Opinion: The five essential ingredients for a good CEO-communications director relationship

A good relationship with the CEO is essential for communications directors who want to make themselves heard within their organisation. Kate McFerran, partner at Westbourne Communications, offers her advice for getting comms represented in the boardroom. 

Kate McFerran 1

Kate McFerran

Recently I was asked for advice on a professional challenge that is common to many people who work in corporate communications – how can I forge a good relationship with my CEO?

Let’s face it, for any ambitious communications director with an eye on progressing to the boardroom, a good relationship with the CEO is a major advantage.

When it comes to turning this important relationship into a dream team, what are the critical factors that make a difference?

It’s about a lot more than just technical skill. From my own personal experience, I believe there are a few essential ingredients for communications directors looking to forge a good relationship with their CEO, along with some quick win suggestions to get the ball rolling in the right direction.

A finger on the pulse of the business

CEOs receive an abundance of information through management reports, meetings, emails and phone calls, and much of it will have been filtered to make it ‘CEO ready’. Providing insight and understanding of issues occurring internally as well in the external environment that the CEO might not hear about through regular channels can be extremely valuable, and a communications director is in the ideal position to be a sound conduit of reliable, unbiased information within and about the business.

  • Quick win: Have regular meetings – ideally daily and no less than once a week – to provide formal and informal updates on the major issues of the day along with management priorities on big picture issues.

Two seats in the cone of silence

CEOs will sometimes confide in communications directors about issues that they won’t discuss with anyone else. They must have confidence that the conversation goes no further, and feel secure in confiding the worries and concerns that keep them awake at night. A good communications director will take time to listen, and offer their considered perspective on the CEO’s situation. There are times when the CEO needs a person with whom they can voice their thoughts out loud to help them talk through options and to clarify and test their thinking. Being a sounding board – and possibly playing devil’s advocate – in these situations is a valuable skill to offer any CEO.

  • Quick win: Be accessible for unscheduled conversations, no matter how inconvenient. However don’t rush in with offers to ‘fix’ problems – offer an opinion and talk through the options as a source of good advice.

Exchange of trust and respect

Trust will develop gradually over time in a stable environment, and likewise when times are tough or a crisis hits it will be forged quite quickly. In the absence of a crisis (mercifully), a communications director can still build trust at pace by being available when needed – often around the clock – providing essential input to decisions and steering strategies on issues that need to be fronted by the CEO. It will be difficult to ever build a good relationship if the CEO doesn’t trust the communications director to always be straight with them, and openness and honesty of opinion supports the development of mutual respect.

  • Quick win: We all enjoy praise when we do well, and providing positive reinforcement is key when the CEO does something that contributes to, say, improvement to the corporate reputation or increased employee engagement.

Show true blue loyalty

This doesn’t mean always agreeing and just saying yes, but rather being prepared to back the CEO on their decisions and strategic plans and giving them 100% support. A CEO needs to have confidence that their vision is being communicated effectively throughout the organisation, and that the person in charge of making this happen will do so faithfully. Loyalty works best when it works both ways – a communications director must feel able to provide a challenge to the CEO and to say, “I think you’re wrong”, without fear of negative repercussions.

  • Quick win: When disagreeing with your CEO, discuss the pros and cons of alternative approaches and make your best recommendation. You may both still disagree, but demonstrating you want to identify a winning solution shows you are loyal to the achievement of the CEO’s priorities.

Take in the big picture

Adding value to the CEO’s decision-making process means giving insight and counsel that takes in the view of the whole organisation, not just the communications function. In order to do this, it is essential to first fully understand the CEO’s priorities and work out how to support their attainment. Keep the big picture part of regular discussions to provide context to strategic considerations by asking the question: how will this get us closer to achieving our plans?

  • Quick win: Provide a steady diet of food for thought. Look beyond market competitors by providing insight on how organisations in other sectors have tackled similar challenges to those the CEO is facing.

A strong relationship between a CEO and communications director sets the right foundation for a high performance mini team. This rarely happens quickly, however when it does develop it can create an enriching working relationship that lasts for years and continues across organisations.

Kate McFerran is partner and head of reputation practice at Westbourne Communications

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