Why the Chief Communications Officer is Pivotal to the CEO, Especially a New One

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Communications leaders have never before been more crucial to the management and success of the enterprise.

With a real-time news cycle, constant disruption in the business environment and the rise of highly active stakeholders—empowered through digital platforms to share their opinions and organize for action—are the norm. As a result, having a strong communications function not only is advisable, it’s essential.

The Arthur W. Page Society’s report on The New CCO describes not only the forces that are transforming enterprises, but also the resulting transformation through which the chief communications officer (CCO) is taking on a far more important and strategic role.

CEOs have always been surrounded by a cadre of advisors, but in recent years they are increasingly closest to their CCO. To hear Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of GE tell it, the CEO’s relationship with the CCO is a close and important one built on two things: truth and trust. “The CEO and the CCO have a unique relationship,” Welch said at a Page Society event last year. “Total trust. Very intimate. In it together. Buy-in on the mission. Buy-in on where the company’s going and how you’re going to get there.”

“The CEO and the CCO have a unique relationship. Total trust. Very intimate. In it together. Buy-in on the mission. Buy-in on where the company’s going and how you’re going to get there.”—Jack Welch

According to the Page Model for Enterprise Communications, the role of the CCO begins with activating corporate character—the distinct set of values, purpose, mission, culture, beliefs and actions that compose the identity of the enterprise. A strong and authentic character is essential to earning the trust of stakeholders. Around this character, the CCO works to produce meaningful engagement with stakeholders that ultimately earns their support and advocacy. The CCO has to be able to manage communications risks and opportunities with all stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors and the general public.

Whereas CEOs present company vision and culture, CCOs are responsible for the strategy of defining and activating both. In a recent survey by Korn Ferry, 67% of respondents from Fortune 500 companies stated that the most important leadership characteristic for CCOs was “having a strategic mind-set, defined as anticipating and seeing ahead to future possibilities and translating them into breakthrough strategies.”

In the common occurrence of a CEO transition, it makes sense that the CCO would play a vital role in ensuring the transition is smooth, stakeholders are kept up to speed and that the new CEO’s vision aligns with the internal corporate culture. To put it simply, the CCO is charged with protecting the reputation and legacy of the outgoing CEO, while ensuring acceptance of the new one. For this reason, they often best understand the benefits and pitfalls that may arise from the leadership change.

It may be equally important that the CCO have that same trusted relationship with stakeholders inside the organization to facilitate a seamless transition. After the merger in late 2013 between US Airways and American Airlines, our new management team was comprised roughly of half of its members from the former US Airways and half from the former American. Wearing the hat of CCO meant working hard to ensure new members of the management team were integrated and felt included.

For those on the legacy US Airways team, there was much familiarity with Doug’s leadership style and vision. But Doug was adapting to a larger and more complex business and that group needed to adapt as well. For those on the legacy American side, there was certainly more hesitancy around speaking openly without having had that history with their new CEO.

To avoid feeling like the haves/have nots, we took a lot of care to get everyone integrated very quickly. This started, and continues today, with a weekly Monday morning meeting where all our vice presidents gather in person and by phone to review the previous week’s operating statistics, revenue results, and people engagement activities. Establishing this regular cadence of updates told people very clearly that regular engagement and transparent communication matter greatly.

Doug Parker is a very approachable leader, and his direction at those Monday morning gatherings relayed something even more critical; that is, what kind of culture the new company was going to aspire to create. Here, allowing one’s vulnerabilities to show through and using humor were two of the behavior attributes that helped create a unified team of leaders very quickly after our merger.

The CCO responsibility became much more than an information facilitator; it became a private sounding board so that our new colleagues could ask questions about acceptable behaviors and potential perceptions. And that role worked both ways, from advising new colleagues who weren’t always sure what new protocols would be accepted to advising Doug when he needed to make adjustments for the betterment of the new team.

CCOs can have a highly valuable and productive partnership with their CEO, especially following a transition, by:

1. Managing internal politics to help the enterprise be prepared for a transition through sound succession planning.
2. Establishing alignment between the new CEO’s vision and the company’s culture, and creating ample opportunities for the CEO to represent both.
3. Ensuring that values and vision for the company are not only communicated, but also are activated through clear policies and actions.

To win the support of C-Suite colleagues, CCOs must be fully integrated communicators, using a combination of data analytics, cultural intelligence and behavioral economics to develop insights they can leverage to bring corporate character to life. The ability to do so ensures the success of the CCO and ultimately has a trickle-down effect that benefits the entire company.

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