A Seat at the Table: Now What?

May 22, 2024
By Steve Astle

At a gathering of top Silicon Valley communications leaders last week, a curious theme emerged: Communications is increasingly appreciated for its strategic value. And while this represents progress, it brings with it some new challenges.

For a long time, communicators complained of being marginalized, relegated to transactional work, treated as a cost center and brought in only after the strategic decisions have been made. Over time, however, the value of communication has come to be recognized more broadly. The use of data and analytics to better target and engage stakeholders was one reason; another was the focus on ESG-related issues and risks. When the COVID pandemic hit, urgent questions about who should come to work and when, how to ensure employee safety and whether to require employees and customers to be vaccinated required deft communication not just within the C-suite, but also among employees, customers, business partners, investors, regulators, civic leaders and public health authorities. Today, our function is increasingly charged with helping create a meaningful employee experience and organizational culture.

More recently, the challenges of managing in the current, politically polarized, algorithmically fueled environment have multiplied — even as the pace of change has accelerated. Seemingly benign business initiatives like tending to the climate crisis and working toward more diverse and equitable workplaces have given rise to business risks that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. Many of the largest companies are being forced to contend with the spread of geopolitical protests from college campuses onto corporate campuses. Meanwhile, the competitive pressure to adopt generative AI seems to be outstripping the moral pressure to understand and weigh the possible unintended consequences.

The group also discussed a common weakness among communications teams: the general lack of business acumen. Those who have it tend to rise into positions of leadership; yet many others focus on developing a narrow set of communications skills, unwittingly limiting their own professional prospects, particularly with the coming generative AI tsunami.

Several people offered “hacks” they’ve implemented to rectify this situation — to fortify their teams and impart greater business understanding and value. One member of the group described “mini MBA” sessions in which she takes her teammates through business fundamentals, like how to read a balance sheet or the implications of the business strategy for different functions. Another described quarterly “ask me anything” sessions with the CFO, giving the communications team the opportunity to ask questions they might be embarrassed to ask in other settings.

While communicators’ scope of responsibility has increased, resources — even at some of the world’s most valuable companies — have not. Staffing levels and budgets remain flat, forcing leaders to make increasingly tricky trade-offs. Dave Samson and Lori Teranishi brought up John Onoda’s “20% rule” — Switch out 20% of your workload every year, and you’ll reinvent yourself every five years. For ambitious people, the challenge isn’t taking on something new; it’s letting go of something you’ve already mastered.

 

"Switch out 20% of your workload every year, and you’ll reinvent yourself every five years."

 

While this rule applies to us as individuals, it can also be applied to our function. If resources are flat, deploy your team on higher-value deliverables while saying no to lower-value ones. This often requires difficult conversations with business unit leaders or functional leaders who may have gotten more of your team’s attention in the past. But over time, it’s the only way to move communications from a tactically focused cost center to a value-creating function that deploys communications strategically to drive meaningful business outcomes.

This last point underscores one of the fundamentals of our profession: relationship-building. Especially in decentralized organizations, there’s no longer just one table, but many. Our ability to establish and cultivate strong working relationships with others across the enterprise is essential to our ability to understand evolving business dynamics, identify emerging opportunities and risks and bring even more value to the business.

For top communicators, this is the new imperative. Broadening the skills and business acumen of our teammates while building a diverse network of relationships that extend well beyond our own function is essential if we’re to hang onto our seats at the tables that matter.