Becoming a Strategic Adviser: Circle of Fellows discussion #23

One of the most common ambitions expressed by communicators is to get that coveted “seat at the table.” The fact is, you don’t need a seat at any table (wherever the table may be) to become a trusted strategic adviser to company leaders. In this month’s Circle of Fellows podcast, four IABC Fellows discuss what it means to be an adviser and what it takes to earn the level of trust that has leaders calling you before they make a decision or problems arise, quoting you when you’re not in the room, and counting on you to help them achieve results and solutions that matter to them.

This month, we are beginning a new feature on Circle of Fellows: In addition to the perspectives of the four panelists, other Fellows are contributing their thoughts, some of which are included in the broadcast and all of which appear at the end of these show notes.

About the panel:

John Gerstner is a strategic communications leader whose work has spanned 30 years and 30 countries on five continents. He has career experience as an internal communications and intranet manager, consultant, marketer, website developer, video producer, book author, magazine editor, photo-journalist, conference producer, radio announcer and public speaker. He is CEO and founder of Communitelligence, an online learning community for corporate communicators. Previously he managed diverse communication assignments at John Deere. These included launching John Deere’s internal communication program and intranet, serving as the company’s first manager of environmental and safety communications and authoring an award-winning coffee-table history book, Genuine Value: The John Deere Journey. 

James E. Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru ®, is a bestselling author, national speaker, and trusted strategic adviser to FPO and NPO business operators and leaders during crises, disasters, reputation attacks, contentiousness and when the boss’s future is at stake. Corporate Legal Times listed him as “one of 22 crisis counselors to have in your speed dial when all hell breaks loose.” For more than 30 years, he has confidentially guided hundreds of company leaders thru tough, touchy, sensitive situations. Lukaszewski’s strategies inspire constructive, ethical problem resolving management behavior. A powerful and inspirational speaker, he teaches executives and managers the lessons he has learned. A prolific author, he is quoted and interviewed often as one of the most recognizable leaders in his profession. Lukaszewski is on the web at

Mark Schumann is the director of graduate business communication programs for the Zzicklin School of Business at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is also founder and principal of re-communicate. Most recently, he was VP of marketing and communications for Western Connecticut Health Network. He served as IABC’s chair in 2009-2010 and is currently IABC’s liaison to the Global Alliance. He was a managing principal and global communication practice leader at Towers Perrin for 26 years.
Jim Shaffer is a business adviser, leadership coach, author, speaker. As leader of the Jim Shaffer Group, he helps organizations accelerate results through superior strategy execution. The Jim Shaffer Group creates hard business results by translating the business strategy to the people who need to implement it, aligning systems, processes, and culture to make the gains sustainable.


Additional observations from other Fellows:

Sheri Rosen —Being a strategic adviser means knowing more than communication strategy. You have to know the company/finances/industry. In my case (employee com), knowing the business means knowing how the executive team handles strategy, which happens to be agile, lean, values-based, Blanchard change management, systems thinking, etc.

Alice Brink — In my very first job out of college, I wrote advertising brochures for farm real estate. I’d probably been there a year when I received some copy back from one of the managers with the note, “Congratulations. You’ve quit trying to write and started to sell real estate.” Mastering that lesson—that what matters most is using communications effectively to meet the goals of the organization—is to me what makes a strategic adviser.

Being a strategic adviser is as much about listening as about creating communications. First you have to fully understand what is driving the client or the executive or the board—what’s the pain point—and then respond in a way that reflects back their concern, then start working toward a solution that they can feel part of. Thinking you need to say, “Bam, I’ve got your answers in my back pocket!” is to ignore the psychological elements of working at the strategic level.

Tamara Gillis — Strategic adviser is a role we earn through trust. And trust is earned through our actions over time. Trust is a two-way contract in relationships—especially when advising organizational leadership.

Mary Ann McCauley — One of the keys to being a strategic adviser is to ask: “What do you want to have happen?” When you are asked to create a “thing.”

Assume you are an adviser and not an order taker.Don’t hesitate to say: “Let me give this some thought before I recommend how to

Don’t hesitate to say: “Let me give this some thought before I recommend how to proceed.” Then tell the person when you’ll respond even if you only take an hour – don’t be bullied into agreeing to create a communication tool that may not be the most effective choice.

Priya Bates — Communication professionals have great potential to become trusted strategic advisers for their organizations. Very few other functions have the special role of using the goals and dreams of leaders and them into words and actions of employees and customers through the power of communication. What a privilege.

Many communication professionals complain about the lack of respect and not being invited to the decision-making table. They also continue to focus on reactive implementation versus proactive interaction, integration, influence, and impact. You can’t expect perception to change by doing things the way you’ve always done them.

Our super power is communication. Our greatest opportunity is to use it to influence and impact organizational results. We turn words into actions, stories, engagement, trust, and loyalty.

Amanda Hamilton-Attwell — The biggest challenge moving into this role is to “ring fence” the services you are planning to deliver. Because you are moving from a specialist or a generalist role, you would tend to revert back to that role—because you know exactly what to do. Even if you do know, do not do it! Be strategic and be an adviser to empower business leaders.

Cindy Schmieg — Advice – Speak up. The first CEO I reported to as a communication director advised me to speak up and share my ideas. Even if they weren’t used, they could spark another idea.

Know the business, products, and customer experience. Present your plans and ideas using this knowledge.

Focus your work to help achieve the organization’s mission and goals.

Measure your programs to the organization’s goals and objectives.

Don’t be afraid to change or discontinue a program that is delivering expected results.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon

Jessica Burnette-Lemon is the senior content manager for IABC.

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