- Annual Conference
I left Chicago last week energized not just by the quality of the 32nd Page Society Annual Conference, which Dave Samson of Chevron and his committee convened, but by the resounding feeling that there has never been a better time to be in Communications. The global enterprises that we serve face challenges from more directions than ever, and as a result the role of the CCO has become richer than its foundational core, and remains in transition.
Enterprises are still grappling with the implications of a more transparent world. Even now, as the transgressions and opacity of global enterprises are exposed, it is clear that this requirement for transparency is a force for good, for compliance and for ethics. Jeff Immelt told us that in his 33 years at GE, the world has never been more suspicious of business. It's clear that some enterprises still operate under a "profit at all costs" mindset, but more are increasingly realizing that for 21st century success, they need not only to live transparently, but also to earn a social license to operate.
Take the issue of income inequality. Peter Georgescu of Young & Rubicam explained his perspective that an enormous disparity in income threatens major social unrest, and that low earners are encountering less opportunity and less access to basic human rights like education and healthcare. This is not just an issue for governments; it is an issue for everyone, not least global enterprises, which operate in global societies, which outlast government tenures, and which have tangible power to make a difference. It is global enterprises that, if this issue is left alone, will feel the full force of a lack of talent, of fewer active consumers and of flailing economies. We as CCOs must now act as our enterprises' conscience and persuade and influence so there is no doubt about their responsibilities to participate, partner, and lead on such issues. Bjorn Edlund, who received the Page Society Hall of Fame award, spoke in his acceptance speech of the CCO's "SQ," a societal intelligence – a clear example of our expanding role in a changing world.
For example, Page members understand the value of increasing the diversity of their teams. The lack of diversity in our profession needs to be addressed. At the leadership level, the number of diverse communicators remains far below what it should be. At the Annual Conference we heard speakers discussing the need to cultivate and express "cultural intelligence" and be sensitive to the distinct interests and backgrounds of diverse stakeholders. Our ability to do so is hindered by a lack of diversity, not only on our teams but at the leadership level as well. Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee Co-Chair Sheryl Battles of Pitney Bowes gave a powerful presentation on Page's ongoing work to tackle this issue; it's an area where Page can lead, and we will.
There is perhaps no global force impacting the enterprise quite as powerfully as globalization itself, and China offers the clearest example. In 2005 only 15 of the world's largest 500 companies were Chinese; that number is now 95. The Industrial-Commercial Bank of China is now the world's most profitable enterprise. In 2014, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce company, raised $25 billion in the world's biggest IPO. One of our speakers laid out straight the challenge for enterprises: "China is hard and it's confusing." Another told us "multinational is easy; multicultural is hard." Jim Wilkinson of Alibaba spelled out the differences in Chinese consumer behavior, for example, from U.S. or western markets. He explained that the Chinese think differently, shop differently and have a different relationship with mobile.
A "one size fits all markets" enterprise model will fail, and we were given the statistics to prove it; 70 percent of failed international businesses undervalued cultural intelligence. We know that successful communication isn't what's communicated, it's how it is received, and the CCO therefore needs to be highly attuned to cultural differences and sensitivities. Many of our enterprises are also doing business in Russia, in Japan, in Brazil, in the Middle East, and in each market societies and stakeholders are different, they view us differently and engage with us differently. Jeff Immelt said a communicator's success rests not so much on an awareness of what's going on within the enterprise, as on what goes on in the world around it.
Now, of course, no CCO can be attuned to every cultural nuance, but either their team or their colleagues on the ground can, and a smart system that effectively captures context and culture should guide business decisions. Here we can learn from General Stan McChrystal who spoke of his Joint Special Operations Task Force as "a team of teams," an empowered local decentralized network pulling different levers but in one direction and with a shared consciousness. Leaders in this hyper-speed world need to empower their teams with the information to understand the environment and the authority to act independently. "Eyes on, hands-off" is McChrystal's approach, although it demands of leaders the uncomfortable willingness to let go of control and trust in their teams. Centralized command is in many ways too sluggish to remain a relevant mode of management.
Increased transparency, high societal suspicion of business, rapid globalization and the consequences of social unconsciousness are just a few examples of the major forces – the gathering storm – facing our organizations. Additional cultural, regulatory and political challenges abound and Jeff admitted that CEOs have no control over them. The Page Society now has more than 600 members. We have the opportunity to forge a wider path for the CCO by effectively partnering with our enterprises to navigate, utilize and shape these global forces for the benefit of our organizations, but also for business and society at large.
Congratulations to Dave Samson – who was also elected as my successor as chair of Page, beginning in 2016 – and Rob Flaherty, and their committee, for serving up a truly outstanding Annual Conference. If you missed the conference, I encourage you to check out Page Turner for posts on the key takeaways from our terrific speakers.
The gathering storm is real, it matters and it's upon us. How our enterprises react will determine their growth and longevity. There has never been a better time to be in Communications.
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