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Industry Contributor 30 Jun 2021 - 4 min read

Five things every CEO needs in their corporate affairs director

By Anna Whitlam - Founder & Managing Director - Anna Whitlam People

"The right stuff": the qualities needed to do or be something, especially something that most people would find difficult. This Cambridge Dictionary definition equally applies to the role of corporate affairs director. In a world where activist investors can tank a company share price faster than you can say "scandal", reputational risk management is more critical than ever - and demand is rising from big companies across Apac. Here are the five key qualities they seek.

Corporate hit list

I speak to CEOs and board directors from Asia-Pacific’s top companies every day. I advise them how to manage their company’s reputation and structure their corporate affairs functions – and help to locate the best professionals to perform what is an increasingly difficult and demanding task.

Today activist investors and keyboard warriors can take down a company’s reputation quicker than you can say “scandal”, dragging the share price with it. Australian executives attribute some 58 per cent of their company’s market value to reputation, according to recent research by Weber Shandwick.

The job of protecting and enhancing companies’ reputations and social licences to operate are therefore more important than ever in an increasingly transparent world where your shareholders, employees and stakeholders could all be the same people.

Demand for professionals who can do that job successfully is strong. We have seen a rise in market activity for director-level corporate roles at Asia-Pacific’s largest businesses in the past quarter, buoyed by hopes of an economic rebound and a growing recognition that those companies must effectively address Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues.

There has been a simultaneous shift in what organisations need from their corporate affairs leaders as the whirlwind changes forced by the pandemic have exposed businesses’ corporate affairs structures and procedures to a slew of complex new requirements.

We looked at the most prominent key selection criteria our clients have chosen in the past 12 months, coupled it with my own experiences, and came up with the following five key ingredients it takes to have the right stuff for the role.

Some of these are technical, some are behavioural, and the list is by no means exclusive. But if you are in the market for a top corporate affairs job you had better possess all these attributes, and if you don’t, my advice is to get to work on them.

1. Judgement 
This is the first thing most CEOs look for. They need to know that, far more often than not, you will make the right call and give them the right advice at the right time to guide their decision making.

That means being further across all pertinent issues than they have time to be, then educating them fast and making a wise recommendation, all at a moment’s notice.

I cannot stress the “moment’s notice” part enough. Research by the Arthur W. Page Society identifies the role of the chief communications officer as “Pacesetter”, which is a good description.

It not only implies that you are the head “Sensemaker”, who can advise leaders how to mitigate multiple risks and formulate an understanding of the organisation’s evolving critical path, but that you are out in front of the pack on all the issues that could affect reputation.

That is one element of “leadership”, another soft skill that features strongly in our clients’ key selection criteria. Leadership also implies running large teams across multiple sites through a pandemic and acting as the conscience of the company and counsel to the CEO and board. 

It behoves you to be bold, show courage, and take a stand when you know it is in the best interests of the company and its stakeholders.

2. Business, financial, and technical smarts
The CEO needs to know that you can understand what drives the business and that you can speak its language. That means being across its accounts, strategy plans, budgets, and customer data.

Without a full appreciation of that context, your advice will always lack gravitas, and rightly so.

The same is true of technology, data, and metrics. You must be hungry for insight and knowledge about your industry so you can anticipate, comprehend, and act on any changes in regulatory, competitive and market conditions.

Your function also needs to use technology, data, and metrics effectively so it can maximise ROI on campaigns and the use of outside contractors. This will aid your standing with your CFO, and group executive.

Being politically savvy, both internally and externally, is vital. Many executives still fail to understand the full value of the corporate affairs discipline. Demonstrate it in their terms by leaning in, educating and solving the knowledge gap with a solution to a problem before being asked.

3. High EQ
Covid created new shared human experiences that transcended international borders, let alone functional disciplines.

CEOs that performed well with stakeholders were compassionate, authentic, and realistic in their response, often guided by corporate affairs professionals that could give them a broad appreciation of the plight of all of those stakeholders, internal and external.

The same is true when it comes to ESG issues. Lip service to fundamental topics such as Climate Change or Diversity will be found out in no time. Large companies are expected to create a positive impact in the communities where they operate and engage stakeholders in government, NGOs, and the wider community. 

Unless you can understand each of your different stakeholders’ needs, then do your best to meet them, your company will not get the reputational benefits that flow from that which in turn help to grow customers and sales.

4. Resourcefulness and resilience
If working during Covid proved anything, it is that we CAN change our ways of working overnight if we need to. CEOs and boards have an expectation that executives will continue to channel that resourcefulness and resilience as life returns to some sort of normality.

So, you need to be more dexterous and limber than ever, old ways of doing things – in particular, pointless “busy” work – may need to be thrown out.

Great corporate affairs professionals are expert at operating in fast-moving environments with 24-hour news cycles.

They can symphonise new facts about geopolitics, regulatory setting, markets, and stakeholder expectations, lean into the uncomfortable issues and orchestrate a clear direction forward.

That is harder than many people think, and therefore a rare and valuable asset. Many people overestimate their ability to do this successfully. 

5. Outward-in thinking

While the CEO and their executive team can get caught in the daily maelstrom of doing business, your job is not only to be the calmest person in the room, but also to look at the company’s issues from the outside in.

That does not just mean being “objective” – as in basing your recommendations on observable facts rather than feelings or opinions – it means being all-too aware of the feelings and opinions of stakeholders.

For instance, a recent Harvard Business Review article said that when companies are surprised by activist shareholders “it’s often because management and the board don’t have a good idea of what investors are thinking and what their hot-buttons issues are”.

If a CEO or their executives become myopic about the negative impact that a certain issue could have on the business’s reputation, your job is to widen their vision, urgently. 

That means building great relationships inside and out of the company and keeping them vibrant to enable good information flow.

Ultimately, the job is about storytelling. That is far from a negative, storytelling is how we humans understand the world we live in.

But the stories you tell must be written with gravitas and with full knowledge of the changing expectations of those outside the boardroom room as well as those inside it.

Moreover, they must be told with self-awareness, authenticity, and integrity – anything less and they will lack the right stuff.

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Anna Whitlam

Founder & Managing Director - Anna Whitlam People

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