Comms professionals are moving into trade bodies
Communications directors are increasingly sought as chief executives of trade bodies
Eight years ago, when Simon Lewis was director of communications and the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson at 10 Downing Street, he was approached by a headhunter regarding an opportunity at a new trade group – the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME). He assumed that the role would be heading up the comms division.
But the reality reflected a trend that’s becoming more common in the communications industry: Lewis was asked if he would be interested in running the show. It surely helped that Lewis had already got some general management experience from his days at Centrica, where he had been managing director responsible for building out the business in Europe for a period. And his combination of public and private sector, political and government experience must have helped for a role in a complex industry demanding sophisticated advocacy skills.
‘What really appealed was that I’d be the very first ‘founding’ chief executive of an important trade body and I’ve always been interested in the banking industry from my days at SG Warburg and NatWest. I had a good feel for it,’ he says.
‘Also, frankly, it was just after the financial crisis and a role for a trade group for the European investment bank industry was going to be both interesting and very important.’ He is not alone in this shift to the leadership job at a trade body.
Communications skills alone are rarely sufficient to progress into senior business leadership or CEO roles
Simon Walker, once communications secretary to the Queen, was formerly the director general of the Institute of Directors. Ian Wright, previously corporate relations director at Diageo, is now chief executive at the Food & Drink Federation (FDF). Communications specialist Steve Lotinga, who was once director of communications for former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, now heads up the The Publishers Association. The list goes on.
Trade associations seem to be something of a draw for senior communications people just now. ‘Increasingly the complexity of global, regional and local commercial environments for businesses and sectors, combined with the growth of regulatory and governance demands and the insatiable scrutiny from external and internal stakeholders, make a trade association one of the most vibrant and interesting organisations to lead today,’ says Aileen Thompson, executive director, communications, at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
It is no coincidence that the communications role has evolved in recent years to the degree that broader leadership is not only an appealing next step, it is also a logical one from a capability point of view. ‘The role of comms director is coming under more pressure than ever before. Broader and more commercial skills are required – CEOs want their comms people to have business or financial acumen and strategic level, problem-solving skills and other functional or relevant business experience,’ says Andrew Harvey, UK managing director at VMA Group.
With the digital revolution, and a fake news environment making reputation management ever more important, step straight up into FTSE chief executive roles as reputation management becomes ever more critical.
‘Over the past ten years we’ve seen numerous examples of business share prices being impacted negatively because of poor reputation management on the part of the chief executive,’ he says. ‘Boards of listed companies are looking at a successor’s ability to manage reputation and communicate effectively and, while there’s a slower take up here, opportunities for comms professionals will increase. Communications professionals are breaking out of the confines of a specialist function. They are proving that they can not only take on the top roles in trade bodies, but they have a unique blend of skills that makes them peculiarly suited to such strong advocacy leadership.
‘With reputation management only becoming more important in an always-on digital age, it is another avenue for communications to prove how much value they can add at the most senior levels. This is the beginning of the trend that has some way to run yet. Comms people have become much more involved in the commercial development of organisations.’
David Broome, managing partner at Broome Yasar Partnership, thinks that communications has historically suffered with a perception problem as being a limited specialist role with few development routes into business leadership positions. ‘Now with greater exposure and involvement in business decisions and strategy, a seat on the ExCo, a reporting line to the CEO and more confidence in what they can offer, communications leaders are increasingly seen as peers to other leaders running businesses and profit and loss centres, which is providing more opportunity to take on wider leadership and ultimately CEO roles,’ he says.
The shift to leadership isn’t easy, however. ‘There are examples of directors who have become chief executives of FTSE companies, but not many,’ says Gavin Ellwood, founder and director at Ellwood Atfield. ‘Trade associations, however, offer communications candidates an excellent opportunity to run a business and speak on behalf of an industry.’
You will be the most visible, active and busy evangelist for that industry
Ellwood adds that boards of trade associations recognise the importance of managing their industry’s brand reputation and the value senior comms people can bring to the leadership role. ‘Not all trade bodies offer comms professionals an interesting career avenue but those that are involved in shaping external environments can be an excellent fit for those with influencing and lobbying skills.’
‘Moving from communications to a trade group is attractive because unlike the big CEO roles in commercial organisations, you can run a trade group successfully without having to prove you’ve run a business elsewhere, which is often the block for communications professionals,’ says Lewis. He also thinks that if you do corporate affairs at a senior level – as he did at Centrica, Vodafone and NatWest – you see first-hand what leadership is and get a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t.
‘You’re in a trusted and privileged position [working alongside a CEO]. It’s like a continuous MBA – you can learn an awful lot from a CEO.’ There is also evidence that the trade body role might be particularly well suited to the kinds of skills communications professionals can bring to the table.
‘For senior corporate affairs professionals to become the CEO of a trade body is a fairly natural transition,’ says Alex Gordon Shute, partner at Ithaca Partners. ‘The core of the trade body CEO role is advocacy which is why it works so well.
‘It mixes the ability to listen well, synthesise the views of members, develop policy positions which meet the needs of members, marshal arguments around those positions, and then roll out a campaign to influencers and stakeholders which achieves the objectives that have been set. Most of that is central to a senior corporate affairs role too, hence the fit.’
A potential challenge facing comms professionals in stepping up to broader leadership roles – in a trade body or elsewhere – is a lack of commercial and financial expertise. ‘Communications skills alone are rarely sufficient to progress into senior business leadership or CEO roles,’ says Broome. ‘Anyone with this ambition needs to proactively widen their portfolio of experience. Without commercial acumen and financial management knowledge, an ambitious communicator may find it difficult to progress.’
However, Thompson does not think that financial or commercial experience should be a major obstacle in a trade association setting.
‘What’s more important is the ability to manage a complex group of internal and external stakeholders, whilst delivering value to members and motivating staff and colleagues within a fast moving, volatile environment,’ she says. ‘Nothing prepares a newcomer to the world of trade associations, as the exposure to the multiple demands from all quarters and the desire by the association to try to meet everyone’s needs. The CEO role is then about balancing these needs, taking the decisions, providing direction and consistency and value to members.’
Lewis certainly didn’t find the transition to the chief executive role at AFME that difficult. He likens running a trade group to running a large communications consultancy but with members rather than clients, and colleagues attending to their needs. He also thinks the transition is helped by the fact that the largest trade groups aren’t that big.
Being commercially focused is vital – retaining and increasing membership is the lifeblood of any trade association
‘AFME is like running a mid-sized company,’ he says. ‘We have 80 people, in London, Frankfurt and Brussels, and we have a reasonably large membership revenue. So, you’ve got to have management skills and to be able to run an organisation, but it’s not a huge, billion-pound set-up. ‘You can focus on your core skills and the needs of the trade group – building technical expertise, engaging members and being able to advocate.’
Harvey adds that there is a confidence element. ‘The CEO isn’t necessarily the most experienced finance manager or legal expert, and you’re not expected to know everything,’ he says. ‘But you have to have some understanding of the P&L and cashflow forecast and such like – and then you need to be willing to put yourself out of your comfort zone to actually apply for the job.’
For both Thompson and Lewis, it is important to find a sector or industry that you are passionate about and would be proud to represent. ‘You will be the most visible, active and busy evangelist for that industry,’ says Thompson. ‘Unless you believe in it, embrace its value and purpose, it will be hard to appeal to members and stakeholders who rely on you and your team to champion their priorities.’
Trade associations have unique demands as well. While leadership skills are obviously vital, Thompson adds that communications professionals taking a trade body CEO role must be comfortable working with a diverse board and chair, perhaps also honorary members. They need to be effective people leaders – particularly in a trade association staffed by highly skilled technical and policy experts.
‘Being commercially focused is vital – retaining and increasing membership is the lifeblood of any trade association,’ she says. In addition, an interest and understanding of politics is vital for regulated industries, she says, where Government and political stakeholders will be a specific priority.
‘Finally, being an articulate and compelling communicator with the flair and acumen to move from giving evidence at a Government Select Committee hearing to a background briefing with the editor of the Financial Times or a late-night BBC Newsnight interview is enormously powerful in progressing the agenda of a forward-thinking trade association.’
According to Lewis, one of the most satisfying elements of his AFME role is the people management side. ‘The fact is that developing people – recruiting and retaining them and building a team – you don’t get to do that so much in communications unless you’re running a big department. But I find that a very interesting and fulfilling part of the role,’ he says.
He also puts a high priority on effective governance. ‘I am a huge believer in rigorous governance, transparency, ensuring the Board is properly managed, ensuring you have the right committee structure because without that you always run a huge risk.’
As a headhunter for the membership sector, Ellwood regularly interviews CEOs, director generals and other aspiring leaders. In Ellwood Atfield’s report Key Success Factors for Associations, this experience is used to identify seven attributes of the best leaders of representative organisations. Some of these are more obvious – for example, strong leadership and communication skills. But perhaps a more surprising one is the need for persuasive diplomacy.
‘Managing the board of a trade association is a unique role because the board members are not paid to be there and the CEO doesn’t have normal control and influence,’ he says. ‘Members are not in a hierarchy – in fact, they are in competition with each other in the marketplace, so the chief executive has to be collegiate. An authoritarian manner doesn’t work.’
The core of the trade body CEO role is advocacy which is why it works so well
He thinks that the singular nature of trade bodies, and the different skills required to lead them, would make it difficult for a chief executive of a trade body to step into another leadership role in, say, a FTSE company. Gordon Shute agrees, but for a different reason. ‘The central quality that fits corporate affairs professionals well for trade bodies (and some charities too) is that of advocacy. Most wider CEO roles need advocacy skills, but those skills form a much smaller proportion of the requirements in large company CEO roles than in the trade body and charity roles. In a competitive market, corporate affairs professionals are rarely the best qualified candidates for those bigger CEO roles.’
Not everybody agrees. Lewis believes that there is a potential bridge between a trade group and becoming CEO of a commercial organisation. ‘I think the next generation of comms professionals will see that as an interesting move,’ he says. Ellwood cannot see a shift between the two roles, but predicts that more communications professionals might step straight up into FTSE chief executive roles as reputation management becomes ever more critical.
‘Over the past ten years we’ve seen numerous examples of business share prices being impacted negatively because of poor reputation management on the part of the chief executive,’ he says. ‘Boards of listed companies are looking at a successor’s ability to manage reputation and communicate effectively and, while there’s a slower take up here, opportunities for comms professionals will increase.’
Communications professionals are breaking out of the confines of a specialist function. They are proving that they can not only take on the top roles in trade bodies, but they have a unique blend of skills that makes them peculiarly suited to such strong advocacy leadership. With reputation management only becoming more important in an always-on digital age, it is another avenue for communications to prove how much value they can add at the most senior levels. This is the beginning of the trend that has some way to run yet.