It’s easy to see why becoming a trusted advisor to the CEO and/or senior leaders is akin to the Holy Grail for many communicators. After all, the benefits from a development perspective are clear: the professional who is the first port of call for the solution to a business problem is in a tremendous position to help shape the thinking, build a deeper understanding of the situation, and establish strong credibility through discussions.
But becoming a trusted advisor doesn’t happen overnight. The position must be earned – and this takes time and investment of effort. So, how do you build this type of relationship and become a trusted advisor to the CEO? And how do you go beyond your “comms expert” label and become viewed by top management as a critical partner in making the organization’s most important decisions?
A Businessperson Who Talks Communication
We’ve all seen them, the communicator that delivers internal messages, and the communicator that helps shape the business. But what differentiates the two? Quite simply it’s having knowledge of your business, and the ability to be proactive, says Sue Dewhurst, managing director of the SD Group, and an internal communications trainer.
Demonstrating an understanding of where your internal customers are coming from, what their problems are, and conducting conversations from that perspective is a fundamental part of being a trusted advisor. How a communicator is viewed varies depending on the type of conversations the internal customers are used to having with them. A leader is undoubtedly going to find greater value in the communicator who speaks the language of the business and tries to achieve the business objectives first and foremost. “Quite often what happens is communicators go in and have ‘communication conversations,’ and I think it doesn’t quite match,” says Dewhurst, on identifying blocks to achieving trusted advisor status.
It’s surprising then that many let keeping abreast of the business strategy fall by the wayside. Yes, internal communicators may feel like they already have hundreds of things on their to-do list, but could failing in getting to know the business be the reason why they often find themselves as the deliverer of organizational messages, rather than cultivating them? “Although internal communicators want to do this, I think they quite often place the blame at the foot of their internal customers,” says Dewhurst. She often hears communicators complain that they’re not involved in decisions until it’s too late, or that their advice isn’t being listened to, but, she adds: “There’s no smoke without fire, and if they’re not being treated as advisors, it’s because they’ve not achieved the right to be there yet.”
From Reactive to Proactive
Equipping yourself with knowledge of your business means you can take a proactive stance in helping meet its objectives. Those who are usually sought out tend to have proved their worth and built a reputation on looking for opportunities to achieve business goals, regularly talking to internal customers and understanding what’s going on in their remit. “It’s not about sitting there and waiting for the customers to come out and ask you to do something,” says Dewhurst. “If you know your business, you can see where there’s potential for an issue or something that needs support, and you proactively go out and offer your help with solving that issue.”
For Kelly Vandrine, head of communications at healthcare company Bupa Australia, knowing her business and using her specialist skill has seen the function transform from one that simply sent out company announcements, to one that today works with people across the business to develop comms strategies. In practice, this means that when someone submits a project for review or sign-off, they have to state early on what internal communication support they need.
“It means we have a view of what’s coming up the rest of the year, that we wouldn’t otherwise know about,” says Vandrine. She regularly works with the CEO and directors to provide advice and consultation on projects and helping them achieve their objectives.
Transforming the Role and Function
Vandrine emphasizes that the need to demonstrate value – and how you can support the business – is essential in positioning oneself as a trusted advisor. She agrees that brushing up on business knowledge and being proactive is key to paving the way to doing this. “You can only be a trusted advisor if you have any idea of what you’re talking about, because otherwise [senior leaders] will completely dismiss you, even if your idea is sound, because they won’t think you understand their challenges,” she says.
To widen your knowledge of the business, Kim Beddard-Fontaine, vice president, internal communications at Schneider Electric, asserts the importance of getting involved in management meetings, as well as asking for time with different members of the leadership to get input on what their needs are. “You have to start opening the door yourself,” she says.
This was one of the first things Vandrine did when she first moved into her role, setting up one-to-one meetings with each of the directors at Bupa Australia, to gauge their views on what they saw the role of IC being, their top five priorities for the next year, as well as her views on the function’s role in the business.
“I didn’t position it as being about me, I tried to position it to what I could do for them and support their teams,” she says.
“The first time I asked, ‘How do you think internal comms can support the business in meeting its objectives?’ some of them looked at me blankly, as if to say, ‘Internal comms can support the business? What are you talking about, don’t you just send emails?’” A common reaction, no doubt, for many communicators.
Aside from moving from tactical to strategic and reactive to proactive, what competencies are needed in order to become a trusted advisor? One characteristic that defines the trusted advisor is having the guile to push back, disagree, and tell leaders what they might not want to hear. “You gain credibility by creating that dialogue,” says Beddard-Fontaine. “Sometimes what they want is not necessarily what they need, so you need to dig deeper with them to understand their situation,” she says.
Courage and confidence are key in doing this, as Dewhurst says: “As much as they want to be a trusted advisor, many communicators don’t want to question a senior leader because they don’t want to question the decision. They don’t want to make themselves unpopular or put themselves in a position where there might be potential conflict.”
Vandrine says building this confidence is all in the “how”: “Whether I’m going to my CEO or a director, I try and understand each person individually. I tailor each situation to recognize what it is they need. Some leaders can be ego driven, so I think it’s important to really know your stakeholders and know about the subject.”
A key competency in becoming a trusted advisor is listening. “Listen to what people are and aren’t saying so you can start to identify some of those triggers for them. If you can start to understand where they’re coming from, it means you can understand their priorities and some of their concerns, and can therefore identify some of the opportunities where you can support them,” Vandrine says.
Stephen Pain, acting vice president, corporate communications at Unilever, agrees. He emphasizes that listening to not just what the client is saying but to the organization in its entirety – from the bottom up, top down, and externally – is effective in helping senior managers understand the context in which the business is operating.
The CEO and senior leaders are expected to be the decision makers, they’re meant to make sense of all this complexity, and the role of the trusted advisor is to help them through that. “That’s part of what you’re there to do. Management is about making good judgments, and trusted advisors support management in making those judgments,” says Pain.
Building partnerships with other functions also facilitates this, he says, demonstrating you have a multi-dimensional view of the business. A part of the communication challenge is to synthesize these different points of view and develop a narrative out of it, so when feeding back into top management, you’re able to talk to senior leaders about the business in its entirety, as opposed to from one particular view.
He adds that having this holistic view provides an opportunity to engage in quality, value-adding conversations, both for yourself and leaders. “If you can speak the boardroom language, then you’ll find yourself a credible contributor to the boardroom debate,” adds Pain.
Having that in-depth knowledge of the business is fundamental to becoming a good coach and consultant, assisting in identifying deeper issues through asking questions, says Beddard-Fontaine. “If your boss isn’t doing it, it might be because he hasn’t thought about it,” she says. By asking challenging and thought-provoking questions you can help leaders understand their business problem, which is crucial in earning respect and building rapport, she adds.
So, what are the lasting benefits to both the business and for communicators professionally in this role? For Beddard-Fontaine, it means you’re not the last person to know – you’re one of the first – and you have influence. These days she increasingly sees top managers asking for time on her agenda. “When you start showing your added value, they start coming to you rather then you having to go to them, and rather than telling me what to do, people ask me,” she says.
It also means communication is an important component of supporting leadership in achieving business goals. “When the function is positioned as trusted advisors, at the source of information, we become a management tool to help drive the business, which in turn helps drive employee engagement,” she adds.
Pain says: “In a sense you’re in a position to pull together and work cross-functionally, cross-culturally and really at the center of the organization. Being able to tell that story or put together the narrative of what needs to get done means you’re in a very important position in pulling it all together. Professionally it’s a very satisfying role to be performing.”
So when you are aligning yourself with your leadership, leading the comms function, and ensuring communications is firmly on the business agenda, it’s no wonder the trusted advisor role remains so coveted.