Making the leap from Head to Director, with Catherine May

Ben Atfield and I were delighted to host a seminar for 20 exceptional Heads of Communications, on making the leap to Corporate Affairs Director, at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery on Wednesday 28th June.

Our guests heard from our wonderful keynote speaker, Catherine May, who delivered a masterclass on how to build the right skills and experience to become a credible candidate for a director role.

Catherine has been working with, and advising the boards and leadership teams of, leading multinational businesses for more than 25 years.  She has served as Corporate Affairs Director on the Executive Committees of RELX plc, Centrica plc and SABMiller plc. Catherine is an expert in executive leadership coaching, corporate governance, reputation management, building winning corporate culture and stakeholder communications.

In her role as a coach and mentor Catherine works with individual leaders, helping them address developmental challenges and specific goals to increase their effectiveness and capabilities as a leader.

I have attempted to capture the essence of Catherine’s key discussion points below. If you would like to speak with us, or Catherine, to find out more about how to progress to the next level then please do get in touch.

Change the way you think about your work

It is likely to be the first time that you are interviewed by someone whose expertise lies outside of corporate affairs. CEOs and senior decision makers won’t necessarily understand, or know, the people in your network. Very few, or none, of the conversation points will have anything to do with your core area of expertise, so think about positioning your story in a way that will resonate with someone who hasn’t worked in the field before – what is important to them and the senior leadership team?

Being ready to contribute to wider business and leadership discussions is one of the main challenges in moving from head to director level. You are not just going for a bigger, more challenging communications role, you are transitioning from communications professional to credible business leader.

This level is completely different to everything that has come before. You will be stepping out of corporate affairs. The skills that you’ve garnered will play a role in making you successful in a different world, but they will only make up a small part of a much broader remit of responsibilities.


Understand what CEOs want from Corporate Affairs Directors

Extraordinary reputation management skills, stakeholder relationship skills and deep commercial insight were all cited as core competences required for anyone hoping to take a position at Executive Committee level. Fortunately, these are skills that all experienced communications leaders should have already.

You need to think about how you package and talk about these skills to someone who doesn’t understand your experience. Showcase what you have done to help your organisation achieve a key business objective. How have you gone beyond communications to gain the respect of the rest of the leadership team?


Be an effective leader, not a manager

Collaboration across organisational functions and units, and getting buy-in for your ideas and influencing without authority, are all key competencies for any successful Corporate Affairs Director. Engage with people before big meetings and get them comfortable with what you’re planning from a corporate affairs standpoint. You will only win by influencing through cooperation and that means making sure people understand your plans before you announce them to the group.

You will then be moving away from management into a leadership role, and there is a distinct difference between the two. It is now your job to motivate and inspire others to do great work. That means knowing when to take a step back and be hands-off. You must give freedom to managers and put trust in others. If you can’t do that, you won’t be a successful leader.

You have to prove that you are more than a manager and you need to start implementing that in your current role. Think about how you have managed succession planning, how you have helped people grow and how you have taken a step back to allow others to get on with the day-to-day, so that you can focus on other tasks. Get feedback on your leadership style. It’s not always easy to take honest feedback but it is hugely valuable.


Step outside your comfort zone, evolve your capabilities

You have to be ready to step outside of your comfort zone and engage with people in other areas of the business, at a level that you may not have done before. Financial fluency is key and CFOs will use a lot of jargon. Do your homework and talk to analysts. You must be able to talk about wider business issues with real fluency and authority at interview stage and beyond.

Make sure that you talk to the Head of Risk when you first join a business. A big responsibility in corporate affairs is to make sure reputation risk is properly mitigated. The Head of Risk will generally have a low profile but will play a critical role within the organisation. They will really value you putting risk at the heart of your corporate affairs strategy and will become a key advocate of yours.

You must constantly look to evolve your own capabilities as a business leader. Decouple from yourself, think honestly about how you look on paper and think about your key skills. Proactively address areas in need of development.

Attend courses and challenge yourself outside of your unconscious bias. Invest time in gaining “outsight” and make efforts to meet people who sit outside of your traditional networks.

Finally, it’s crucial that you try and gain multi-sector experience, otherwise you will get used to one sector or culture, narrowing your options. A narrow field of sector capability could leave you with far fewer, or perhaps no, career opportunities.


It is striking how far removed from the day-to-day corporate affairs function you’ll become when you move to Director, but with the right application there is a clear pathway from communications to business leader. Catherine’s insights show what challenges lie ahead for those looking to make this move but also what opportunities there are for the ambitious and industrious communications professional. If you would like to find out more about Catherine’s coaching services then please contact Ben Atfield, To find out more about future events and seminars at Ellwood Atfield, please get in touch with our marketing team, or James Green,

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