Bill Heyman Discusses Recruiting Trends & Evolution of Communications Role

Bill Heyman is Founder and CEO of Heyman Associates. He has been responsible for recruiting top communications leaders for leading corporations, foundations, academic institutions and professional associations.

Bill Heyman is Founder and CEO of Heyman Associates. He has been responsible for recruiting top communications leaders for leading corporations, foundations, academic institutions and professional associations.

Bill and Richard Torrenzano discussed recruiting trends and the evolution of communications leaders in management.

Rich: Bill thank you for joining us today. Let’s get right into it.

Media have called this work era the great resignation. What issues are companies facing in today’s market and how does it relate to communications and marketing?

Bill: The timing of our interview and that question are particularly relevant because companies are now trying to better understand their work situation going forward.

There’s been an avalanche of reaction trying to work in a hybrid situation – splitting time between working from home and traveling to the office.

This has created a level of entitlement where people are saying, “No, I need to be able to work from home and that’s just the way it is.”

There are leaders who believe their organization is better when people are in the office. So that’s where there’s a tug. And depending on the kind of workforce, you may be able to get everyone to come to the office, and I’m thinking specifically about New York and urban areas, but if not, you may have to start thinking about what that hybrid situation really looks like.

As a recruiter, it becomes challenging when people assume they can work in a hybrid situation or they can work completely remotely.

You contact them, explain the opportunity, and ask if they’re willing to relocate, they say, “Well, I don’t think that’s necessary.” We then have to explain, it’s not their call … it’s the client’s call.

In this great resignation era, you tend not to see this at the most senior levels. People try to work through that, but there are problems populating teams because people are more strident about whatever they feel their hybrid circumstances should be.

Rich: Do you see professional services, particularly those in the urban areas, focusing more on getting back to what was the normal five-day-a-week in the office schedule?

Bill: Yes, or at a minimum four days a week.

Our organization has always been one where one plus one equals three, so, when we’re in the same office and we’re problem-solving, we get better results. That isn’t different for other organizations. I think people will start to realize that there’s an advantage to being in the office.

Strategic Communications

Rich: As we exit the pandemic, what hiring trends do you think have shifted, and are these shifting trends long-term or short-term? Will they revert back if the pandemic returns?

Bill: That’s a fair question. There’s a bit of an overreaction when variants start to occur. There’s an uptick in numbers and companies are forced to make decisions, which is part of what you’re asking. A trend change is that it must be health and safety over business.

Keep in mind the only world in which I work is public affairs, public policy, communication, so in these sectors we’ve seen two particularly strong trends in the pandemic.

One trend is that the position of chief of communications, chief public affairs officer or chief corporate affairs officer has to be truly strategic. And we’ve seen over time, that it’s no longer considered a tactical, nice to have, but it’s an essential must-have from a strategy standpoint.

A second piece is that employee engagement and employee experience have never been more important.

Communications leaders have sometimes failed, when they did not step up to the plate and really created thoughtful, good strategic communication … whether it was dealing with the virus, working virtually, or any other major issue.

Rich: You mentioned that the communications function is more strategic today. Do you see more CCOs becoming part of company management committees?

Bill: It sometimes becomes table stakes for candidates, especially the best of the best, when they’re looking at opportunities we’re managing. If a search we’re working on is not part of the senior leadership, it’s harder to attract the right candidates for the job.

I am not concerned about reporting relationships if the person has the access and influence and is, in fact, invited to most of the senior leadership meetings.

Rich: Do you see any differences in what you just said amongst industries? Are there any trends in some industries because they’ve had more crises than others?

Bill: That is an intuitive question. I don’t know that I do. It has to do with senior leadership, if the CEO recognizes that communications is an absolutely vital part of how they get their job done.

We’re conducting a search right now for a big energy company, and it took about two or three months for the search to get going.

Part of it was the company’s chair and CEO was meeting with the board to explain that he was up leveling the communications function and they needed to have a lot of important conversations to have that in place.

His comment to me one day was, “I’m not a communicator, but I know I need one and I need one for strategic reasons to be my alter ego when it comes to being the overall business generalist in the company.” Meaning that this person needs to understand all those hot buttons – virus, vaccines, other business issues – and then to understand the energy industry because that’s what this company does.

Courage as a Virtue

Rich: As you are asked to search for different levels of people by many companies, do you see any attributes that are changing?

Bill: I don’t think there’s a universal answer, but I will say that I just had a conversation with a client the other day who used a word that I hadn’t heard used in a long time, but we now use it a lot, and that is courage.

Meaning the person must have the courage to put their job on the line when there are really demanding situations to be managed.

It’s important that people understand the business of the business. I also think it’s important that the person understands how communications will affect that business and therefore, when they need to stand up and fight the good fight for a communications issue.

As an example, during the pandemic, there were several companies, some of the biggest brands around, three, four months into the pandemic that said, “No, enough is enough. I’ve seen these Zoom meetings, and I’ve seen people working, they’re working in sweatpants and their cats are crawling across their keyboards, and you see someone in the background walking around in their pajamas.”

It really felt from a traditional CEO standpoint, things were out of control and at that particular moment they said, “Well, let’s bring people back in.”

There was no vaccine at that point. We were still dealing with health and safety. It was up to communications professionals, in the most diplomatic way possible, to say we can’t start to think about getting back into a traditional work environment until we can guarantee that we can keep our colleagues safe.

Additionally, you must never forget the need to be flexible about retaining your best talent.

Salary Reigns Supreme

Rich: What other initiatives, salary perhaps, do companies need to offer now to get the right employee? Is this process taking much longer than it did two or three years ago?

Bill: Of all the cascading issues around what’s important to people is that salaries and overall compensation is strong, that’s going to reign supreme.

In some cases, if flexibility of the work environment makes sense, it’s needs to make sense from a business standpoint then that may come into play. You can’t be a CCO and not be in proximity on a regular basis to your CEO and management and expect to be successful. Plus, your presence is needed, maybe not every day, as a teacher.

A lot of CEOs are demonstrating a level of flexibility when hiring a chief communications officer because they’ve not necessarily been happy with the kind of person they’ve had in the past and they’re willing to be flexible about how often this person is in the office to get the right person. We have seen that change over the last two years.

As for how long the hiring process takes, you may be surprised but it’s actually faster now. The reason is because people have taken for granted that much of the process will take place virtually and that only the last steps will be face-to-face.

If you think about how difficult it is, and you know this from your own days when you were running big teams at big companies, if there were certain hires you were making that needed to meet a couple of key members of the executive team, it was hard to get their attention because they were traveling a lot. Now, most people are not traveling as much.

Fast Changes  

Rich: Looking out over the next two or three years, what other changes do you see happening in terms of recruiting, broadly and specific to communications?

Bill: When it comes to the ESG arena, it is now table stakes for companies and the notion that, oh if the economy’s not good, we’re going to have to let that stuff go – that’s not reality anymore.

There is now a more comprehensive approach to business being able to speak to “What is our true mission?” … “What is our true purpose?”

And the CEOs are saying, “I’m at a loss for how to integrate this, so help me understand this a little bit” … whether it’s corporate sustainability, whether it’s or what they’re doing environmentally for example.

I think, and we’ve started to see this already – there will be people who don’t necessarily have traditional communications backgrounds that are placed into these jobs, people with social science background and who understand behavioral science.

I don’t know where that’s going to go long term. And there will still be a real need for people to understand how to deal with media, especially as we are in a 24/7 news cycle and a bifurcated media landscape.

The pace of this has changed. You don’t get to do less; you just add on more. So, the fact that for all these years we’ve talked about social and digital media, it’s media. It’s external messaging, and people have to understand how it all integrates together.

Rich: Let’s focus on some of the changes. The SEC particularly, do you get a sense that corporations are seeking communications professionals with knowledge of or expertise in some of those politically driven SEC agenda areas?

Bill: Yes, I think that the popularity, if you will, or the interest on the part of our clients for people who had some political experience, people with experience working on Capitol Hill and the like because they understand those issues.

And so, I think there is demand for people with knowledge of regulatory issues, what the challenges are that organizations are facing, whether in environmental, social challenges, etc.

Rich: That is a good transition for something our firm has been dealing with lately. What is the role of a CEO as corporate spokesman, what should his or her role be? Should they be speaking out on political issues and so forth?

Bill: A legitimate question.

What the CEO will ask in a search is, “Can you find me someone who will serve as a trusted advisor and give me counsel as to when I should or when I shouldn’t do something.”

My answer to that is always, you want a chief communications officer who knows what they don’t know. And therefore, what happens is they limit the CEO getting out ahead of themselves on issues that they really don’t know anything about.

They will ask – do we have any experts inside or outside our organization? Do we know how other organizations have dealt with these things? And is it time to bring in someone like The Torrenzano Group to really help us evaluate whether or not it makes sense to speak on these issues?

There’s a tendency to do the old: ready, fire, aim on these issues. It becomes problematic because backing up becomes more difficult than having kept your mouth shut in the first place.

I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t be transparent about these issues and shouldn’t say, look, you know this is something we’re looking at, but the notion that I have to make a definitive statement quickly because of the 24/7 news cycle and all the different platforms becomes problematic.

The chief communications officer needs to call upon their own. Senior leadership can’t do these jobs in a vacuum. They need to have people like yourself. They need to have outside counsel.

It is a job that is too complicated and too difficult for a person who’s a chief communications officer to know everything about all things.

And that’s especially the case when a client says to us, we’re looking for the best of the best, and if the best of the best, let’s say it’s a pharmaceutical company, if the best of the best doesn’t have enough pharmaceutical industry experience, then we’re expecting them to use the team that they’ve got that knows something about the pharmaceutical industry, or outside counsel that may know something about the pharmaceutical industry or a public affairs person that knows something about the regulatory aspects.

And that’s where firms like yours become invaluable as an extension of the thinking on with these sorts of third rail issues.

Engaging Media

Rich: We find many communications officers and many CEOs, don’t know how to engage media. They have little experience in that arena, and most of it not good. I rarely hear them ask: ‘What medium should we use to transmit our message and What should our message be?’ What are you seeing?

Bill: Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. You are far more knowledgeable about that than I am, but I will say this, that we have found that when clients are coming to us going through some level of stress based on some issue and need to replace or find a new and improved version of the CCO, media becomes prevalent again.

So, it goes back to what I said before, all these hot button issues are important, and people need to be knowledgeable about them, but the function itself is additive. You need to communicate to media.

Also, you need to have the relationship with the CEO, to be able to say to the CEO, ‘be careful.’ I’m not suggesting that CEOs shouldn’t serve as spokespeople, especially when they care about it, when they’re good at it and all that, but I think having the kind of relationship, that trusted advisor relationship between CEO and CCO is essential.

Rich: I think in the end, most hires are going to be hired because the person interviewing them, or the decision-maker, likes them and trusts them.

Bill: It’s about chemistry. It’s about culture fit. This is a case of let’s assume that experience does lend itself to future successes, meaning that when a CEO can talk to someone — another CEO, about the work that a candidate’s done or someone on their board or from another board about it, that becomes critical input.

Rich: Thank you very much, Bill. This was terrific.