Alex Cole chats with us about PR, tackling adversity, and becoming Prime Minister
Role: Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Organisation: Bupa Twitter: @alexcole71 Alex Cole was featured in the 2015 PR Week Global Power Book. As part of our #PRProSeries, Janie Emmerson, MD of Communications at Hanson Search, interviewed Alex to find out how she made it in the industry.
Why did you get into communications?
I always say that I’m more of a campaigner than a communicator actually. I started in politics working for Jack Straw in the Labour Party and I got into communications as a way to make change happen. My first ever ‘official’ communications job was when I became Corporate Affairs Director at Cadbury. I also spent four years in marketing and innovation at Cadbury, but my spiritual home was always the corporate affairs space.
What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?
I think I have an ability to make complicated things simple, without dumbing them down. I’m also one for spotting what is interesting and joining the dots between things too. I’m a big believer in the ‘whole being greater than the sum of its parts’. That a commercial instinct, a competitive instinct, and an appreciation of the fact that my role sits within the whole company’s mission, rather than in a bubble, has also been helpful. I’m always linking the work of the corporate affairs team back into what the company is trying to achieve or should be trying to achieve (because sometimes it’s what the company needs, versus what the company wants). Another thing that has helped me progress is being comfortable speaking the truth to powerful leaders. It’s about having the ability to call things out in a way that enables people to engage with you rather than immediately becoming defensive. If you want to cause change, you can’t be afraid of pointing out deficiencies whilst at the same time doing it in such a way that you don’t get people’s backs up. Finally, I like to get involved. There is something to be said for just rolling your sleeves up and having a go versus expecting all the answers to be out there. The more I’ve progressed the more I’ve realised there isn’t a textbook for everything.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?
For me the biggest challenge was probably when Cadbury was taken over by Kraft. At first, I was working on the defence, over a sustained period of time, which was very high-profile, round the clock work. It was unsettling for the organisation with lots of media interest and great internal comms was vital. I actually loved it though - all but the final two weeks when it went from defending against the takeover, to it actually happening. Then, it was a real challenge to leave an organisation that I’d poured my heart and soul into. At the time, I was doing a dream job with a dream team. Moving on from that and finding something else was tough. I’m someone who likes to see the positive in everything though, and certainly when I went to Sainsbury’s afterwards, it was the kind of job I probably would have left Cadbury for anyway. And I love the job that I have here at Bupa, so in retrospect, I can look back and see how it shaped my experience and created other opportunities.
Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with?
I tend to go back to Jack Straw. I was only 25 and working with somebody who had this amazing political pedigree, had been a special adviser for Barbara Castle and who had been in politics for many years. He was very much my superior in knowledge and experience but he was also an open and generous leader, who always wanted to know my point of view. At Cadbury there was an HR director who was – and continues to be – really useful to me as a coach. He gave me ‘tough love’ in that he took me under his wing and could see all my positives, but he was also the person who was prepared to tell me what I needed to work on, and would be quick to steer me back in the right direction. I think finding that person who is willing to do that is so important, because people don’t like giving negative feedback, so normally it comes from a bad place, from someone who is annoyed with you. Finding somebody who can give you that steer, and direct you from a place of appreciation for your potential and their hope that you’ll succeed is brilliant.
What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Seek forgiveness, not permission. As long as what you’re seeking to do is for the greater good of the company and not to benefit you personally, then 9/10 times you’ll get it right. And on the tenth time, as long as you ’fess up quickly, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. People in large organisations spend a lot of time second guessing and waiting for permission. Taking the initiative is important. And understand the power of being nice. I fundamentally believe that ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and generally appreciating others goes a very long way. We can all achieve more working together. Pitching in on someone else’s problem often has massive payback longer term. Another good piece of advice is to not be afraid of stepping into adversity. Some senior colleagues and I were trying to work out what led us to positions of leadership, versus others in our original peer group. We realised that we’d put our hand up when something went wrong. While others had backed away from a tricky project that they didn’t have to do, we had all stepped into it. You learn so much through those experiences, and you’re exposed to things outside of your ‘normal’. We had all picked up the poisoned chalice, quite often supporting a more senior leader who was then able to sponsor us into some other space. Although that was never the motivation behind the action, it was the unintended consequence.
In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?
I think we will be more corporate affairs than communications and that we’ll be driving ideas. It will be more about amplifying stories and content, requiring relentless authenticity and transparency. These are trends that are already in place.
What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?
Energising. Persistent. Straight-talking.
Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?
Prime minister or perhaps the chief of staff for the Prime Minister. I’d need to not have a family though! I always say if I could clone myself and have two lives at once, I would do something political like that.
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