This column originally appeared in the Nov.28, 2016 edition of PR Week. 

I’ve often written about the changing organizational landscape given the new skills and capabilities required in today’s corporate communications function. But recent research suggests much of what’s required inside corp comms functions is not new at all.  

I have the privilege of co-chairing the Arthur Page Society’s Skills & Capabilities committee.  We’re studying this issue right now and trying to assess what skills and capabilities will be required over the next five years, especially among senior comms professionals.

While much of the talk has been about data analytics, content publishing, creative storytelling and so on, the fresh insight (to me, at least) is that “soft skills” are being ranked among the greatest needs in our business.

Based on feedback from a meeting with a few dozen Page Society members, and then nearly 100 Page Up members, the following five capabilities were identified as being most critical in importance AND in need of being better developed by staff:

·      Strategic business thinking

·      Dealing with ambiguity and complexity

·      Offering courageous counsel

·      Problem solving

·      Business acumen

This is a wake-up call. The challenge with soft skills, ironically, is that they’re hard to learn (not impossible). And hard skills are typically much easier (writing, analytics, etc.).

The consequence is that we don’t see very much in the way of real teaching going on inside corporations for these critical, yet softer skills.  So what has to change?

I would suggest a few things.

First, for the long run, hiring. We tend to hire for short-term, tactical needs. “I need a speechwriter,” “I need an editor to manage our publishing operation,” “I need someone who knows about employee engagement.”

Hiring is often done to immediately fill a void and for a specific set of deliverables.  That won’t change, but the hiring process must incorporate the longer-term requirements you’ll have of your key staff. 

The ability of the entire function to rise in the eyes of the C-suite is solely related to the stature, business acumen and performance of the individuals in the organization.  Absent strong business acumen – which is not perceived to exist now – the comms function will often remain viewed as a tactical, not strategic, weapon.

Second, training. My experience is that training is often viewed inside a company as either a luxury or expensive. As a result, it’s done sporadically.  A little creative thinking is all that’s required to fix this problem.

Company CFOs, business affairs execs, general counsels, and so on are a wonderful source for training. Bring them into regular comms meetings for insights into those functions, how they optimally work with other enterprise functions, and so on. 

A company’s business partners are often a great source for training staff. Maybe one of your bankers would make a great teacher. Perhaps a McKinsey or Bain or BCG consultant. And so on. These are high-value resources that likely cost nothing for a one-off workshop.

Third, performance metrics. Force collaboration with business partners to develop performance metrics that demonstrate business impact and for which you are comfortable taking accountability.  You get what you measure. There isn’t a viable business strategy without critical metrics; the same should be true of comms.

These suggestions are just a start. The need for better business and general leadership skills is stronger today than ever given the complexity and inter-dependency of enterprise functions.