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Making Succession a Priority

Just prior to the year-end holidays, I learned of two executive-level Communication positions in well-respected, global organizations that were turning over. In each case, the people named to replace the incumbents — both of whom are seasoned, experienced and well-respected Communication professionals — were selected from different enterprise functions, having had no formal, prior Communication experience.

Throughout my career in Public Relations and Corporate Communications, I’ve seen this play out before, frankly, more times than I care to count. Which got me to thinking and wondering why.

Why, when Communication roles are so critical to the near-, mid- and long-term success of the organizations we serve, do business leaders go outside the function to select new Communication leaders? As in the two cases cited above, the new leaders often have no prior Communication experience and may have limited understanding of the strategic roles we play, the work we do, and the counsel that we bring forward to manage and protect the reputations and advance the business objectives of those organizations.

No doubt there are many reasons why this happens. But I endeavored to sort through some of this, believing that some of the onus falls to us – the leaders of the Communication function — and the way we plan for our own succession.

The Hypothesis

My initial hypothesis was this: As an enterprise function that, at best, unevenly focuses serious energy, attention and planning on the issue of succession, we remain a second-tier enterprise function inside many organizations. This stands in stark contrast to other enterprise functions that, traditionally, have taken succession planning as a serious and integral part of their remit and long-term strength, e.g., HR, Legal, Finance and Information Technology, to name a few.

If you believe that’s a viable hypothesis, then it could stand to reason that, ultimately, any failure to plan adequately for leadership succession could mitigate effective, long-term reputation management, and countless other strategic efforts. Think of it this way: When an organization goes outside to find its next Chief Communication Officer (CCO) or Corporate Affairs Executive (CAE), or hires someone from another function to fill that role, that organization might effectively be calling a “do over” on its reputation management and other strategic efforts.

In addition to my own thoughts on the subject, I fielded a brief survey and sent it to 15 current and former CCOs and CAEs, each of whom is generally thought of as a leader in the field. What I heard back from the 10 who responded reinforced many of my own observations, but also illuminated some other points.

Taken together, perhaps these views can inform how we plan for succession at the highest levels of our function, something they overwhelmingly said has been lacking and in which, as a field, we must do better.

The Survey

One of the questions I asked of these leaders was to rank, in order of importance, a number of tasks typically ascribed to the CCO and Communication function. These included:

  • Strategic planning and implementation
  • Brand and reputation management
  • Direct support to the CEO/Chairman and C-Suite
  • Organizing the Communication function
  • Succession Planning
  • Financial oversight of the Comms function
  • Stakeholder relations
  • …and a few others.


It wasn’t altogether surprising that of the 11 tasks mentioned, Succession Planning ranked dead last in importance to these leaders. While I’m certainly not going to suggest that it should rank at the top, ranking it last might indicate that we far-too-often relegate succession planning and, in the process, cede responsibility for helping to identify and groom our own successors to others. This may explain why many business leaders take it upon themselves to appoint new leaders from outside the organization and/or outside the function.

Supporting that, an overwhelming majority of survey respondents said that they believe their successors will come from outside their organizations. As one respondent said, “Perhaps it’s because we are seen primarily as a transactional function, and as such, we haven’t been seen as critical to the business as some other functions. That translates into CEOs seeing us as ‘more replaceable,’ hence their willingness to go to the outside.”

It won’t be surprising to learn that most respondents said they do not have a well-defined slate of qualified candidates ready to replace them.

As one senior leader said, responding to the survey, “When it comes time to announce a successor, direct reports are often seen as fairly expert in their subject matter, but are lacking the appropriate leadership skills. This means they often lack relationships with other key leaders and fluency in other parts of the business.” He added, “Equally likely, they haven’t been groomed for succession.”

Only one respondent believed they’d have a high degree of influence identifying and naming their successor.

Another said this, “The vast majority of #2s that I see do not have what it takes to be a CCO. The function doesn’t seem to be attracting the best and the brightest, which is why many newly-minted CCOs were trained to do something else, and just happen to find themselves in Communication – for a variety of factors.”

Clearly, there’s room to do better, and I’d argue that, as a field, we must.

Alas, there’s hope – lots of it. One survey respondent said this: “I think things are changing. With the increased digitization of business and all that comes with it, the importance of corporate reputation and the increasing demands of the Communication function, I think leaders are now starting to appreciate the ‘chops’ needed to lead the Communication function, and that can’t come from having spent a career in Finance or HR or some other function.”

But, it will take a different mindset, approach and commitment, as one long-time executive recruiter said. “It (CCO succession planning) is not something the Communication profession has done particularly well.”

The Takeaway

When senior Communication and Corporate Affairs Executives do not take planning for their own succession as fundamental to their roles, we leave too much to chance, too much to the whims of others who might not have the full, strategic and fundamental understanding of the value we bring to the table each and every day. Our roles are too vital to leave succession to chance. We’d be well-served as a critical leadership and management function to make succession planning a priority, ensuring that the next generation of leaders come from within, with a track record of success, credibility with senior management, a fully formed understanding of the organization, its culture and the core business strategies critical to success in the near, mid- and long-term. It’s a win for the business and the organizations we serve, the stature of our function and profession, and the legacies that CCOs and CAEs leave behind.

Craig Rothenberg is Founder and CEO of Rothenberg Communication LLC, a consultancy that focuses on communication leadership, strategy and execution. He’s available to help CCOs and CAEs with their succession planning efforts.

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