications to not only be proactively managed but to also add value to anticipating and managing risk. Chief Communications Officer’s (CCO) adept at leveraging capabilities, including data and analytics, that influence the right business decisions at the right time are in demand.
  3. Business Acumen - In today’s governance environment, shareholders are increasingly demanding accountability and transparency and exerting influence. A true understanding of global financial markets, governance and a depth of business acumen makes a CCO stand out.
  4. Multi-dimensional - CEOs today are seeking CCOs who are more than “just” functional experts. They want global, multi-dimensional, collaborative leaders who integrate and execute across Marketing, Legal, Government Relations, Investor Relations and Marketing. They expect CCOs to be equally as fluid on internal communications as they are on external communications.  This allows for high stakes moments and business opportunities to be handled and leveraged more effectively.

In the US context, Megan said she would add to that list “the ability to lead a global function with the right framework to enable and energise the business”.

“A strong center will have agile people and flexible resources that empower the business,” she said. “This may mean fewer layers - in addition to the implementation of new strategies, structures, tools and resources - to add value to the regional teams.”

(The contributors to this essay were: Jean Tan, AWP Asia; Alex Gordon Shute, Ithaca Partners UK; and Megan Shattuck, Teneo Talent USA.)

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