Corporate affairs: The new talent pool for executive succession planning
It’s a classic truism in HR: Crises are great testing grounds for executive talent. In the cut-and-thrust of the sudden unknown, with all hands to the pump and a million questions but no easy answers, real leaders naturally emerge.
Often, the faces surprise. A frontline supervisor, unnoticed for years, who suddenly reveals themselves in the heat of battle to be potential management-in-waiting. Or perhaps a high-flying talent, earmarked for rapid executive promotion, who now finds themselves cruelly exposed by the crisis; suddenly seen to be lacking those crucial, indefinable qualities that separate inspirational leaders from competent managers. Pressure can make or break careers.
The ‘dress rehearsal’ for Corporate Affairs
But as we reflect on what the once-in-a-century crisis of Covid-19 has taught us about our talent and succession profiles, we need to be broad in our thinking. For the leadership ‘dress rehearsal’ of a crisis is not limited to individuals, it also applies to whole functions. In normal times, every department is busy with data and decks to ‘prove’ they’re delivering value. But what did reality tell us during the pandemic, when everything was laid bare?
One function in particular – corporate affairs – found itself squarely in the spotlight during that period and, in most organisations, not just passed the test but did so with flying colours, actively enhancing a reputation that had already been blossoming in recent years. Once viewed as a ‘soft and fluffy’ content management function, corporate affairs has been on a radical, reforming trajectory for over a decade, driven by a proliferating digital communications ecosystem and a growing recognition of the need, in such a world, for skilled reputation management.
Bolstered by rapid professionalisation in the senior ranks of the industry, all that talent growth was then severely tested by Covid-19. From the outset, this was a heavily people-centred crisis as, against a backdrop of ever-changing facts and rumour, companies faced handling an anxious workforce, disrupted team management, panicked investors and locked-down consumers, and all while needing to operationalise an entirely new communications infrastructure for global remote working overnight. Frequently, senior corporate affairs leaders found themselves at the head of the board table each morning, leading the company’s crisis response. It underlined a growing sense that the function had now become a central player in the effective running of any major business.
It therefore seems like the right time to ask: Is a reassessment of corporate affairs and its leadership profile overdue?
- Is HR giving the corporate affairs function and its leadership due credit — or are we unconsciously hanging onto an out-of-date profile?
- Have we truly recognised the change in its commercial importance over the last decade? That executive teams now look to corporate affairs as a strategic problem solver, reputational guardian and protector of the bottom line, not just a soft-hearted cost centre?
- Have we recognised its rapid internal development and blossoming talent pool, especially in Asia, all further enhanced by the pandemic? Do these corporate affairs leaders warrant more consideration during the next round of executive succession planning?
- Finally, as HR professionals, are we coordinating effectively on a daily basis with this function – now an increasingly powerful group and whose work on workplace engagement, employer branding, and employee wellbeing intersects so much with our own – to deliver better results for our businesses?
New research reveals the changing profile of corporate affairs
For insight, we listened to first-hand evidence from the people who have seen it most clearly – 52 high-performing corporate affairs directors in multinationals across the Asia-Pacific region (APAC). During in-depth interviews in the summer of 2021, these practitioners, each with decades of experience, told us the story of those dramatic changes to the profession’s talent profile.
Download full research report here.
1) Increasing board-level skills
When asked what characterises the best talent in corporate affairs today, old attributes like ‘media relations skills’ and ‘crisis communications capabilities’ barely registered anymore (fewer than one in 10 mentioned them). What they saw instead among the upper echelons of the APAC profession were serious boardroom-level skills: executive credibility (29%), ability to connect with disparate stakeholders (27%) and first-rate business acumen (25%) being the most commonly mentioned.
Combined with their ability to provide effective counsel to fellow leaders (23%), be resilient (23%) and visionary (21%), it all indicated that the days of ‘soft-skilled’ corporate affairs leaders getting by on media creativity and campaigning are long gone. These are not tacticians any more. They’re executive talent.
2) More accountable for strategic delivery
That new performance profile hasn’t come from nowhere, it’s the product of enhanced exposure and widening scope. We found a corporate affairs leadership much more intimately plugged into their business’s strategy than ever in the past – because they’re now increasingly accountable for its delivery.
Nowhere is that more true than in Asia, for it is here that international businesses have returned their gazes – and investment levels – in the wake of the pandemic: Nearly a quarter of our interviewees said that full-blooded expansion of the company’s APAC business was their company’s over-riding global strategic priority once again – the top answer – positioning APAC corporate affairs professionals centrally in whatever corporate growth story emerges in the coming years. Many had been given a specific remit to strategise the selling of the employer brand locally – to attract the best talent and build the strongest local businesses – as well as drawing out the necessary employee advocacy to support it. It begs the question: Given the intersection of these responsibilities with those traditionally in HR, is the relationship between the two functions as strong as it could be?
3) More central to reputation management than anywhere else globally
One major catalyst for corporate affairs’ recent flourishing has been a boardroom epiphany around corporate reputation. In a complex world of proliferating technology, a consensus has suddenly overtaken the C-suite worldwide that reputation management now demands professional, integrated oversight from a single, highly skilled executive function.
A corporate affairs director is therefore now expected, at core, to be the primary watch over the company’s standing by monitoring and influencing a dizzyingly varied range of stakeholders and interests – public and private; internal and external; commercial, government and regulatory.
But it is here in Asia that this complexity, and the demands it places on the skills of corporate affairs leaders, are vastly magnified by our challenging regulatory environment. Interviewees here repeatedly invoked government relations as the area where they had worked hardest and delivered most impact to their organisations’ reputations, because in APAC your relationships with central government, state and provincial officials are often what enable your company to operate in the region at all. It’s a whole different proposition to everywhere else.
It is one reason why the profession’s talent profile in Asia has been on such a rapid upward trajectory; and it’s also why it has changed so radically of late. Gone are the days of multinationals ‘parachuting in’ practitioners from the US and Europe to head up APAC corporate affairs. Many of the new generation of corporate affairs leaders in Asia are local, multilingual, and intimately connected to their domestic markets.
That in turn is having a knock-on effect, loading the profession in Asia with people ‘connected’ enough to be able to support the local business in its commercial growth ambitions. The two things in combination – the widening skills profile, and the trade potential it brings – means that a complete reappraisal is needed of corporate affairs leaders in Asia, not least because they are delivering the type of strategic value that most benefits HR’s work and actively supports its wider ambitions.
4) Talent development through talent movement
Finally, though, a warning. When asked to reflect on their careers and identify the most important, transformative moment in their journey to leadership, the majority instinctively cited the same intervention – an international job move – as that catalyst.
It’s not hard to understand. The benefits picked up by an international move are not limited to the language and locality skills it gives you, but the sort of character inflexions acquired that every leader needs to develop – perspective; flexibility; sensitivity; global awareness; compromise; and the ability to adapt one’s personal style to different stakeholders.
But that raises difficult questions for HR professionals: Already, many organisations have announced a permanent move to flex- or hybrid working, and most have said international travel will be limited severely after the pandemic. If your most successful recent corporate leaders argue, on reflection, that international job placements were the single biggest fertiliser of their professional blossoming, how can we still leverage that development path in a post-Covid world?
Even prior to the pandemic, international work secondments had dropped off dramatically. Where then, it seems to fair to ask, are the next generation of leaders going to come from?
HR professionals would once have viewed corporate affairs leaders as solid professionals, but probably lacking the broad-spectrum business-leadership skills to progress into most other senior positions. Although in recent years, we have seen a some greater career flexibility via a trend for minor transitions (into Chief-of-Staff roles, for example), it is still rare for even highly experienced corporate affairs leaders to be considered for other senior positions – strategy; research; organisational development; sustainability … even, dare we say it, COO or CEO?
But why not? What Covid-19 taught us, without question, is that an entirely new breed of corporate affairs leaders has taken hold of the profession. These are not speechwriters, content-makers or social media gurus. They are not moderators of town halls or creators of cascades. They are sharp commercialists, born business leaders, sharp to opportunities and capable of turning their hands to changing demands with decisiveness, savvy, executive vision and organisational efficiency. Since the pandemic, we know that they are cool in a crisis too, able to make cool decisions under pressure. The only conclusion is that the waiting room for executive succession just got a bit more crowded.
Andrews Partnership are the reputation experts, with offices in Hong Kong and Singapore working across Asia, as the leading specialist corporate affairs, communications and investor relations executive search firm. We excel at understanding each organisation's unique challenges and appointing the right talent, who make meaningful business impact.