Deb Ganderton, SCMP, president of IABC Victoria and CEO of Melbourne’s Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (GMCT), is a recognized leader in strategic communication, government relations, media and community and employee engagement with more than 30 years’ experience. In 2019, she was appointed CEO of GMCT, a community-focused nonprofit organization that manages 19 cemeteries and memorial parks in Melbourne, Victoria. Here, Deb reflects on her journey from professional communicator to CEO.
Being a CEO, for me, is the capstone of my career. Every experience, every learning, every challenge has laid the foundation for my current role.
As a new CEO, my first priorities were to deliver a significant program of digital transformation, rebalance the workforce to address inadequate frontline staffing, and review the pricing and affordability of products and services.
As is so often the case, the key to delivering on my year-one priorities was a clear focus on organizational culture, values and purpose. There is a current trend in C-suite executive recruitment of moving away from executives with traditional finance and risk portfolios in preference of those leaders who have a deep understanding of culture and who can communicate purpose. This is a great opportunity for professional communicators aspiring to join executive teams.
Whether you’re restructuring a department, changing the way things are done, or changing the platforms, products and services the organization delivers, you need to have a strong narrative to bring your people along for the ride. The narratives are there, but it takes years of experience as a communicator to know how to bring them to life and move an entire organization forward without damaging the foundations.
The bottom line is this: There is a lot more to being an effective CEO than simply watching the bottom line.
Overcoming New Challenges
Although big picture organizational storytelling may come naturally to career communicators, one of the challenges when transitioning from a communication career to a CEO role is becoming fluent in the languages of finance and operations.
To ensure you are financially literate, engage a mentor, coach or adviser until you have the confidence to lead discussions on financial performance and challenge what you are seeing in operational reports. This is particularly important to combat the perception that arts grads are innumerate.
Also, be very clear when you negotiate your KPIs that it is a negotiation. Consider seeking an independent expert to assist. Make sure you can agree with the board on two or three major deliverables each year that you cascade down to your direct reports and the organization at large. I found this very helpful when there was pressure to respond to emerging opportunities or passion projects.
After achieving my year-one goals as CEO, I am keen to continue building out the narrative of success in a brave new post-COVID world. I’m not one to “waste a crisis.” In 2020, my focus has been to meet the challenge of COVID-19. I’m embracing the opportunity to build a resilient and sustainable organization that cares deeply for our staff and the families we serve.
The Impact of a Communicator-in-Chief
Mitchell Welch, communication portfolio lead at GMCT, has found working with a communication-literate CEO has made his job much easier and has helped his team out-perform their own expectations.
“One of the ongoing challenges for a communication leader is having to constantly spruik the value of good communication planning, effective delivery and adequate resourcing of communication activities,” Welch says.
“Sometimes you’re brought in at the last minute, or once something has gone wrong. But when your CEO innately understands the value of communication to the organization, you get a seat at the table much earlier in the planning phase of an initiative or project. This is a much more proactive and productive position to be in, and the impact you can have as a communicator is far greater.”
Defining Your Purpose
I credit my journey from the corporate sector to government, private consultancy and onto CEO to three key things: curiosity, courage (“fear-walking”) and my commitment to lifelong learning.
As a communicator, do not let your current role define you. Be prepared to venture into portfolios outside your area of expertise to broaden your experience and enhance your skill set. Remember, you don’t have to be a subject matter expert in senior management. You just need to know how to ask really good questions, listen and empower your leaders to be great. Having a strong professional network is just as valuable as broadening your expertise. It truly pays off.
Finally, once you have a crystal-clear understanding of your own purpose (mine is to think up really good questions and place them wisely) and professional trajectory, then it’s a matter of screening out the distractions and detractions in your career to help you move toward your goal.
Deb Ganderton, SCMP
Deb Ganderton, SCMP, is the CEO of The Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust. Melbourne-based GMCT is one of the leading players in Australia’s funeral and cemetery industry. Ganderton is CEO at a time when Australia’s funeral and cemetery industry (and indeed, the world) is preparing itself strategically and operationally for the impact of COVID-19. Her ambitions are to lead a resilient and happy GMCT workforce who remain committed to providing an essential service to Melbourne’s diverse communities. Ganderton has significant management and leadership experience in the public and private sector as well as owning and operating her own business. She is a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, the International Association of Public Participation and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). She is currently the president of IABC Victoria and is sitting for SCMP accreditation in November 2020. Ganderton earned her Master’s Degrees in arts and science and is a qualified foresight practitioner.