Is a communications professional suited to a non-exec role? Article icon

Is Corporate communications specialists reckon they have the skills set to become non-executive directors but few have been able to make the move

The role of adviser

You ask difficult questions, you can stand back and see the big picture. You have almost 30 years' experience of advising chief executives and finance directors on how to handle the biggest business tie-ups and crises. And yet you still can't get a seat on the board.

While attention has fallen on the shortfall of women in the boardrooms of the country's biggest businesses in recent years, another pool of available talent seems to be overlooked. Very few corporate communications' chiefs or directors of corporate affairs seem to make it as non-executive directors.
 
Geraldine Davies, chairman of communications headhunting firm Ellwood Atfield and herself a former communications director at Lloyds TSB and Prudential, says they certainly have some of the key skills needed.
 
She explains: 'They have as much experience of what looks like good and bad boardroom behaviour as executives who have come up through other routes and they also have the role of being an external conduit, of taking the external view back to an organisation, which is just what a non-executive director should do.'
 
And yet, she acknowledges, there is often a feeling that directors of communications, like human resources directors, are unable to contribute to the same extent that revenue earners can.
 
Her advice is that communications directors should push themselves forward for more roles, especially as the pool of available talent for non-executive directors appears to be somewhat shallow, meaning that the same people, mostly men, keep getting all the jobs.
 
Davies adds: 'The senior independent director is the natural role for communications directors, because that's the challenger role. They should have more faith in themselves that they have operated at a very senior level and won't be fazed by the boardroom. And they know how to challenge in a positive and constructive way.
 
Yet Jane Scott, UK director of the Professional Boards Forum, which tracks the make-up of boardrooms across the FTSE 350 leading UK companies, to maintain pressure on female representation, says that while many communications directors are very able, there seem to be few who get appointed to boards.
 
Corporate affairs director Catherine May, who joined SABMiller in October 2012 having served in the same role at Centrica for more than five years, is not on her own company's board but does serve as a non-executive director in the arts world. She is a non-executive director of the English National Opera and a trustee of the UK National Funding Platform and the Foundation for World Capitals of Culture.
 
She believes that corporate communications chiefs have exactly the skills that are needed in the boardroom. 'In practical terms we bring expertise in governance, reporting and reputation management - to name but three. To do our role you have to understand the whole business. That holistic approach is very good for the non-executive director's task,' says May. 'These areas are all very big board agenda items at present. Reputation risk is getting higher up the agenda for chairmen and is very topical around most board tables.'
 
Simon Lewis, whose curriculum vitae includes senior communications roles at Vodafone, merchant bank SG Warburg and Centrica, and who has worked as spokesman for both the Queen and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, agrees that reputation is one of the biggest challenges that boards face these days, and that a communications specialist's intense focus on it would be of great value.
 
Lewis, who is now chief executive of the Association of Financial Markets trade body, adds that another skill that a firstclass corporate affairs or communications director has is to be able to give a dispassionate view.
 
'You have to be slightly outside the company circle and be able to have a degree of objectivity to stand back and provide quality advice. That is just what is required of a non-executive director,' he explains.
 
Lewis believes that recognising the potential among former communications directors and corporate affairs directors would help to overcome a problem faced by boards, whereby there is an ever-reducing pool of talent available.
 
Today boards tend to be made up largely of non-executives, with only two or three executives, such as the chief executive and finance director, yet chairmen often insist on recruiting nonexecutive directors with boardroom experience in an executive role. This results in an ever-diminishing stock of executives from which the nation's boards are replenished.
 
'It's a chicken and egg situation and all the while they are fishing in an ever-diminishing pool,' Lewis says. This is problematic for companies, particularly consumer-facing ones, because their boards - in terms of age and gender make-up - are not at all representative of their customers.
 
Phil White, former chief executive of National Express Group, the bus and train operator, and now chairman of construction group Kier, student accommodation developer Unite and car dealership group Lookers, agrees that communications expertise is critical on boards these days, both externally with the media and with shareholders and internally.
 
White says: 'Particularly in difficult times, good communications can help overcome challenges and issues; it is lack of good communications that can make problems get bigger and explode.'
 
White admits that he tends to recruit non executive directors with main board experience, rather than time served on the management board or executive committee, but he also likes to try to balance his boards with a broader range of experience.
 
'Some communications advisers, like bankers and lawyers, have been actively involved in board decisions at the highest level; they know what shareholders want,' he says, suggesting that chairmen like him must begin to look beyond the traditional pool of accountancy-trained finance director and chief executive candidates.
 
Gay Collins, executive chairman of consultancy MHP Communications, believes many headhunters are trying to broaden their horizon in terms of where to look for non-executives. 'Under pressure from the Davis Report [which recommended that boards should achieve 25 per cent female representation by 2015] and campaigns like the 30% Group, headhunters are having to take a fresh approach to finding new talent,' she says.
 
'Communications directors certainly have the skills you need - diplomacy, understanding strategy, advising clients and really understanding how the reputation and perception of a business can make a difference to its share price.'
 
But Alex Gordon Shute, founder of Ithaca Partners, is not convinced that these skills and experience are enough to win a position as a non-executive director. 'Top notch communications directors in senior roles definitely have plenty to offer in non executive roles, but the more important question is - in a competitive market - is that enough? The issue is that there are a lot of people wanting to do non-executive roles and, given that competition, the recent history of board appointments suggests a chairman will take a former chief executive over a communications person most times.'
 
It is true that most board appointments to businesses listed on the stock market are taken from a limited pool. Former or current chief executives from the business sector, or a related one, who have experience of setting strategy and knowing the competitive forces in a given marketplace are popular choices. Similarly, finance directors, former finance directors or senior accountants, who can chair the all-important Audit Committees, are sought after, while specialist appointments may be pertinent to a particular business, such as a former senior diplomat for an oil company that is involved in geo-politically sensitive areas.
 
Gordon Shute says: 'The thing communications people are excellent at is seeing the big picture. The best ones are natural strategists - looking at markets and competitor sets, and thinking carefully about trends and other factors which may affect the fortunes of a company. But often those views are just as well deployed behind the scenes where communications people can be great advisers to chief executives.'
 
Gordon Shute sees a link between these strengths and the rise of the in-house communications function. Chief executives relied much more heavily on agencies for advice 20 years ago, now they have someone at their right hand side.
 
Former business journalist and Conservative peer, Baroness Wheatcroft, who is now a non-executive director of Fiat, the Italian car maker and St James's Place, a financial services firm, has met plenty of communications directors in her time but can think of few who made it to the board.
 
'Nigel Whittaker at Kingfisher was a notable exception but it was as legal counsel that he first got into the boardroom,' she recalls. Similarly, Dame Lucy Neville-Rolfe, former director of corporate and legal affairs at Tesco, joined the supermarket's board in 2006 as company secretary.
 
For Wheatcroft, the best communications directors could certainly make useful contributions as non executives, since the best boards gather a mix of experience and skills. 'A non-executive director needs to be able to say what he or she really thinks and to ask the obvious questions. Corporate communications people should be up for that!' says Wheatcroft.
 
She is right in that communications people are not noted for hanging back. But when it comes to pushing themselves forward for board roles, it seems that many are reluctant to trumpet their qualifications for the role. Or perhaps they are more than happy to be the Machiavellian power behind the throne, whispering into the ears of chief executives, the modern day princes of our economy.