What’s a high-performing communication team?

August 22, Mark Bain

Years ago, when I was being recruited to build a “world-class global communication team” at one organization, I asked my interviewers, all senior executives, how they would define success against that goal. Their responses were akin to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s vague standard for illegal obscenity – essentially, I’ll know it when I see it.

At that moment, and frankly for much of the last few decades, I’ve been especially curious about the question at the heart of that experience: what is a world-class, or high-performing, communication team, and what sets it apart from others?

Like most such questions, this one has no simple answers. It also prompts several additional questions. For example, do top teams utilize a particular operating model? Have they mastered certain capabilities? Do they possess better assets and tools? Do they have a broader scope of responsibility, more staff and higher budgets? How does their functional culture contribute to better performance?    

Communication, like any function, must be fit for purpose, and the underlying fitness factors differ by company and industry. These may include the organization’s business model; its competitive framework; its size, scale and maturity; its corporate culture, and more. The CEO’s work style and preferences matter, too. A situation in which effective communication is essential to achieving enterprise goals will be more conducive to building a high-performing team than one in which communication is merely valuable.  

My interest in this topic has motivated me to do some research, and I would like to share some key findings from a recent study conducted in partnership with Dr. Tim Penning of Grand Valley State University. Here is some of what we learned:

  • CCOs believe the communication function is important to business success.

It was no surprise that CCOs view finance and information systems as more important functions for business success. But it was interesting to see that CCOs see their function as more important to business success than marketing, legal/government relations and human resources. We wonder how many of their colleagues in these other areas would agree.  

  • Many CCOs think their function outperforms other communication functions.

Most CCOs gave their own teams higher scores relative to peer teams. They are proud of their own teams, of course – after all, the team is one reflection of their leadership ability and personal value. But statistically, if we could measure actual performance, we would expect to see a bell curve in which a smaller number of teams excel, a smaller number underperform, and most fall somewhere in the middle. 

  • CCOs believe 8 factors are vital for high performance in their function.

Specifically, they spoke about a function that is tied to the business through:

o Alignment – our function’s work is aligned with business goals;
o Acumen – the people in our function understand the business;
o Role – our function has a clear role in the organization. 
They spoke about a function that works well with others through:
o Collaboration – the people in our function collaborate effectively with others;
o Respect – the people in our function demonstrate respect for others.
And, they spoke about a function that works well as one team through:
o Agility – our function adapts quickly to change;
o Culture – our function has a culture that allows people to do their best work.
Finally, they cited the importance of Support, with the CEO acting as a visible supporter of the communication function.

These findings came from an online survey sent to 500+ CCOs or equivalent title. Seventy-four responded, with 70% or more working in the top communication position at large, publicly listed companies that internationally or globally. More details are available here

What does this mean? Obviously, it depends on you, your role and your organization. But for starters, it might help to ask yourself these questions:

  • Objectively, is my team really among the top 10-15% of highest performing teams? What sets us apart and ahead of others?
  • If we’re not in the top 10-15% now, is it important for us and for the business to raise our performance? What will happen if we do – and if we don’t?
  • Given business needs, what specific changes should we make, at what time, to elevate our individual and team performance? How will we ensure those changes occur? 

Almost every one of the CCOs we heard from believes that high performance matters in business and communication today. Accordingly, we would like to see the Page Society and the broader profession make functional performance and excellence an area of greater focus moving forward.  

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