Charting a path for IR into the C-suite
What separates top executives from competent managers? In the corporate world and on Wall Street, it really doesn’t matter who you know; all that ever matters is who knows you. And ensuring you are relevant enough to be remembered is more about having the emotional maturity to know what matters and what doesn’t.
Investor relations is one of the only enterprise roles with no internal competition. It’s certainly one of the most visible functions at any public company and the one that may have as much CEO or CFO facetime as any. This is a huge advantage in climbing toward the top of the ladder. That means it offers an IRO the unique opportunity to leverage corporate culture to shape the role, elevating the mindset and perception of IR in a way that can slide it into the C-suite. All you need is Fingerspitzengeful.
What exactly is Fingerspitzengeful?
Fingerspitzengeful is a set of intangible traits that include tact, diplomacy, sensitivity and empathy, all wrapped in a sort of flair that takes years of experience to develop. Picture a Samurai mastering the sword until it becomes an extension of his arm, or the 10,000 hours required to master a craft. For IROs, it’s important to put in the time to develop these intangible traits. Then, and only then, can you hone this superior sense of situational awareness: your Fingerspitzengeful.
With it, you seem to always use the right words and, even more importantly, know when to use none and listen. You are acutely aware of your audience, explaining the why with an intuition to diffuse even the most tense or escalating situation.
With Fingerspitzengeful, the winding roads of career tend to converge with the right company culture at the right time. In these unicorn moments, IR is able to cleverly shift from an administrative utility reactively chasing down information to an executive information source because of your ability to crystallize external intelligence into a concise but relevant message. You become the storyteller, putting the CEO and other C-suiters at the center of your anecdotes and tales from the road.
Investor relations, in the end, is all about the fine art of interpersonal relationships. Top IROs are one of the C-suite gang, perhaps owning an experience portfolio that includes CSR/ESG, communications or corporate development. They aren’t the aspiring up-and-comers who hope to springboard into an executive role one day. They are finding and developing those future leaders.
The IR function becomes a true competitive advantage, like intellectual property, data or strategic assets, owned at the executive level. Best-in-class IR programs result in a lower cost of capital and a competitive advantage.
Along the way, you will have the time to observe and note behavioral gaps between the functional IR lead and the C-suiter being paraded to investors. You may even delight in the rare instances in which an IRO is seen and referred to as the executive in the room and notice the emotional contagion as the mood and tone are set for others to follow. This, too, is Fingerspitzengeful.
Emulate variations of this behavior and wait until it’s your turn. But always show up C-level ready, aligning all influences that you control completely. Be aware of your reputation – guard your digital footprint, get involved in your community and strategically build and prune your network.
Focus on what matters
As you get closer, you will have built hundreds of the most relevant relationships at all levels, inside and out, up and down. You sharpen the investment of your time with the emotional intelligence to know what matters and what doesn’t.
Read a few more newsfeeds every day, know the scores of your CEO’s favorite teams, spend more time with your kids: these are things that matter. But stop burning your midnight oil on drafting a collective opinion of the investor relations association’s views on amended or new accounting treatments to be adopted in six years, unless you aspire to run CFA Institute or the FASB.
There is no shortcut to the 10,000 hours, unfortunately, but as you hone your senses and build your proficiency, you will improve the valuation of IR, moving it into a C-suite role, and the IRO will become the CIRO.
In summary, when you’ve got Fingerspitzengeful:
- You are always listening. As a result, you will be the one known for asking good questions and impacting others with the answers you provoke. Perhaps more important than anything, you also know when to say nothing and just listen
- You emulate (but never imitate) at least some of your CEO’s key behavior. Some examples of low-hanging fruit include being the first one in the office, consuming the same media and parroting a few of the same answers or expressions. Using situational awareness is key to getting this right and not being perceived as an ass-kisser. The line is fine but when you stay on the right side of it – where Fingerspitzengeful lives – this sort of strategic osmosis will result in significant leverage to influence change and fast-track
- You appreciate diversity. Not only diversity of race and gender (you should already be vocal about these two), but also the true broader sense of the word. Diversity of personalities, skillsets, education. Be aware of the groupthink that can be pervasive in leadership teams, but stay on the fringes of their cliques
- You are blunt and usually brief: don’t sugarcoat feedback but always be a student of the why. Know the ‘so what?’ behind a judgment you are going to share or highlight
- You remain relevant and you forge relationships that are strategic and will protect your reputation
- You are what you eat: if you accept IR as a functional expert role, you will institutionalize it as such.
Reinvention is key
The landscape of the C-suite is changing, more now than ever before. No matter the path you take, always have the confidence to reinvent yourself – because you will most certainly have to.
Through my career’s most formative years, I was mentored by a CEO who had more Fingerspitzengeful than anyone I’ve ever met. I left the same company a decade later, under a leader with absolutely none.
You can read two things into this: the first is that you don’t need Fingerspitzengeful to succeed, but with it you are more memorable and impactful. The second is that people don’t work for companies – people work for leaders. Everyone is attracted to Fingerspitzengeful. Go get yours.
This is an extract of an article that was published in the Spring 2021 issue of IR Magazine. Click here to read the full article.