Sometime last year, I volunteered to put down some thoughts for Page on how to build a higher-performing communications function. In this blog, I’ve tried to log some insights on culture, structure, and process. One commonality? Culture drives structure and process and it’s a communicator's mission to ensure the function works for the organization.

I had the honour of interviewing leading CCOs, whose tales reflected the resourcefulness, creativity, and great care with which they lead their functions. Their change stories reminded me of my own learnings as CCO at Sandoz, ABB, and Shell. 

I had two insights after our conversations. 

Firstly, apart from basic organizational aspects, every company will require a unique approach. And based on each company’s culture, structure, processes, and operating rules must also be tailored. 

Secondly, in this endeavor, CCO leadership matters greatly. Going from good to great involves choosing among several critical pathways. Each CCO will make her or his own choice. 

Perhaps it could be helpful to discuss some of the fundamentals on how to develop excellence. It is up to the CCO to make it work. The CCO’s ability to act on the company’s challenges in a way that suits its culture will determine how any deep change journey starts and evolves. Change is never finished, so the direction of the journey will determine success or failure. 

Great thanks go to my interlocutors, Page members and CCOs Clarissa Haller (Siemens), Lorri Hecker (Hess)Joe Carberry (Schwab)Brian Lott (Mubadala), Hans Koeleman (KPN), Dan Lochmann (Orix) and Dave Samson (Chevron). I also spoke to Page member Angel Alloza, whose organization Corporate Excellence focuses on capacity building of CCOs in Spain. 

And I exchanged ideas with Basil Towers, a friend and colleague whose mission is helping CCOs optimize the function. A lot of the substance in this blog comes, directly and indirectly, from Basil.


Using an input-throughput-output approach, the functional change journey can be said to consist of three phases – diagnosis, design, and deployment.

In the diagnosis phase, you and your core change team build your case for change. 

  • The core team should include communications function colleagues from HQ, the divisions, and the biggest countries.
  • Your case for change involves an inventory of resources, a from-to analysis of the organizational set-up, an outline of the function’s mission, and a business case. A benchmark against competitors, and against best-in-class communications functions, is useful.
  • Make sure to focus on the business purpose and rationale of the function – what needs, challenges, opportunities and risks will the function address? How will it work differently in the future?
  • Provide a scoping model of the contributions that the function makes. Sketch a competency framework for the people of the function. 
  • Do you envisage indirect or direct reporting lines? Will it be a centralized, decentralized or hybrid function? Will you build a structure that mirrors the business organization, or a geographical structure that presents a common face towards stakeholders?
  • And, importantly, answer the question - why are you embarking on this?

Brian Lott said that developing functional skills, as well as business know-how, was key – and that rotating colleagues into new projects that Mubadala, as an investment fund, would work up from time to time, provided good learning opportunities.

Dave Samson, who now works at Edelman, said that as Chevron’s CCO, he had used a concierge approach – in which colleagues were freed up 30 percent of their time to pitch in on key projects. “They would drift to where the workload was greatest.”

“The mindset is more important than any organizational design,” Dave said, adding that in the future technology will drive efficiencies, agility, and simplicity within global communications functions. 

Clarissa Haller said during her time with Siemens she shook up the bureaucracy in the global 1,900-people function. One HQ department of 11 people approved all content (if needed translated into German) and another 20 people traveled the world to ensure protocols were followed. 

“We needed to get the fun back into work,” she said, adding that she made English the working language in the global function, and opened the daily media calls to all who were interested.

Hans Koeleman said at KPN, the former Dutch PTT monopoly, rebuilding the function to reflect consumer and stakeholder perspectives was a key objective. 

“We formulated principles and beliefs that were needed in the company’s business transformation journey,” said Hans, who retired some time ago. “It took quite some time to rebuild a team with new reflexes, that could execute well.

Then comes the design phase.

  • Outline a mandate, which will need the CEO’s support.
  • Involve your change team to draft the mandate, including a mission statement for the function, the underlying structural principles, key policies, and core leadership beliefs.
  • Once you have a draft, socialize it across the C-Suite.
  • Ask your divisional communications leads and the heads of the function in the big countries to brief the business, elicit their input, and seek their buy-in. 
  • Then do the organizational design. 
  • Will you have a geographic structure for the whole company, or will your functional setup mirror the business structure? Weigh and discuss the pros and cons. 

“We were guided by strategy,” said Lorri Hecker of Hess. “That helped us set up the team, allocate resources and align our structures.”

Lorri said she has been emphasizing building a good competency framework, looking at the resources in Page to foster learning and development in her team. 

At Schwab, Joe Carberry took the function from a loosely federated structure into an integrated organization, aiming for better alignment, more pronounced agility, and a focus on working together. The function is organized to line up against stakeholder groups.

“I’ve been trying to line up my people against a common vision, more than against defined processes,” Joe said. “A function should be able to evolve to reflect the environment and the needs of the organization, so we should always be looking at making adjustments."

After his reorganization, Joe said the function set out to improve in five key areas:

  1. Being more audience-centric
  2. Creating greater capacity to handle rising volume of work
  3. Working in a more agile way
  4. Better positioning ourselves to serve as trusted advisors to the business
  5. Taking a more data-driven approach

Joe said the premise for the change in the function’s operating model was greater agility to align the work against key stakeholders: 

He said: “Our goal was

  • Empowering teams closest to the action to make decisions and execute
  • Integrating our teams so they have the resources needed within a single team
  • Building flexibility into process, to enable us to pivot quickly to pursue the next best idea 
  • 80/20 -- teams have clear core responsibilities they have accountability for (80%) but are expected to overlap and collaborate with other teams on a regular basis (20%)
  • How we work matters. A lot. We are spending a lot of time reinforcing the culture we need to make this model work: audience centric, collaborative, and efficient.”

His journey, and that of my other interlocutors, are similar to my experiences in Shell.

When I began, Shell had five parallel communications structures reporting to the CCO dotted line – one for each division and one for the country organizations. 

It took us a year of digging to get a grip on the numbers we needed to build our change case. It turned out the function had around 1,000 people and spent around 800 million dollars a year. 

Strategically, too many people in the function were engaged in issues analysis and internal discussion of issues, rather than engaging with stakeholders. The Shell story was vague. 

We changed it to one structure per country, with common practice areas (internal, media, editorial, brand/sponsoring, issues management, etc) across the whole business. 

In the divisions, resources remained dedicated to supporting the business, in a direct-reporting line matrixed function that favoured engaging with stakeholders, based on one shared narrative. 

Our organizational principle was “constructive interdependency”. Our change strategy was “do fewer things, do them better”. And our mission was to “create space for the business to grow”. 

To deploy, once you’ve got the finalized design, with structure, policies, a manifesto, rules of the road and processes, work with your functional leaders and HR – and the organizational development unit if your company has one – to ensure optimal implementation.

Tweaks might be needed, so give yourself time by phasing the implementation according to the team structure identified during the research phase..

In the end, the context of your company’s culture is one key pillar, and the strength and conviction of leadership that you and your team can muster is the other. Culture drives structure and process – and a key part of your mission is to ensure that the function works outside in as well as inside out.