How has the role of Corporate Affairs changed and how to get to the top: Sue Clark

Last Thursday WLC (Women Leaders in Communications, formally WCCN) was delighted to welcome Sue Clark, former Managing Director of SABMiller Europe, to share her thoughts on the changing role of Corporate Affairs Directors, and some insight about what makes a good practitioner today.

Sue began her career in Scottish Power within the Investor Relations team where she encountered the macho and unfettered business world of the 1980s. Business was there to make a profit and corporate affairs took a backseat. However, changing attitudes to business complemented with the digital revolution has meant that businesses must do more than just profit as companies now carry a responsibility to solve societal issues. This has drawn attention to corporate affairs because companies are recognising the value of reputation, and that demonised companies are easier to tax and regulate.  Moreover, the impact of digital and social is driving corporate affairs towards campaigning, so a good practitioner must be able to build internal partnerships and external coalitions to ensure that messaging is comprehensive and reaching stakeholders.

Sue and Geraldine at the event
Sue Clark and Geraldine Davies at the ellwood atfield gallery

During her time at SABMiller, Sue noticed that when she would visit boardrooms across the portfolio the Director of Corporate Affairs would be the quietest person in the room despite the fact that they knew the culture, space and climate better than anyone. This is the critical stepping stone to the Exec table as practitioners are holding themselves back and lack the confidence to assert themselves as an equal part of the business. The immense value of corporate affairs lies in the ability to make a judgement about complex ethical issues and the huge amount of courage that it can take to advise senior leaders to reflect back people’s positions. For example, Sue advised RailTrack against paying the dividend and successfully led the charge to win back money for the RailTrack shareholders when it went into administration. One of the ways that Sue navigated this obstacle was to read the weekend papers and pick out 3 or 4 things to discuss and have an opinion on to ensure that she always had something to add to meetings and amplify the corporate affairs function.

Ultimately, the two key tenets of progressing through corporate affairs are investing in yourself and aligning yourself with the numbers. In order to be top grade, you must address the business model and understand the financials and get comfortable with numbers. If you aren’t good with the figures and are inhibited by the ‘I’m a comms not a numbers person’ mentality then you cannot completely align with an organisation or add value. One of the ways in which Sue navigated this obstacle was through her MBA at the start of her career which she credits with giving her the confidence to understand the business and move past that mindset which is a common stumbling block to internal influencing. Interestingly, she also remarked at how helpful it had been in her overcoming the imposter syndrome that inhibits so many women from moving up the ladder and making the leap; Sue became a Director of Communications for an ex FTSE 50 company when she was barely thirty.

Overall, the key message of Sue’s discussion was that role of corporate affairs has expanded exponentially and for the practitioner who understands how the numbers work and invests in themselves, a launch pad to the Board.

Claire Jarvis, the new interim chairman of WLC who chaired the session, and on behalf of the WLC, would also like to extend a special thanks to former Chair Nicola Bates whose energy and passion in relaunching this network have left her a hard act to follow.

 

Are you a Corporate Affairs Director, or is this your next step, or would like to know more about the role of corporate affairs? Get in touch to understand how we can help you find your new role or your team achieve their potential.

 

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