Korn Ferry

The Inner Circle

Jonathan Dahl

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At two Fortune 500 firms, we put the CEO and CCO in a room—and got an earful on the critical partnerships they have now.

Sitting with his family at his San Francisco home that now-famous November night, watching state after state turn red, Bernard Tyson,
the CEO of health care system giant Kaiser Permanente, knew he needed to take action. He’d need to send out a message the next day to the company’s 200,000-plus employees and 19,000 physicians, assuring them the company would be ready for any change. And he’d need his best minds to prepare a strategy for the likely new order of things in health care.

Off went a text for help to Donna Uchida, his chief communications officer—and one of his most trusted advisors.

Only as luck would have it, she wasn’t nearby. Some 1,500 miles away on a beach near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico—and unaware of the results—Uchida was digging eggs out of the sand as part of a sea turtle conservation project. “Oh my,” she remembers thinking. Saving more turtles would have to wait for another day.

Once upon a time, someone in Uchida’s role wouldn’t have played a role in Kaiser Permanente’s response until after the big guns in the C-suite figured out the next move. But these days the chief communications officer has become a big deal, too. In a growing number of companies, the job has evolved into part strategist, part modern-age communicator and part designer/implementer of plans corporate-wide. And the number of hats for the role only keeps growing.

“The change has been radical,” says Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society, which represents top communications executives globally. “It’s not just the person down the hall you call to handle a crisis, but a trusted advisor and strategic leader who integrates a range of functions in a company.”

To some degree, of course, this change is evolving, as companies rewrite their rulebooks regarding the traditional roles. Some CCOs serve on executive committees; others are integrated into key digital operations; some even oversee HR to ensure internal messaging. Gary Sheffer, the former vice president of communications and public affairs for General Electric, recalls CEO Jeffrey Immelt gauging him for his thoughts on buyout targets. “You have to be persuasive inside the C-suite,” he says. “It’s a role with greater influence and more collaboration across the enterprise.”

But how much more collaborative? We wanted to know how deep CCOs were moving into the inner circle, so we put two of the nation’s most prominent CEOs in their offices with their CCOs and let them just talk about the shifts in corporate communicating.

Sidebar: The Great Communicators

 

American Airlines Group

 

Stepping into the office of Doug Parker, CEO of the largest airline on the planet, we find an enormous 10-foot birthday card leaning on a cabinet. His communications officer, Elise Eberwein, has a satisfied smile on her face. “Yesterday was his 55th. He was very happy about that,” she quips.

Her own office is just down the hall in the company’s somewhat antiquated headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, decorated throughout with photos and models of half-century-old planes. (A renovation is in the works.) That’s just far enough to give them some breathing space—but close enough for the one-on-one meetings that are as routine as their constant e-mails, texts, cell calls, and most importantly, a lively banter on full display today.

“I knew I wanted to hire her, and then she made it hard,” says Parker about convincing Eberwein, a former TWA flight attendant turned MBA grad, to come to America West Airlines. She retorts her role is “kind of to tell him what’s going on.”

Both airline lifers, they share a survivalist’s mentality that comes from being immersed in an industry long traumatized by one merger and bankruptcy after another. But while huddling in the trenches together, the two have quietly concocted one of the industry’s more unusual and ahead-of-the-curve mandates for the CCO.

Just check out her title, a mouthful by itself: Executive Vice President, People, Communications & Public Affairs. It’s a job that comes with a staff of more than 500, including not only internal and external communications and social media, but also the HR department. “Frankly, I couldn’t imagine the communication function not working together with the HR,” says Parker, who counts Eberwein as one of only six direct reports. “It’s not just communications but setting the policy about what you want your culture to be. And Elise is the best person we know about understanding airline employees.”

This in itself turns out to be a critical asset, not only because airlines are so service- oriented but because communications has proven critical during Parker’s unusual success at a key strategy: creating turbulence-free mergers. Typically airline mergers are a nightmare that can destroy a CEO’s career, but Parker pulled off two of the biggest—America West/US Airways and then US Airways/American—to create the largest airline in the world. He credits that in part to communicating better with airline unions and employees, a process Eberwein helped guide him on. “I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to talk to the frontline employees, including the pilots,’ ” she recalls, “They fly really expensive airplanes and they want to understand the business.” Hence began a series of employee town hall meetings that ranged from friendly to feisty—which created far more transparency. “We decided a long time ago that our job was to get information out to employees [about mergers],” says Parker. “It makes a huge difference as opposed to letting them guess.”

Yet, even now, as this combined giant enjoys record profits, those town hall meetings continue every month. Parker believes that most airlines will be able to afford new planes and technology, so keeping morale up he hopes will be American’s distinguishing factor. Yet among battle-scarred employees, it isn’t always easy. “I had one of our customer service agents and I could tell she wasn’t excited by some of the company-wide raises,” he says. “And she said, ‘Well, I’m just waiting for you to take it away.’ ” Together, Parker and Eberwein feel confident that rebuilding trust will keep the airline flying high. 

Kaiser Permanente

 

There were just times she felt as if she had to say something as bluntly as possible to her CEO. So Donna Uchida devised her own code: In e-mails or texts to Bernard Tyson she tags some items #NoFilter. “It’s basically saying, ‘May I speak freely?’ ” she says.

And clearly she does. Tyson, whose 27th-floor corner office offers a startling view of the San Francisco Bay, will tell you flat out how much he values and relies on Uchida. “She is my trusted source,” he says. But he created an entirely different structure for her role than Eberwein’s at American. In fact, it seems like an alternative universe here by comparison: Uchida can count on her hand the number of employees reporting to her. Her title is more traditional and her office is on another floor. And while she attends the company’s national executive meetings, she is not a formal member. Instead, she plays a wide-ranging role as his right-hand aide—from speech and tweet polisher to a key implementer and integrator of some of the company’s main strategies, as well as coach to Tyson and other key executives.

The job operates as a two-way street, he says, instead of merely a one-way messenger.

“The role is so significant, I need her focus 24/7 and she needs the access 24/7,” he says.

To some degree, the difference between the two companies’ industries reflects the differing roles. While airlines have mostly accomplished their mergers and consolidation, the health care industry is clearly on the cusp of major change now with a new administration in Washington. Tyson sees an important public role in his job. He gives more than 70 speeches a year, at everywhere from small community gatherings to major panels. More than once he has spoken at Davos.

Modern CEOs can no longer hide behind what Tyson calls the “myth of the shield,” putting themselves out in front of the global audience. “I feel obligated on certain topics” to speak out, he says.

Which leaves Uchida, who arrived at Kaiser only about six years ago after serving several years as a communications consultant, in a tense position that she appears to handle with remarkable calmness. On her desk sits a small book she gives to us as a gift: “Just Little Things: A Celebration of Life’s Simple Pleasures.”

She says she and her boss think uncannily alike. “He’s often where I am; he might even be a little ahead of me and he is so well spoken,” she says. Which leaves her asking him sometimes if he even needs her. “He always says, ‘It’s a team sport.’ ”

 

Authors

  • Jonathan Dahl

    Vice President, Chief Content Officer

 

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