A panel of industry leaders recently discussed the importance of being a trusted advisor when working with executive boards. Their strongest message for communications professionals looking to achieve this goal? That it’s not always about having an actual seat at the top table.
by Damien Currie
Being the voice for communications at board meetings used to be a key driver in my work.
Through successive seminars and networking events, I’d heard the call for our profession to have a seat at the table. So, I set about putting communications on the map with senior leaders.
This resulted in a standing invitation to their board meetings. And it also led to one of the board’s members being recognised as their lead for communications – the first in the organisation’s 86-year history.
Mission complete then?
The trusted advisor
Communications did have a seat on the board. My role was now to be the influence behind that voice – the trusted advisor.
Clearly, not every organisation makes progress in the same way. Some communication teams will be at an earlier stage of this journey, while others won’t have the ear of their boards at all.
Which is why it was fitting to see a recent panel event in Manchester cover the subject of developing your trusted advisor status.
Led by three recognised industry practitioners, the discussion examined how communications professionals can become – and improve their impact as – trusted advisors.
Can you text your CEO?
It was Bridget Aherne, Head of Communications at KeolisAmey Metrolink and CIPR’s Outstanding Independent Practitioner for 2018, who set the tone by asking whether physically getting a seat on the board was essential to making an impact.
Having been on boards and also reported into senior leaders from outside a board, Bridget said success as a trusted advisor is achieved by having true influence with the relevant people.
Getting a seat but not being able to shape decision making won’t give communications the platform it needs deliver outcomes.
Her true test for those in attendance at the event was to ask who could text their CEO at that particular moment. Just one or two hands were raised.
It was an effective illustration of Bridget’s point about influence. Leaders look to people they trust and the basis of that trust is formed over time – and not just by success.
Anthony Bullick, the owner and Managing Director of Outwrite PR, reinforced this by saying it’s essential to show senior leaders how you can add value to every decision.
Reflecting on the agency approach specifically, he said communications professionals need to act and advise as if they are the organisation they’ve been hired by.
Can you speak CEO?
Understanding your business at all levels, being its conscience around culture and behaviours and offering genuine insights were some of the key skills listed by the panel’s third member, Helen Schick.
As Head of Internal Communications and Engagement for the Alzheimer’s Society, Helen reflected on her experience of using three traits when advising board members: courage, humour and humility – adding that it’s just as important to know when to employ them.
Speaking the language of your board and organisation is also a key factor. Helen, Bridget and Anthony all agreed that our tendency to talk in the professional language of communications can very quickly lose board members.
There’s a small window to get their attention and influence decision making. Helen cited using insight about what your business is really thinking and how your competitors are doing as examples of finding an effective way in.
Naturally, measurement was a key part of the discussion too.
Bridget noted that it’s important to evaluate our own impact, by asking for 360 feedback, while Helen shared her aim of being able to tell the board what people know, feel and do.
Are you empowered?
It was reassuring to hear the panel reflect the same approaches and behaviours I’ve learnt and used as a trusted advisor over the last few years.
From that experience, I think there’s one other critical element – especially for communications professionals who want to start or make more progress on this journey.
I owe my status and success as a trusted advisor to a line manager who empowered and supported me to develop the essential skills of guiding, challenging and negotiating with board members.
I remember the first day he asked me to tell our senior board member we couldn’t deliver an activity because it didn’t align with their strategic objectives. It was a difficult and unnatural exchange at that time.
But my boss had set an example through his own relationship with the senior board member. He’d proven to us as a team that he would support us if we needed to say “no”.
And each time I looked to challenge a decision or give advice to proceed in a different way, it helped to build my trusted advisor status with the senior board member.
Of course, board members come and go, so it’s important to always be prepared for change and challenge yourself.
New board members may look to take the organisation in a different direction and that’s when your status as a trusted advisor will inevitably go through a period of renewal.
Image via WOCinTech