10 years of being a head of comms and what do I have to show for it?

10 years in communications is a long time. 10 years being a head of comms is a really long time. Lessons are a plenty so here’s a post which attempts to capture the key ones.

By Darren Caveney

Well here’s the thing. I woke up this morning and for the first time in 10-years I am not a head of comms. This is a good thing because it means I have moved on to an exciting new phase of my career.

It’s an obvious time to reflect. Has 10 years of being a head of comms made me a better comms professional? And would I recommend the role to someone else? Here’s my take on it, my top tips and answers to these two simple questions.

I have had some fantastic opportunities. Worked with some brilliant colleagues. Won over a dozen industry awards with them and learned way more than you could ever capture in a single post. I have also sat in some dreary meetings. Had to argue the case for comms, over and over and over and over, and crossed swords with some quite unpleasant people. The rough with the smooth. You know the score.

Here are my reflections and lessons.

Being the gaffer…

The term gaffer was historically used to describe the foreman or the boss. Importantly, the gaffer could fill in and do any single job required on the factory floor at the drop of a hat. And do it just as well as the skilled pair of hands who would normally perform the role. It was a respected position because of this.

But industry, the world, and life moved on some and being the gaffer in 2015 is a little different. I still absolutely believe that you need the hands-on comms skills, experience and nous to be an effective head of comms. But you don’t need to be the best at every single role. I believe the real skill is understanding where your own strengths lie (as well as where they do not) and ensure that you have a blend throughout your team which means you can deliver on all comms, marketing and digital fronts. You simply can’t be the leader, do all of the management things required of you, write reports, be at meetings, manage budgets and cuts (more on that later) and perform every other role. So don’t try. Do what you do best and give your team the chance to grow and shine.

Recruiting the best

You won’t achieve much without having a great team. But I was always amazed by fellow heads of service admitting that they would never recruit someone who was better than them or knew more about their profession. It smacked of insecurity.

I always went the other way and tried to recruit the absolute best person for the job and someone who had skills and knowledge in areas that I didn’t.  I can recall interviewing a strong candidate in a panel interview and afterwards one of the panel warning me that this person would be after my job in two years. “Good, I said – that’s why I am going to offer them the role” I replied, to my colleague’s surprise.

By all means have a scoring card for each interviewee but I always always backed my gut instinct in the final decision. Who I liked, who had personal qualities I admired to, who would fit into the team and make it even better. Maybe I got lucky but I’m happy with all of the people I asked to join my teams. Seeing them grow and develop and do good things was always one of the absolute best parts of the job.

Being yourself. And having principles

I’ve noticed a growing trend of some folks on social media creating Walter Mitty-like online versions of themselves which are a stretch from the real thing. Perhaps this has always happened and social media just gave us all the platform to be more noticeable. But I do find myself increasingly thinking “just be yourself, be authentic.” This is never more important than when you have the responsibility to lead people. People need to know what to expect from you - your motives, your beliefs and your behaviours.

And having sound principles and values comes top of this list. It can be tough when you have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed but, in the long run, you need to know who you are, what you believe in and how you want to live your professional life.

I once left a job I really liked because someone very senior interfered with a recruitment process. I was leading a team which had won a stack of awards and I believed it was just plain wrong for someone to get involved. So I left. You could argue I was being over-precious but to this day I am pleased with my decision.

Circling the waggons

In my time I have spotted two broad types of heads of comms: Those who would hang out a team member to dry and point the finger elsewhere when things take a turn for the worse and a scapegoat is needed. And those who deal with things privately, keeping issues in house. Circling the waggons, as it’s known.

I always tried to fall into the second camp. I absolutely believe that you get the best from a team by managing in this way. It earned me a tattering from a chief exec on one occasion when I refused to dismiss a team member for a mistake. I think he felt I was being weak. But I believed that the team member deserved a second chance. So I took one for the team.

On being a spin doctor

I remember joining one organisation as their new head of comms and being greeted with the usual, typically naff, local newspaper headline of ‘XXX recruits spin doctor on £YYY salary’. You’ve seen the kind of thing I mean. It was all a bit predictable, not to mention terribly boring for unlucky readers.

I can genuinely say that that I have yet to meet a single head of comms who I would describe as a spin doctor. My general view is that the heads I know are always pushing for honesty and transparency in an organisation’s communications activities. And that’s absolutely the way it should be.

The first cut is not the deepest

Cat Stevens penned the classic song ‘The first cut was the deepest’. He was wrong. If you have managed a budget and people in the public sector in the past six or seven years you’ll almost certainly have been required to make cuts. In the first year or two this was relatively easy for most of us. There was some fat around the comms budget in many organisations. But boy that would change.

I first began making cuts back in 2008. And as the years went by it became harder and harder to do so without affecting the team’s ability to do good work. But worst of all it began to have a direct impact on the employment status of team members. Of course, some folks wanted to leave and were only too glad to put their hands up. But some people lost jobs they wanted to keep. If you’re a head of comms (or any service for that matter) this is an accepted part of the job. You are paid to make tough decisions.

But these are peoples’ lives you are affecting. It takes strength, understanding even kindness to do this in an appropriate way. But I do worry that this is a burden which many heads are not being supported in, effectively being left to deal with the cuts in their own areas and mop up any residual damage it creates. And I don’t believe this is right.

You can tell yourself over-and-over again that it isn’t your fault, that these are not your budget cuts or financial decisions. You can also tell yourself that we can all clearly see this cuts train speeding quickly towards us but this doesn’t deflect from the personal stresses this places upon those having to make those cuts.

I know of several heads who admit to sleepless nights worrying about the impact of the decisions they are making upon the livelihoods of colleagues.

This stuff ultimately affects families and much better support for anyone having to make budget cutting decisions should be evident in all organisations. Sadly, it’s not always the case.

Judgement, it’s all about judgement

As head of comms you’ll hear and see a lot. Some of it simply isn’t for sharing. I sit on many secrets from my time, as one would expect. It’s something you need to adapt to quickly – which bits you share with team members and colleagues, which bits you take with you to the grave. Being a head of comms requires strong judgement and political nous. If you’re a corridor gossip you’ll not last five minutes. But you’ll need to share and offload from time to time as bottling things up simply isn’t healthy. Find people you trust entirely - internally or externally - and share a concern or a problem if you feel the need. It will be a real help to you.

Being a head of comms can be a lonely role – but you are not alone.

Being creative. Trying new things

Being a head of comms means that you have a fabulous opportunity to try new things, encourage innovation and ensure that you and your team continues to learn. This approach is absolutely the way to go. And yes, it will sometimes go wrong. But so long as it’s a genuine mistake, no one got hurt, and that lessons are learned for next time then this makes good business sense. But of course, not everyone in your organisation will agree or work in this way and so you’ll need to be prepared to have some tussles with folks who want to retain the status quo.

Pushing innovation and creativity requires you to be extremely organised – to have answers, business cases and numbers which stack up for when you hit those blockers. Because hit them you will.

My top 15 traits for being an effective head of comms

  1. Have the skin of a rhino
  2. Listen more than you talk
  3. Be emotionally intelligent
  4. Be strategic. Always.
  5. Know the job (and the organisation) inside out
  6. Be a gate-opener, not a gate-keeper
  7. Always back your team
  8. Always back your values and principles
  9. Be chief story teller
  10. Know which battles to fight (and which things to let slide)
  11. Be a diplomat
  12. Be a negotiator and an influencer
  13. Be a talent spotter
  14. Challenge routine and the hum drum
  15. Smile a lot (and the world sometimes smiles back at you)

Would I do anything different?

Yes, of course. I’ve made mistakes along the way but none which haunt me. One thing I would have done, in retrospect, was to get myself a good mentor.

I’ve been asked to mentor half a dozen comms managers in recent years and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact I plan to do more of it. But it struck me recently that I had never myself been mentored. So if I were to do one thing differently it would be that - it would have been tremendously helpful at certain points.

So, finally, to answer my own questions – has being a head of comms made me a better comms professional? I guess that’s for others to judge but on a personal level I would say absolutely yes.

And would I recommend the job to anyone? Yes again. It’s a challenge to be a leader, a practitioner, a target for flack, a shoulder to be cried upon and a ringleader for change. But it’s a great honour and opportunity so if you fancy it you really should push yourself forward and target a role.

I have been very grateful to be a head of comms and I thank everyone who helped me along the way and especially some rather brilliant team members. You know who you are.

So, what next?

Well now I have the opportunity with comms2point0 and Dan to work with other organisations, heads of comms and other managers and professionals to offer help, guidance and strategic support and really make the most of that valuable experience from 10-years on the comms leadership front line.

I'm particularly looking forward to undertaking creative communications consultancy, strategic support and campaign development. And reviews of organisational comms and digital offers will be a growing part of what Dan and I do with comms2point0.

So if you think that we can help you do get in touch.

Darren Caveney is co-creator of comms2point0

image credit