Leading Edge: What Employers Expect From Their Future Leaders

May 1, 2017


“If you don’t stay current you’ll be out of this business in three years, and the last year will be a pity year,” recently said Havas PR CEO Marian Salzman to a room full of anxious graduate students at Syracuse University, where I teach. She was also speaking, fellow communications professionals, to you and me.

It’s common to call our profession “rapidly evolving” or “24/7” or any number of other accurate but unoriginal descriptions, perhaps without thinking through the implications for what they mean for our career development. The basic question for us all right now: What do we need to know, learn or re-learn?
In an effort to assess what the executive master’s degree program I direct should deliver to rising professionals, I initiated research last summer to help define what those professionals will need to learn to prepare them for leadership roles in the future. I directed much of the inquiry to executives at potential employers, as their organizations’ missions, environments, challenges and priorities will create a demand and chart a course for the communications professionals serving them.

The landscape is changing, and accelerating

The research, including individual interviews with C-suite executives in various industries and geographies, revealed motifs that can both challenge and guide professionals looking to not only keep current, but also to keep rising.
These themes1 emerged:

1. The massive integration of public relations, advertising, marketing and digital communications is changing traditional definitions of what we do, and methods of how we do it. Walls among those disciplines are coming down.

2. Organizational environments are moving at high speeds, morphing rapidly, and forcing crisis communications at all times. If that’s sobering, then consider that Burson-Marsteller USA CEO Mike Fernandez has noted, “The pace of change will never be slower.”
3. Leadership requires more collaboration than ever before. Communicators can’t just develop strategy, they must coalesce strategy.

4. Thanks to the digital and social revolution, everyone can potentially influence a given message. Any of us can publish to all of us.

5. We all have much more information and much less direct influence. The game has become influencing the influencers.

6. In a field rocked by change, there are constants: ongoing reputation management, the need to demonstrate ROI, and enormous and increasing complexity.

The requirements of future leadership

Here’s what organizations told us2 they’ll need from future communications leaders (not all these topics are new; most are increasing in urgency):

  • Have the ability to connect the dots between organizational strategy and communications strategy. This requires knowledge of how business operates, especially the silos. As Terry Flynn, associate professor of Communications Management in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, describes it, “Communicators need horizontality, a perspective to see across silos the way a tennis referee brings a balanced, horizontal perspective to both sides of the net during a match.”
  • Have the capacity to persuade the C-suite and hold their own with the CEO. At the same time, communicators must bring storytelling and the power of narrative to a C-suite likely dominated by MBAs.
  • Understand technology as an enabler, with enough judgment to stay out of the weeds. Analytics are essential, as is an understanding of applying digital tools and big data to segment audiences. However, analyzing isn’t the end game and focusing too much on shiny technological tools — which will all be different very soon — can distract communicators from business goals and real, urgent organizational problems.
  • Know how to engage with all key stakeholders, including internal, external, customer/client and investor publics. The late Patrick Jackson said that relationships are the basic currency of public relations, and we as professionals must own them on behalf of our organizations. That’s never been truer, or more challenging, than it is today.
  • Understand the global economy. The internet has opened up markets, and has made practically all communications global.  So too must all communicators be.
  • Serve as the organization’s ethical conscience. Communicators must step up to demand authenticity, transparency and accountability, or they will endanger trust in the organization and ultimately the organization itself.
  • Be the standard bearers for strong writing and communications. Communications leaders must champion the highest standards of professionalism and performance (but, alas, our interview subjects said too many communicators don’t, or aren’t perceived as doing so).
  • Display a passion for measurement, evaluation and recalibration. If you don’t have it, then you won’t be properly valued, or even taken seriously. 
  • Be “curious as hell,” as well as confident, authentic and ethical. Perhaps some of those qualities are genetic or deep-seated, but they can be learned and improved in all of us.

How you can prepare and keep prepared

“Relevance is the new reputation,” says Gary Grates, principal of the W2O Group. “The marketplace unfailingly reveals if organizations, and communications professionals, are relevant, and success goes to those who remain relevant in the midst of transformational change.”

Relevance can be attained and sustained only through a commitment to lifelong learning. Fortunately, there are more educational and professional development tools available than ever before. Continual application of them, however, is required.

PRSA is certainly a prime learning source, given its growing offerings in professional development, new learning formats, Accreditation in Public Relations (APR), and such new programs as its Reputation Management Certificate Program. Plus there are numerous online resources, LinkedIn groups, blogs and websites that professionals can work into their daily routines, often complementing their professional duties.

Higher education programs are also available to equip you for your career journey, and are adapting themselves in order to be more accessible and flexible to accommodate lifelong learning. Delivery formats now include online courses and other forms of distance learning so that advanced degrees can be earned without leaving full-time employment, and degree offerings are expanding furiously. You can select from among specialty practice areas, including concentrations in such areas as digital/social, international and health care communications, and hybrid degrees that combine business management and strategic communications content.

We asked, they answered

Influential employers and executives were direct in their answers specifying what they want out of CCOs today and in the future. Be assured that they’re expecting a lot, which may be daunting in some respects, but it is also enormously encouraging.
PR jobs are projected to grow well into the next decade. Skyrocketing organizational complexity is driving demand for sense-making, and that spells opportunity for PR professionals who can operate strategically as part of leadership teams that must continuously manage change.

Challenging? Yes. And extraordinarily rewarding for those who can prepare themselves to figuratively follow hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s advice: Don’t skate to where the puck is, but to where it’s going to be. 


1Eduventures, proprietary research, PowerPoint presentation, 2016.
2Eduventures, proprietary research, PowerPoint presentation, 2016. 

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the 2018 chair of PRSA.


Bob Allen says:

Great article Tony. Relevant to practitioners of any age or professional level.

May 3, 2017

John Senall says:

Well said, Tony. I would summarize it as we need leaders who think beyond one discipline (organizationally, across silos and outdated molds); who passionately want to be part of understanding more, and helping to implement strategic business ideas (not just creative thoughts) that help the org and its consumers; who have vision to see beyond today; and the desire to collaborate, persuade, listen + adapt.

May 4, 2017

Stephen K. Radick says:

Really great article here Tony - been saying a lot of this stuff for a few years, and it's refreshing to see that I'm not the only one!

May 4, 2017

Maureen O'Connell says:

Andrew - This is an excellent, timely article with insights for PR pros of all levels. Thank you!!

May 5, 2017

Barbara B. Nicol, APR says:

You are wise and wonderful! I liked your piece so much I shared it on my business page (https://www.facebook.com/BarbNicolPR/).

May 16, 2017

John Onoda says:

Your observations and guidance is solid. I'd just like to add that while they can be simply stated, almost all of the prescribed activities are often incredible difficult to achieve since they require a host of skills beyond communications to form the necessary coalitions, secure the budget, get management behaviors to change, overcome the naysayers, and get past the silo mentality of key business units and objectives. Not for the faint of heart....

July 31, 2017

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