Corporate Affairs leaders – well placed to lead in a turbulent world?

Much has been written about the challenges of being a leader during these turbulent times.  Less has been written about the qualities that will help you lead through such volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times.  And even less about the qualities a Corporate Affairs leader may require.

Yet many of the qualities effective Corporate Affairs leaders have equip them well, several of which were discussed in Birchwood Knight’s report published earlier this year – If Only I’d Known That Then – lessons from corporate affairs leaders.

Being able to develop and articulate a clear vision and strategy while also being comfortable flexing or pivoting this vision as the external environment shifts, or new data emerges is a powerful combination.  Such intellectual and operational agility is a skill often honed by experience of crisis management.  As ‘If Only I’d Known That Then recommended’, “Don’t become too attached to it [a plan].  Be open to change, especially if events change.”

Experience of crisis management also often means that corporate affairs leaders can be less hierarchical than others when it comes to identifying and implementing new ideas and opportunities – a quality that can be crucial to organisational success in unchartered times.  Corporate affairs leaders, who are well versed in working across organisations, know how to draw on their ‘soft power’ to navigate bureaucracy and expediate decision-making processes which might be appropriate for ‘business as usual’  but can be slow and costly in the current circumstances.

Crisis management experience may also mean that corporate affairs leaders aren’t unsettled taking decisions with incomplete data – however much they’d normally require it. Relying on what robust data is available, their judgement and an understanding that the need for a decision won’t go away while they’re stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’, they can display visible decisiveness.

Excellent communication skills are clearly essential during these turbulent times, (you’ve got to hope these are a given in corporate affairs leaders…). As is a desire for transparency – being open about the unknowns while articulating a compelling vision.  As If Only I’d Known That Then noted: “Almost everyone we spoke to stressed the importance of speaking truth to power.” At a time when internal and external stakeholders are unsettled and established information channels may be redundant, communication ‘fudges’ will be especially damaging – risking a loss of  trust in a brand and its leadership. Living your organisation’s values, inspiring stakeholders with a vision and optimism while acknowledging the unknowns and anxieties should come naturally to communications professionals.

Combining vision with emotional intelligence is required when those you’re leading need direction but may also require support with the uncertainty of both the future and the ‘here and now’.  Effective leaders will calmly support but not micromanage and do this against a backdrop of evolving working practices. Nor will they confuse empathy with lowered expectations. The adage that you need to lead people as much as the business is especially true right now.

Resilience and stamina, for what is feeling less like a marathon and more like a relentless series of sprints with no end in sight, will be required and six months in yours may be tested. (The accompanying cartoon was from April….) There are practical, proven steps you can take to build resilience – physical, cognitive and emotional. Staying healthy, prioritising sleep and supportive relationships, maintaining perspective rather than holding on to what is ‘normal’, spending time in nature etc etc. These should not feel like ‘luxuries’; they could be what maintain your performance and safeguard your wellbeing, especially as it becomes clearer that we are not going to revert to ‘business as usual’ any time soon. Resilience is dynamic, not a straightforward personality trait.  It’s about maintaining what works for you as well as adding strategies for your changing context.

And for all leaders – however well they meet the above ‘criteria’ – the value of taking much needed time out to think and explore your beliefs, motivations and instincts is evident.  This could be with a trusted friend or peer, a mentor or a coach – in confidence. Adhering to the idea of a ‘heroic leader’ who does this kind of thinking largely on their own feels dated, ineffective and compromises quality decision-making when it has never been more challenging or more essential.

Clare Cox is an Executive Coach and a former Director of External Affairs.


22nd September 2020

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