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The ‘new’ corporate affairs leader

By Anna Whitlam, Managing Director of Anna Whitlam People and Non-Executive Director of Commtract. This article was originally published on AWP’s Wisdom & Wit and can be  viewed here.

In engaging with candidates and clients, which is a part of the job I really enjoy, the discussions often turn to the corporate affairs function, and the most sought-after qualities in corporate affairs leaders.

In fact, I’ve recently made a number of presentations to corporate teams on this very same subject, and the “changing profile” of successful leaders in this space.

And it’s quite remarkable how this profile, and these qualities, have changed over the past 15 years – even as recently as the past five.

In days gone by, the typical corporate affairs director was male, aged in his late 40s or 50s, and had a background in the media or political scene. Often (but not always) they drank or smoked too much, and survived on their intuition and street smarts.

They were not particularly financially literate and often had did not have a university degree. While some reported to the CEO, many did not. They were not involved in major strategic discussions or operational decisions – they were “reactive” and expected to communicate decisions made by others.

Today, corporate affairs directors are a different breed altogether: they are younger, better educated often with an MBA or business Masters, Law or Commerce degree, as likely to be female as male, more focussed on business and commercial objectives, have a ‘seat at the table’ with their peers on executive committees.

Generally, they have a high emotional intelligence, and are confident, persuasive presenters, able to advocate to a board of directors and other key audiences. They have the business and intellectual bandwidth to contribute to strategic debate, even outside their direct area of responsibility.

A good example of today’s modern generation of leaders include Geoff Healy, Chief External Affairs Officer at BHP; Luisa Megale, Group Head of Corporate Affairs at Lendlease; and Carmel Mulhern, Group General Counsel and Group Executive Corporate Affairs at Telstra.

They embody what I’m talking about, and how businesses are moving away from the old-style, issues driven corporate affairs professional.

So, as you can see, in making these recent presentations, we had plenty of material to work with. There are few senior corporate roles in other disciplines that have undergone such a transformation in such a short space of time.

As I talk to various organisations, it never ceases to amaze me how often senior leaders underestimate the value of soft capabilities vs technical skills.

And by soft capabilities, I mean those intangible, difficult-to-measure qualities such as leadership ability, emotional intelligence, influence, communication skills, working style, ability to galvanise a team and so on.

They can also include the ability to be flexible, patient and persuasive; to problem solve, motivate and manage time. These are all incredibly important attributes in the modern corporate affairs function.

One of the presentations we recently made looked at the evolution – some might say revolution – in the way corporate affairs leaders are chosen. We also profiled the new generation of leaders.

In short, the new breed are more rounded, better educated individuals who are equipped to deal with a wide range of tasks at senior levels of the function. Often, they have business experience beyond corporate affairs.

In interviewing candidates for these roles, it’s rare that we will probe individuals on their technical capabilities and much more likely that we will try to understand their working style, past behaviours and future aspirations/motivations – their ‘soft’ capabilities.

Most practitioners are promoted in the early days of their career based on their technical strengths. Although technical capabilities form the bedrock of a successful corporate affairs professional, I would argue that ‘soft’ capabilities are more valuable when trying to identify a successful leader.

In the most broad-minded and forward-looking companies, the director or head of corporate affairs is now regarded as one of the leaders of the business – and often a trusted advisor to the CEO – who makes a valued contribution with his/her opinions and who has input into all the important decisions.

It’s been an extraordinary period of change in the sector but, I believe, one for the better. In an increasingly competitive world, it is imperative that the people charged with guarding reputations, offering advice and forming strategy are those with the broadest education, experience and proven leadership abilities.

Now, more than ever, what’s required for these roles are global citizens with a global perspective.

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