At the CEO's table: an interview with Professor Anne Gregory


ProCom, the Finnish Association of Communication Professionals, will hold their annual conference called "ProCom Day & Nordic, Baltic and Russion PR Leadership Forum" in Helsinki at the venue of the Hilton Helsinki, Kalstajatorppa on June 4, 2013. Professor Anne Gregory, Director of the Centre for Public Relations Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University, has been invited as one of the keynote speakers.

In her speech «At the CEO's Table» she will focus on crucial questions of the positioning of public relations professionals within organizations. We are delighted to share with you already some insights today through a the short interview with Professor Anne Gregory. 

Having an engaged and international faculty is one of EMScom assets. Professor Gregory teaches also at both executive programs, at the MScomm at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at the Singapore Management University and at the Executive Master of Science in Communications Management at USI Università della Svizzera italiana. In addition, she will take over from Daniel Tisch as the Chair of Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management on July 1, 2013. 

What does it take to be an indispensable communication leader?

A huge number of things: a communication leader is a polymath! Some of the key attributes are:

  • Having a deep and broad understanding of the context in which they live and work: that includes the big global issues including economics, those that apply to their industry and organization, the social, political, technological environment and what we might call the public mood. It’s called contextual intelligence and without it it is impossible to be a communication leader.
  • Understanding that everything that an organization does communicates. This is not only words and actions, but structures, processes, systems and ways of working.
  • Having a keen appreciation of what to say and do, when and who with, and the potential impact of that. This comes from an appreciation of context, but also from understanding people, their motivations, their aspirations and empathy with them
  • An ability to listen and really hear what people are saying
  • Having the guts to tell people how it is

What does it take to be recognized as a leader in an organization?

Being able to communicate an inspiring but realisable vision and a route towards it, in other words a sense of purpose.  Great insight into situations and people, infectious passion, perseverance, integrity and confidence.

Why should every CEO have a communication professional at their table?

Because of all the things I said in answer to question 1, but also because CEOs can live in a bubble. They need someone with 360o vision to keep them alert to danger and opportunity and to hold a mirror up to them which reflects the world as it is, not how they would want it to be. The communication professional has a very priviledged perspective. They see the organization as others see it because of the contextual intelligence I spoke about. So they are uniquely placed to be able to ask those searching questions that others may want to ask. Put it another way, they are the Internal Accountability Officer, holding the CEO to account for all hte decisions they make and pointing out the implications of those decisions b ypointing out how various stakeholders will see them. They are also the guardian of the organizations values and again benchmark decisions against those values. I like the work we did for the Melbourne Mandate where we talk about the CCO as being the promoter and defender of organizational character.

What does the CEO expect from the communication function?

My Centre has done some research on this with CEO’s and they have told us that they want a communication function that has:

  • detailed knowledge of the business
  • detailed knowledge of the external environment
  • an ability to provide forward intelligence
  • extensive internal and external networks and relationships
  • credibility with senior managers because they understand their world and talk their language
  • team players
  • educators and coaches to senior management
  • on top of the issues  and able to advise on them: in other words, they are problem solvers
  • an ability to engage in multiple stakeholder relationships with a mature and long-term perspective (authentic rather than purely transactional)
  • a strong ethical base and personal integrity
  • individuasl who will tell the CEO 'how it is' and provides honest feedback from stakeholders
  • good understanding of the brand and an ability to promote and defend it
  • ability to develop both business and communication strategies
  • ability to develop an authentic narrative that rings true internally and externally.

Putting it in my own words, I’d say that the CEO wants a communication function that helps him/her realise their strategy by articulating it powerfully, communicating it authentically, ensuring the organization is enacting its vision and values and then evaluating the whole organisations performance by reflecting back to the CEO what the world really thinks…this last thing is called reputation.

What are the challenges for a leader of working across different cultures?

We are all prisoners of our own cultures and personal history and although we know that people from different cultures may think and act differently, we often forget that. . It was a Financial Times journalist Christopher Caldwell who said last year “[t]he US role in the global corporate economy consists disproportionately of consultants, designers, managers et al., who make a good living showing foreign leaders how to organise their businesses and societies along US lines.” We from the West expect to be business-like, to be punctual, to be fairly direct and that women as well as men can lead. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating to find out that not all the world works or socializes like that. In an environment where increasingly economic power is shifting towards the East and the South and away from the West and the North, western leaders need to be humble, adaptable, open to new ways of thinking and working and check their understanding.

Does the communication style may affect being a good leader? Do you think sex differences may preclude somehow women?

There are all kinds of styles that are effective: some leaders listen and then make very powerful, but relatively short interventions; some take control and dominate the discussion; some are loud, some are relatively quiet. Of couse, leaders are not effective if they are timid little mice, they have to be confident. The key thing is the nature of the communication. This includes the content of course, but also includes whether the communication is seen to be sincere, empathetic, living the values of the organization, truthful, does not contradict what was said to others, demonstrates that the leader has listened and so on. It has to be seen to have integrity. Women sometimes struggle in a masculine culture where assertiveness and domination is valued because these traits are not found so frequently in women, although quite a few have learned that behavior. Other traits that seem to be more associated with women are to be valued in communication, such as listening, empathy, collegiality, looking for win-wins. Having said that it is still true that although communication is now a pre-dominantly female profession, it is still dominated by men, but then business is dominated by men, so there s work to do.

Can someone be a good leader, but not a good manager? Which is better for a company?

Yes. Many leaders are very strong on the big picture and with vision and communicating the vision, but not so good on the detail of operational management. They get bored with detail. That’s why they need a good team around them. Leaders also need time to think and it’s not always good for them to be focused on operational stuff. Leaders who are also micro-managers are a nightmare to work for and they end up with a weak, disempowered workforce.

If I had to choose, I’d go for a good leader. Without a vision the organization will die and good managers are easier to recruit that good leaders – there are less of then.

One of the main trends in the new economy is people working at home, connected to work by net. How can one be a leader with much less eye-to-eye contact?

Yes can do this, but it needs a lot of effort and thought. You need to do more communication and you need to keep it rich and varied (and note I said communication, not sending out stuff). As far as possible you need to create an environment that is as like a real face to face encounter, using a variety of media, including voice and visual. However, I believe that ultimately there is nothing like meeting someone, looking into their eyes and knowing that this is really them.

Is there any trend that could be called “the new leader”?

All the traditional leadership skills I mentioned earlier, but the ‘new’ leader needs a heightened awareness of context and the power of communication, for good and for bad. Of course there are many new technical skills that need to be learned and understood, but at the end of the day leadership is about people….inspiring them and making them feel valued.