What Comes Next For Asia's Ambitious Communications Leaders?
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What Comes Next For Asia's Ambitious Communications Leaders?

Reaching the top of the in-house tree in Asia need not mark the end of your career path, if you are willing to take some risks, says a new study.

Arun Sudhaman

What Comes Next For Asia's Ambitious Communications Leaders?

It is easy to forget, so feted are they for their budgets, authority and decision-making status, that in-house communications leaders require career paths too.

Typically, it takes years of hard graft and savvy to reach the top of the in-house tree. Yet, for the more ambitious among them, the next step is not an obviously upward one — hence, perhaps, the musical chairs that often seem to characterise lateral movement between the top in-house jobs in the US and UK. For too many communications chiefs, accordingly, the organisation might get bigger but the role remains the same.

This quandary is more acute as the profile of the in-house communications leader, illustrated by our Influence 100, becomes younger. Thankfully, the top communications job is less likely to be treated as a sinecure until retirement — a Broome Yasar study last year explored how corporate affairs heads are moving into business leadership roles, a phenomenon that we endorsed with the 'Crossover Stars' in the Influence 100.

In Asia, however, this challenge is often more complex. Out of sight and, perhaps, out of mind — Asia's communications leaders do not often make the jump into even the top global roles at their own company. For one thing, they may not want to uproot themselves from the region; for another, they may not have the political backing required to secure such an elevation.

A new study from the Andrews Partnership explores these concerns in some detail, via a series of interviews with several Asian communications heads who have been able to successfully catapult themselves into bigger and better jobs. "Once you reach the upper echelons, is it only lateral steps available to you?" asks managing partner Katrina Andrews. 

When it comes to taking on a global position, notes Andrews, much of the difficulty comes down to the "lack of exposure" the Asian candidate might have to the key decision-makers within the company. "There is also an under-appreciation of the benefits of being in Asia," she adds. "Another challenge is the scope — it’s very difficult when they are based in Asia looking after the smallest team and the smallest communications operation."

Two of the comms heads interviewed for the study, though — Morgan Stanley's Wesley McDade and UBS' Tim Cobb — successfully moved into global roles after serving in Asia. The size of that sample makes it tempting to write them off as a statistical anomaly, but Andrews believes there are some genuine lessons for others in Asia who are looking to repeat the trick.

The first, rather obviously, is that you probably do need to move — the only MNCs willing to base a global role in Asia are likely to be homegrown companies. Even so, Andrews believes that the career value of being in Asia to begin with should not be underestimated. "You're covering 12 to 17 markets — the complexity of the communications that they are needing to manage and the stakeholders within that is vast," she explains. "Combine that with the work ethic and you have very strong contenders for global roles."

That value can translate into internal benefits too. McDade, for example, found that his role in Asia afforded him a rare level of executive access to senior leaders flying in from HQ, many of whom relied on him to guide them around the region. "It’s an incredible career opportunity few employees in your organisation will ever get — to be the experienced and knowledgeable ‘sherpa’ for the company’s top management in unfamiliar terrain," he says in the study.

Ultimately, that helped McDade land the group head of communications role at Morgan Stanley in New York — the company’s president, now a personal contact, had put him forward for the open vacancy when it came up. 

Personal networking was similarly important for Cobb, who would visit with as many as 40 executives on each of his visits to New York during his tenure at Merrill Lynch. A decade later, during his time leading communications for UBS, he repeated the trick by visiting the Zurich HQ and proactively meeting everyone that mattered. "That makes the difference when a vacancy opens up, of course it does," notes Cobb, who was offered the global head of external communications position 18 months later.

All of this is well and good for executives willing to depart (or more likely return) from Asia. But those that will not, or cannot, leave — may have to consider alternative avenues for career growth. This, says Andrews, often involves a different kind of role, perhaps the kind of business leadership position that is still a rarity for communications leaders.

Andrews' study, however, identifies a number of executives that have made this kind of transition. Standard Chartered Bank corporate communications leader Mark Devadasan, for example, moved from core banking roles (including CEO of Thailand) to become global head of corporate affairs and sustainability, before taking on a number of non-exec directorships; Joanna Tan carved out a position for herself as HP Asia's first chief of staff. former in-house marketing consultant David Kneebone is now GM of Hong Kong's Investor Education Centre; and, Standard Chartered corporate affairs head Ruby Fu became CEO of a major agency at Burson-Marsteller China.

This is, of course, just a handful of examples, but they help to support the notion that there is life after the top corporate affairs or communications role. There are further lessons that accrue from the experiences of these executives, such as 'handbrake turns' to develop broader skills and a willingness to be open about career frustrations with leadership.

All of them speak to an ability to move beyond a communicator's typical comfort zone and consider new challenges, some of which can be intimidating. "There are not many people who move to the agency side after 13 years in-house,” explains Fu. "But when that opportunity presented itself earlier this year, it was just obvious. Yes, I’ve taken a calculated risk. But what is that ‘risk’, really? Only that, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to corporate communications."

There may well be something in this. We are often attuned to think that there is 'nothing left' for the in-house communications leader, beyond the potential cycle of lateral moves. And we are taught to respect the value of continuity in these positions — the average tenure of the Influence 100, for example, is 9.3 years, with several of the industry's giants having been in the same place for more than two decades.

This is not to say that the ambitious can only realise their aspirations by leaving their jobs. But perhaps they are stopped as much by a sense of risk aversion as they are by the limited opportunities available. As communications concerns rapidly become ever more important to organisations of all stripes, a willingness to embrace change can only benefit everyone concerned.


[Image credit: Yolanda DeLoach for Design Resumes]
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