5 ways for comms pros to earn a seat at the table
Ready to climb the communications career ladder? Here are five hard-won secrets for moving from tactician to respected strategist at your organization.
In the wake of unprecedented upheaval, today’s leaders are looking for communicators who are strategic advisors — not order takers.
Here are five insights from senior communicators to help you step off the tactical hamster wheel—and into the corner suite by providing the type of transformative strategies that help move organizations and careers forward:
- Don’t wait—your time is now. Communicators are getting more credit, thanks in part to expanding responsibilities that range from COVID-19 communications to DE&I.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we’re starting to see a shift in thinking—and not just at the big global consumer brands,” says Catherine Anderson, senior vice president of communications at Cityblock Health.
“I’m hearing from more companies looking for a chief communications officer and/or chief marketing and communications officer,” she shares. “Sometimes, brand marketing even sits under comms — it’s crazy, but wonderful to see!”
She believes the change is driven by an interest in telling one overarching narrative and ensuring storytelling is integrated across all verticals, audiences and channels.
Even so, “Securing a seat at the decision table is definitely still a challenge and there’s no guarantee that the window stays open—so act while you can,” she warns.
- Do some soul searching. Just because opportunities are opening up for communicators doesn’t mean you should make the leap blindly.
“Understand why you want a seat in the first place and remain authentic to your mission,” cautions Jennifer Palma Sanchez, interim assistant vice president and director of university communications at the University of Miami.
“The biggest mistake you can make is straying from your authentic self to fit the mold of what C-suites expect or want,” she explains. “It’s easy to speak, look and act the same as everyone else at the table. But that’s not what drove you there, and you’re likely not going to enjoy it when you get there.”
Her advice: “Speak with candor and confidence, no matter what you’re speaking about, or who you’re speaking to,” says Sanchez. “Understand that your ideas and feedback won’t always be heard the first or second time around, but there will eventually be someone in C-suite who prioritizes and appreciates authenticity.”
Cheryl Waide, chief communications officer for Vote Run Lead, agrees.
“Not being authentic is a common misstep,” she says. “People see right through it. It’s OK not to know everything. You can always bring in an expert to assist. Also, don’t jockey for position. When it’s right, everything will fall perfectly into place.”
- Focus on “value over volume.” Great communicators recognize they must be good at strategy and tactics — it’s not a matter of one over the other. However, they also recognize the need to lead with strategies when talking to the C-suite.
“It’s a mindset,” says Sanchez. “When you approach a new program, campaign or leadership meeting, focus on ‘value over volume.’ Keep it in mind like a mantra.”
For example, “I Implemented a project brief here based on requests from managers who were non-communicators,” she illustrates. “They were surprised by the amount of thought and work that went into what they assumed was simple task. This helped drive the ‘value over volume’ idea of my work.”
Her advice: “When working with other managers, create a plan that can serve both you and them—treat it like a project brief. Keep receipts (measure and report)—and share those receipts (impact) when you have the opportunity to present them.”
- Find a mentor. Moving from tactical execution to being a strategist can be difficult.
“A good path toward thinking more like a strategist is to ask a more senior level person inside or outside of your company to mentor you,” says Gina Michnowicz, CEO and chief creative officer at The Craftsman Agency.
She adds that reading books on business and communications strategies can help you be prepared for these meetings.
“Come ready and be inquisitive,” she says. “Always have questions when talking to the C-Suite. Time is their greatest asset. They want to help, but they also want to ensure the investment in you will be worth it—so show them you’re ready to dig in.”
- Align expectations. Communicators are so focused on what execs need and educating ourselves on the business that it’s easy to forget it’s a two-way street.
“We need to do more than just focus on their expectations,” says Anderson. “We also need to educate them about communications and our role and capabilities.”
She breaks it down into a three-tiered process:
- Set expectations. “Be clear on your philosophy on the role of strategic communications and the importance of that seat from day one,” Anderson says.
- First build trust. “Establish how your team will function to support the business and be sure to ‘read the room,’” she adds. “Part of that includes supporting other departments whenever possible so there’s a track record of trust going in.”
- Work backwards from the problem. “If communications isn’t getting a voice early enough to do the job,” Anderson suggests, “point to instances where this has occurred and where a seat at the table would make everyone’s lives easier.”
Victoria Baxter, the head of climate and crisis response in the social impact practice at Google, agrees. “Don’t assume everyone in the C-suite understands communication strategies, tactics and metrics. If possible, set time aside to conduct a briefing.”
Brian Pittman is the Dean of Ragan Training and a Ragan Communications event producer. For more information about Ragan Training, contact him at email@example.com.