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A seat at the C-suite table: the best things in life aren’t free

Zora Artis & Wayne AsplandZora Artis & Wayne Aspland·

You may be familiar with the adage ‘the best things in life are free’. It’s a phrase that’s been immortalized in song by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Janet Jackson, and Luther Vandross.

A wonderful sentiment for sure, but the people who coined that phrase have clearly never worked in the Executive of a large company. The reality of the C-suite is the polar opposite. Everything must be earned – both the seat to begin with and the results you deliver once you’ve made it.

Recently, we undertook a global study into strategic alignment¹. Aside from uncovering several issues and an enormous opportunity for communicators, the study had some fascinating things to say about the much talked about seat at the table.

The issues

To begin with,  the study (which obtained the views of 227 global, mainly senior, communicators) found that organizations are astoundingly poor at one of the most basic elements of leadership. That is, the ability to unite employees around a shared strategy, goals, purpose and values.

The study made the following sobering findings:

  • Only 26% of respondents feel that their colleagues see the corporate strategy as key to the way they do business.
    • 39% said the same for values
    • 32% for vision
    • 35% for purpose.
  • Only 42% feel that their colleague’s team and individual plans clearly align with organizational priorities.
  • And, overall, respondents believe that only 36% of their colleagues would be able to recall their corporate story.

When you think about this, these results are downright scary. They’re suggesting that the organizations we work for aren’t cohesive, united teams of people. Rather, they’re corks bobbing in the ocean; full of silos and tactical thinkers.

What was really surprising about this study was the core reason for this lack of alignment. It seems to stem from a lack of commitment to strategic alignment from both leaders and communicators. The study found that:

  • 40% of respondents believe that corporate purpose is a key part of their employee comms
  • 36% for corporate vision
  • 45% for corporate values
  • 39% for corporate strategy
  • 28% for corporate strategic narrative.

The opportunity

Now, those figures might seem unsettling (which they are), but they also outline an enormous opportunity. You see, as communicators, particularly internal or employee communicators, we can fix this.

Among the many different people who responded to the study, there were ten who reported almost perfect strategic alignment in their organizations. And what was particularly fascinating about them was that nine work in Communication teams that report to the CEO.

The seat at the table

Now, on the surface, this sounds like a great argument: firstly, for a Communication seat at the table and, secondly, for the great things that could be created with that seat.

In reality, however, the study suggests something quite different. The data suggests that the best things in life aren’t free. They have to be earned. And that applies to both the seat at the table itself and the results you deliver as a consequence.

Let’s explain.

The top performers mentioned above might seem like conclusive proof of the value of a seat at the table. The reality, however, is that a lot more than 10 respondents reported having a seat at the table. In fact, almost 80 claimed their Communication team had a seat at the Executive table. And, if you look at them as a group, their alignment results were, in fact, only marginally better than the overall results above.

The reality was that great alignment results only came when:

  • Respondents STRONGLY agreed that their colleagues see their strategic narrative as key to the way they do business
  • And they STRONGLY agreed that the CEO, executive and senior leadership teams all see strategic alignment as an important priority.

In other words, real alignment across the organization didn’t automatically come from Communication having a seat at the table. It came from the Communication team and organizational leaders really partnering together.

And that can happen with or without a seat at the table.

Creating value for the organization

So, let’s flip the question. Instead of asking “how can I get a seat at the table”, why not try asking “how can I create real value for my organization”?

And, there are some clear steps to achieving that:

The first step, as always, is business acumen – understanding the business. This includes the key drivers and how it operates, the financials and performance data, the risks, the customers, competition and macro environment. After all, you can’t develop the right answers if you don’t understand the questions.

Then, show you’re serious about doing your homework and delivering robust thinking, insights and, ultimately, results. Stay abreast of what is going on and where things are heading… not just within the organization but beyond as well.

Key to all of this is an investment in your own knowledge (and that of your team). You can gain lifelong learning opportunities from organizations like IABC, formal training, peer-to-peer or completing a postgraduate in comms, business admin, finance or even human resources. Importantly, don’t simply wait for the company to invest in your professional development. Invest in yourself and encourage your team to do the same.

Next, carefully define the business value you’re going to deliver and how – whether you’re in the C-suite or not. It’s worth noting that value opportunities could lie in places you may not expect. For example, one of the most critical alignment drivers is leadership unity, and that applies not just to the Executive, but to the Senior Leadership team as well.

So, if you are on the C-suite, think about how you can help the Executive team think and work more cohesively. At the same time, if you are a Senior Leader, how can you improve the function of that team?

Finally, be prepared to demonstrate both your personal and team progress as well as the results you’re delivering for the organization. Seek opportunities for certification through programs such as the IABC’s Global Communication Certification Council and other certifications in leadership, marketing, PR or board directorship.

At the same time (most importantly), prove the value of your work through tangible wins, careful monitoring of the results of your work (outcomes, not just outputs) and the thinking you deliver.

Conclusion

According to a recent Strategy+Business article², the typical corporate headquarters is going to change dramatically over the next five years. It is going to shrink in size and centralize its focus on five key activities. The first of these is “define and communicate the company vision, values, and identity”.

When you think about this, accelerating change, the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and so on, it becomes obvious that Communication, and particularly Internal Communication, can only grow in importance.

But the benefits of that growth won’t automatically materialize. Any enhanced position for the profession or its practitioners needs to be earned. And it’s up to us to earn it.

As we suggested in the beginning, the best things in life aren’t free.

 

You can download the Global Alignment Study by Zora and Wayne at https://www.iabc.com/strategic-alignment-white-paper/.

¹Artis, Z & Aspland, W (2018) “Strategic alignment: how communicators can change the face of leadership”  https://www.iabc.com/strategic-alignment-white-paper/

²Strategy+Business, ‘HQ 2.0: The Next-Generation Corporate Center’, 7 January 2019, https://www.strategy-business.com/article/HQ-2.0-The-Next-Generation-Corporate-Center


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