Tips from the top

Last week two of the sectors most senior communicators spoke to the #CommsLeads network about the skills needed to move beyond the profession.

It’s always great to hear tips from people at the very top of the profession so we were incredibly lucky to have two comms pros that have moved into management positions at the heart of their respective organisations.

The CIPR often talks about PR and communications becoming a key management function and while much progress has been made this isn’t always reflected in the make-up of boards, particularly in the public sector.

The path from communications professional to chief executive seems to be a less travelled one so to have two examples within the NHS was fantastic.

A big thank you to acting chief executive Kevin McNamara and assistant chief executive Caroline Docking for taking the time to talk about their own journeys within the NHS.

Here are a few thoughts and observations from the session:

  • Opportunities don’t  just fall at your feet and if you want to progress you need to seek them out. Careers aren’t always linear and sometimes it takes you in different directions or even in ways that could be seen as a backward step to help gain a broader skillset.
  • It’s important to take a really broad view of what communications is about and not just focus on what’s in the control of a traditional marcomms department. Communications teams will often poses all the skills that very senior management are desperate for: persuasion, intelligence gathering, a high tolerance for risk, people skills and developing an organisational narrative.
  • Comms usually has very close contact with the chief executive and other directors so make the most of it to learn and build profile. Remember to use that ability to raise your own profile as well as that of the organisation.
  • Not everything you do will come off but that’s not something to be ashamed of. The 80/20 rule probably comes into play here but that’s the same for all professions.
  • It can be difficult to gain credibility across other professions because there is often a sense that ‘anyone can do comms’. This resonates with another blog I wrote about the challenges facing us. Read more on that here….
  • Your own life experiences and individual experiences with the NHS are really important. Learn from your worst experiences and be ready to understand the perspectives of others.
  • Think about the wider stakeholder mix and not just an ultra-focus on corporate communications or media work. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to speak up in high level meetings. Remember you’re an expert.

The session left me wondering if we sometimes undersell our skills? Things like reputation management and dealing with crisis are things we do every day as a profession but are also vital director level skills.

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