The case for elevating CCOs to CEO roles

Businesses need leaders who communicate effectively, fiercely defend their reputation, and successfully navigate stakeholder relationships. In other words, it needs more CCOs stepping up to the CEO role.

Consider a CCO as CEO

Alysha Light is the founder of Flight PR. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

When it’s time for companies to name their next CEO, they often look to their C-Suite. CFOs, CMOs, CSOs, CTOs and even general counsel are the usual suspects who are in the running by default. Meanwhile, their chief communications officers colleagues are rarely considered. It begs the question: why are the very leaders who have mastered the art of storytelling and understand stakeholder engagement better than anyone so often left out of a company’s succession planning?

Perhaps they are a little too good at their jobs. CCOs spend their days crafting the perfect messages, mitigating crises before they explode, thinking endlessly about optics, working across almost every department, and essentially, making everyone else look good. They’re the unsung heroes toiling in the background who clean up the messes and smooth over the blunders. In a world where a company’s reputation can be its biggest asset or its biggest liability, you’d think corporate leadership would hold this role in higher esteem.

In my 15+ years in the PR industry, I’ve crossed paths with many outstanding comms pros, but I only know one who made her way to the CEO seat: the indomitable Jill Kelly, who is wrapping up a two-year tenure as CEO of EssenceMediacom. What’s stopping others from forging a similar path?



Comms pros need to end their inferiority complex 

While the corporate world has yet to fully recognize the value of strategic communication as a key driver of sales and business success, communications professionals are guilty of buying into the false belief that our skills aren’t just as suited for the top ranks as our colleagues in finance, marketing, strategy, or engineering roles.

To get more insight, I asked Becca Chambers, CCO at San Francisco-based ControlUp, an IT monitoring software and digital employee experience provider, for her thoughts.

“Today, successful leaders need so much more than inside-out knowledge of their companies,” she said. “They need skills like authenticity, connection, heart, empathy, and the kind of creative thinking that translates data into differentiators, challenges into opportunities, and companies into iconic brands.”

Chambers added: “The skill sets that make a great CEO today look very familiar—because they’re the exact skill set of a great (CCO). CCOs (need) to understand nuanced market dynamics, competitive landscapes, internal and external brand reputation, positioning, audience motivations, and how to navigate through a crisis. They need to be relentlessly strategic and relentlessly human. That’s why companies that win in this next phase of business will be those that seek CCO-like qualities of their top leaders—those who listen, strategize, and connect the dots. I can guarantee that we’ll be able to tell which companies do, and which don’t.”

Indeed, we live in an era where brands are built and burned at the altar of public opinion; where a single post or statement can send stock tumbling, and yet, the very people who navigate these treacherous waters daily are seen as unfit to hold a company’s highest-ranking position. Who better to lead a company than someone who’s made a career out of employing their listening skills, reputation management, change management, building support and trust, and cross-functional acumen?

As Son Pham excellently puts in this Raconteur piece, the corporate world increasingly recognizes reputation management, a core competency of any successful CCO, as critical to an organization’s success. Leadership, adaptability, and crisis management are areas where CCOs excel, given their day-to-day responsibilities involve navigating stakeholder interactions and shaping public perception. These skills can define a successful CEO, particularly when corporate reputation can be a company’s biggest asset or its greatest downfall.

It’s time to normalize comms leaders ascending to the highest ranks.

As communications leaders, we bring much more value to a company’s bottom line than the crises we avert and the media we generate. By expanding how we view a CCO’s contributions and nurturing their well-developed leadership capabilities, the corporate world can tap into a more diverse pipeline of potential CEOs already well-versed in one of the most critical aspects of today’s business: communication.

Topics: PR


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