What skills do you need to take your communication career to the next level? In this Q&A, CW Senior Editor Jessica Burnette-Lemon asks Richard S. Marshall, global managing director of the corporate affairs practice of executive search and talent management consultancy Korn Ferry International to weigh in on the topic. He leads the firm’s worldwide specialty practice that focuses on executive search and leadership advisory work in corporate communication, investor relations and government affairs. His clients and placements include the chief communication and investor relations officers at some of the largest and best-known brands in the world, including Alibaba, PepsiCo, the National Football League (NFL), NASCAR, Sanofi, and Walmart, among other Fortune Global 500 organizations.
Marshall has more than a dozen years of experience in search and advisory work, as well as 20-plus years of in-house communication and public affairs leadership roles. As a communication practitioner, his roles included holding the Chief Communications Officer title, reporting to CEOs at The Home Depot, Silicon Graphics (SGI), and Subaru of America, where he counseled the C-Suite and led global teams across all communication disciplines.
Jessica Burnette-Lemon: What skills do you find employers prize most in communication professionals and executives?
Richard Marshall: It depends upon the level of the role we are working on, but generally speaking there are two skills we hear in almost every search assignment: business acumen and problem solving. If the role is a direct report to the chief communication officer (CCO), typically we hear that writing and critical thinking/problem solving skills are at the top of the list regardless of the specific role.
If our assignment is for a CCO (No. 1 role) reporting to the CEO, the game shifts and we hear that having business acumen and leadership skills are the most important. Typically, CEOs and the C-suite in general understand the value of communication. However, the real influence of the communication function will be directly linked to its ability to earn the trust and confidence of the C-suite that it understands how the business operates. If leadership feels the department does not have the business acumen or strategic mindset, the function will relegated to a diminished/secondary role where their role will be to simply execute and produce content and materials without having input into its strategy.
On the other hand, those departments/leaders who can demonstrate their “value add” and speak the language of the C-suite will more likely have a seat at the table in helping to create and shape strategic plans that are aligned with, and support, the broader business objectives. So, regardless of the level, we believe business acumen and problem-solving skills are critical assets for success.
JBL: What types of skills do you think communication professionals should focus on developing to take their careers to the next level, for example from practitioner to executive/strategic adviser?
RM: As the communication function continues to advance and become more elevated, it’s important that communication professionals continue to elevate their skills. Functional mastery is merely “table stakes.” It’s expected in high-performing organizations. But the differentiator, for those who elevate to the top functional roles in organizations, is the ability to be viewed by the C-suite as strategic partners who understand the business, add value, and can help to solve complicated business challenges.
Gaining experience outside of the function, perhaps through a rotational assignment or special project, can be a beneficial way to broaden your experience and earn credibility in the business. Or, taking on an international assignment can also be helpful in distinguishing yourself with your organization. In short, having mastery of the function as well as valuable experiences outside of it, will set you apart and can help to get you to the next level.
JBL: Do you see a trend in the types of skills employers are looking for? For example, do you see more of a need for generalists or specialists? Or internal communication professionals versus external/PR?
RM: We believe that leaders of the function both now and in the future need to have a broad range of skills across communication disciplines. Specialization is important and can allow you to advance quickly, but it can also be limiting if the particular area of focus becomes commoditized. And by specializing in only one area, you may be viewed as “too narrow” and thus limit your career growth.
Currently, we see a lot of requests for talent with social media skills. Today, clearly social media skills are highly valued and there are more roles open seeking these skills. Gaining experience in this area will be important and helpful, but we believe having a broader and diverse functional skill set will be important for continued career growth. The communication leader, now more than ever, has a unique position within the organization. No other functional leader interfaces with a more diverse range of stakeholders—employees, media, regulators, customers, influencers, etc.—so understanding all of the audiences, as well as how the full portfolio of communication tools can be leveraged is critically important in order to create fully integrated communication strategies that are aligned with business goals and can reach, inform and educate, and influence all of the key stakeholders.
JBL: What specific skills, if any, do you find that many communication professionals are lacking that will become more necessary in the future?
RM: Leadership skills will be especially important to grow your career. Having the ability to mobilize teams, even those you don’t directly manage, as well as the ability to adjust and recalibrate to constantly changing conditions and deliver results will be more important than ever as you advance in your career. The pace of change and disruption are challenging virtually every convention in business today. The successful leaders will need to have both the learning agility to adapt to new realities as well as the capability to lead, coach, and inspire teams across the organization to compete and win.