Ten years to director of communications? Article icon

Ten

Director of communications roles are few and far between: there are not more than a handful of top jobs that come up every year and hundreds of people compete for them. If you’re currently in a junior communications role, how do you turbo-charge your way up the career ladder so you can get a top role in the future?

Firstly, you’re not going to get a communications director post if you just stay in the same place and wait for it to fall into your lap. You need to take risks with your career and that means getting a wide range of experiences of different roles and employers on your CV.

Alex Gordon-Shute, director of corporate affairs and investor relations executive search specialists Ithaca Partners, advises:  ‘Drink in as much experience as you can get. If you’re just working in corporate affairs, try to cover different disciplines – maybe move into media relations if you’re in public affairs. 

‘One thing that can really help you early on is to take a career risk: maybe move into marketing, strategy or research for a while to get an idea of the business from a different side. Keep in your head that you’re trying to maximise your versatility, your understanding of the business and your experiences of all the disciplines which go into holistic corporate affairs.’

Wayne Reynolds, director of corporate communications recruitment specialists Birchwood Knight, advises that if you’re currently in media relations, a move into employee communications or public affairs could broaden your appeal. ‘Sometimes the best job for your career isn’t just the one paying you more but the one which moves you on to the next stage,’ he adds.

Edwina Goodman, managing director of JFL Search & Selection, advises that anyone wanting to get to the top in communications needs to have worked for an agency at the start of their career. This is because the experience of working for an agency means that when you go for an in-house communications role you will be using agencies – so you need to understand how they work. While it is good to move jobs, Goldman points out that you need to get a balance: shifting jobs every 18 months may not be ideal as it doesn’t suggest that you have followed the business through good and bad periods.

As well as shifting between disciplines, a move between different industry sectors could also help in your long-term plans to get a top job. However, it can be difficult if you’re in a non-regulated industry trying to move into one that’s heavily regulated, such as banking or pharmaceuticals. In addition, communicators in the public sector tend to move within that sector. If you want to move between industries, it can be a good idea to test the water first to see how you like it.

Goldman advises: ‘I have one bit of advice to anyone wanting to change industry: take a job as a senior level maternity cover. For interim contracts, businesses want a safe pair of hands and you can work out if you want to work in that industry.’  

But Reynolds also cautions that, while one move within a sector can broaden your experience, ‘if your third move is also in that sector then there’s a danger of being pigeonholed’.

Aiming high is to be encouraged, but you do need to understand what a top job involves: and how those with the type of position you are aiming for got there. Find out about those in director-level jobs: what kind of career path have they had? Are there any things they have done you can emulate? And get help fulfilling your ambitions.

Sarah Leembruggen, managing director of executive search specialists The Works, suggests that for juniors wanting to climb the corporate communications ladder, a mentor can be invaluable. ‘Find someone you admire and respect, who can help you progress, who will challenge and stretch you,’ she advises. And never stop learning. Leembruggen adds: ‘You have to work at this and develop all the time. Then you will fly through the ranks.’