Get out of PR

That’s not just a provocative lead intended to draw you into this column. I really believe it.

I was just reading a Harvard Business Review piece called “The Ultimate Marketing Machine.” It was authored by the founders of strategy consulting firm Millward Brown Vermeer and by the CMO of Unilever.

The challenges and opportunities facing marketers increasingly read in a way that should seem awfully similar to communicators.   For example, when looking through the lens of the marketing organization, the authors identified the best performing companies as: 

  • big users of data
  • purpose-based
  • connect marketing to corporate strategy
  • inspire their workers to get results
  • very metric-driven
  • committed to internal professional development.

Beyond this, it should come as no surprise to CCOs (especially members of the Arthur Page Society who regularly receive reports on this matter) that lines are blurring across the C-suite. Indeed, as the above-referenced article points out, increasingly C-suite members are taking on “mixed” responsibilities.

For example, the article cites Motorola’s Eduardo Conrado who is SVP of both marketing and IT and Visa’s Antonio Lucio who heads Marketing and HR. The list goes on, and I could add more, like Beth Comstock and Jon Iwata, who lead multiple functions for GE and IBM, respectively.

So what does this all mean? 

It’s pretty simple: other people may be looking at aligning your function into theirs, and you may need to be doing the same. To succeed, communicators will need to be not only literate but capable of leadership in critical aspects of other functions (including marketing, HR, IT, Customer Service). That means rethinking career paths and developing the skills necessary to follow that path.  

In this new environment, climbing the proverbial ladder (i.e. a straight line) within the communications organization (or within any discipline, for that matter) seems terribly outdated. Indeed, my former client Cathy Benko, vice chairman of Deloitte, wrote a whole book called “The Corporate Lattice” on this subject.  Sheryl Sandberg refers to managing your career like climbing a jungle gym.

What I’m seeking to add to the dialogue is to encourage communication professionals in corporations and in large, multi-discipline agencies to push to get experience outside their current organizational structure.

There’s an interesting tension between this and the long-term trend in so many fields towards specialization. We see that tension in lots of places, not least higher education. On the one hand, almost all of us appreciate the long-term benefits of a well-rounded education, yet increasingly students are told that a more practical, business-oriented major will, at least in the short term, pay off better than one in liberal arts.

The challenge in managing your career is to do both: develop the expertise in communications that makes you an indispensable counselor, and while acquiring over time a sufficiently diverse set of experiences and knowledge that you can become a leader in a cross-functional role.

Of course this isn’t an entirely new idea. It’s why we generally support moving people around the globe within our companies, and rotating future leaders into different roles.  Well, now it’s just a little more complicated because I’m advocating we push people out of our own professional disciplines (and often, out of corporate silos). In short, we need to think bigger and more broadly.

If you’re in your 20’s and 30’s, in the early stages of your career, look for opportunities to take on new roles in that give you direct or indirect involvement in other functions.  If you’re thinking of going back to school for an additional degree, consider getting one that broadens your range rather than narrowing your specialization.

If you’re deeper into your career, do everything you can to make sure you aren’t typecast as just a “communications” person. Push your boss for multi-disciplinary opportunities, take courses, broaden your expertise.

To stay in tomorrow’s game, get out of today’s business.