The evolving role of the chief communications officer: An interview with Maggie FitzPatrick, founder of FitzPatrick & Co
Leadership Development

The evolving role of the chief communications officer: An interview with Maggie FitzPatrick, founder of FitzPatrick & Co

Maggie FitzPatrick discusses how she has seen the chief communications officer role evolve and the benefits of having someone on a board with a communications background.
March 19, 2024
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Ina Sood speaks to Maggie FitzPatrick, the founder of FitzPatrick & Co and former global chief communications officer and head of public affairs at Johnson & Johnson. FitzPatrick discusses how she has seen the chief communications officer role evolve, particularly given the higher societal expectations for corporations to take a stand on public issues in recent years as well as the growing range of contentious social and geopolitical issues. She shares the leadership capabilities that have been most important to her success navigating these complexities, highlighting the importance of being able to influence others and create followership. She also discusses the blurring of the lines between leadership roles in the communications, marketing, and digital functions, the benefits of having someone on a company board with a communications background, and what skill sets communications leaders should focus on if they are looking to join a board in the future.


Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been lightly edited for clarity. 


Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Ina Sood: Welcome to our Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. I’m Ina Sood, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, DC, office and a member of the global Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice. Today, I’m thrilled to be joined by Maggie FitzPatrick. As the founder of FitzPatrick and Co, Maggie delivers executive-level counsel to board directors, CEOs, and A-list celebrities.

Maggie currently serves on the board of directors of two NASDAQ-listed companies. She assumed the chair role for one of those companies in 2023. Previously, Maggie served as global chief communications officer and head of public affairs at Johnson & Johnson, where she led a team of more than 500 professionals across 260 operating companies in 60 countries.

Prior to J&J, she served as chief communications officer and president of the foundation at Cigna. More recently, she was responsible for corporate affairs, marketing and branding, and philanthropic initiatives at one of the nation’s largest clean energy companies.

Maggie has been recognized as one of the most influential global corporate affairs professionals in multiple years by PRWeek and as a top C-suite executive by Washington Business Journal. Last year, she completed a three-year mayoral appointment as vice chair of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Maggie, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Maggie FitzPatrick: Thank you. It’s so nice to be with you and in conversation about corporate affairs and the role of directors in the corporation.

Ina Sood: To start us off, can you share a little bit about your career journey and specifically how you got the chief communications officer role and your current board member role?

Maggie FitzPatrick: My career has been amazing. I’ve had the opportunity to work for some of the leading companies in the world and to see the world work in various markets and across different sectors. It’s been quite an exciting trajectory.

I would say, foundationally, my parents really instilled in me and my siblings this notion that we could achieve anything we set our sights on, and they really helped us to not be inhibited or impeded by fear. So, across my career, I’ve taken a lot of risks. 

One of those was when I had been working in an agency for 13 years in DC, and I was recruited to the top communications job at a leading health insurance company. At the time, a mentor of mine said, “I think you should really spread your wings, and if you’re going to continue to grow in your career, take a leap of faith and move into that role.” That was a big decision. And I’m very happy that I did it because it was the first time I had served as a global chief communications officer.

I think there are a couple lessons there. One is that I had a really strong mentor at the time who helped me see what was possible. And I’d had a lot of great experience working in the agency world with different kinds of companies, all different kinds of people, and I was able to build a lot of foundational skill sets, which served me well in the global chief communications officer’s role.

Ina Sood: That was going to be one of my questions: what has been the role of mentors or sponsors during the course of your career? And please also talk a little bit about your current board roles. 

Maggie FitzPatrick: I think mentorship is really important. When I was younger, I was an athlete and I was a collegiate athlete, and I learned how to be coached and the role of a coach and was able to build some coaching skills myself. I think it’s really important as a leader to be a strong coach to those who have the opportunity to excel within their professions.

I certainly benefited from many strong leaders: people who served on boards of companies where I worked and who sponsored me to eventually become a board director, people who guided me on the course of my career and helped me make critical decisions about roles to take or paths to take. And so I’ve tried to give back in that regard. And I’ve mentored young people and continue to do so. I also currently mentor many women who are hoping to enter the boardroom and assume a board chair. That for me is really important, the notion of giving back, because I certainly benefited from lots of mentorship. 

In terms of the boards I’m on, I serve on two NASDAQ-listed companies, both of them in the biopharmaceutical space. And last year I was named chair to one of them. I feel quite privileged to be in the chair role, in light of the fact that there are, some data would suggest, only 7 percent of publicly traded companies with women in the chair role.

So, I think it’s really important to continue to advance women in directorship and into the chair role so that they can have a meaningful impact on the companies where they’re providing governance. 

Ina Sood: That’s quite impressive. Now, switching gears a little bit, how have you seen the chief communications officer role evolve, in particular with a higher expectation for corporations to take a stand on public issues in recent years and a growing range of contentious issues?

Maggie FitzPatrick: I think the chief communications officer’s role has really evolved. When I started in the role many years ago, it was very transactional. And by that I mean that we were given a set of tasks to do and to deliver on those tasks to meet the needs of a variety of different stakeholder audiences.

I think now the evolution is one of really having a strategic seat at the table. And I think it is a stepping stone to the corporate affairs role, which I’m a huge advocate of, which is expanding the communications responsibilities to include multiple disciplines, like government relations and public affairs, philanthropy, digital, and other elements where you have all of those disciplines under the directorship of a leader.

I think the benefit of that is you can have peripheral vision. You’re able to take a real pulse of all stakeholder audiences and make sure that you’re aware of emerging issues as they’re happening. So, I think the corporate affairs officer role is one to aspire to. And I think being in the CCO [chief communications officer] role is a good stepping stone to getting there.

Ina Sood: What would you say are the leadership capabilities that have been most important to you in successfully navigating these complexities?

Maggie FitzPatrick: First and foremost, having a strong set of values and having courage, because when you’re sitting in that role, you have to be able to tell the truth to leadership, and you have to be able to advocate to do the right thing for employees, for customers, and for shareholders. And that takes a special kind of courage. And it’s very easy to go along with groupthink, but if you’re going to be effective and impactful in your role, you really have to make sure that you have really good insights across a myriad of stakeholders and that you’re keeping the organization abreast of what’s happening in the external marketplace and environment.

So, I would say strong values, definitely courage, and the ability to create followership. If you’re leading a multifaceted organization with a lot of people in it, you need to make sure that you’re a strong leader and that you’re able to create followership among the people who report to you.

Ina Sood: Followership and then to be able to influence others, I would imagine. 

Maggie FitzPatrick: Absolutely. 

Ina Sood: A colleague who works closely with CHROs in Silicon Valley wrote an article on how employee activism and crisis management have been evaluated into the role of HR. But I would imagine that communications, internally and externally, are a key piece in these strategies. Can you share how you have seen these areas change over the years? And who needs to be collaborating at the C-suite level to address them? 

Maggie FitzPatrick: The complexities for each of the officer roles within the C-suite are really intensifying. If you think about a CHRO and the need to manage human capital in this very complex global marketplace that we’ve come to post-COVID, that in itself is a huge undertaking, and you have to have strong partners. So, I’m a big believer in making sure that a C-suite leadership team is fully integrated, collaborative, and supportive of one another because you need each other to succeed.

For the communications and marketing roles, the ability to have domain expertise in other areas is critical—understanding the discipline of marketing, being proficient and having strong acumen in that area, having strong financial acumen. The new corporate affairs leader of today must have a strong toolbox and have a lot of skills in it in order to succeed in very challenging industries and external environments.

Ina Sood: And to that point, we’ve observed the blurring of the lines among leadership roles and communications and marketing and digital functions. When you’ve been building out your team, how has this affected your search for talent? 

Maggie FitzPatrick: Number one, I look for people who are curious, who are really interested in how things are evolving. If you look at AI and the way that it’s impacting so much of our work and so many industries and different facets of consumer experience, you have to be curious about those trends and become interested and have some skill and knowledge in those areas.

So, I look for people who are infinitely curious and also those who are highly collaborative and can work well on teams, because, as you’ve said, you need to be able to work in an integrated fashion with people who are masters of their own disciplines. And in order to do that, you have to have high EQ and high IQ, and so I look for that as well.

And the last thing I would say is that those people who aspire to more within their careers, who are interested in advancing, I’m always drawn to those who are looking to get better and to improve upon what they know and what they do.

Ina Sood: When I think about your board journey, you’ve been highly effective. One of the questions that’s very close to my heart is, what do you see as some of the biggest benefits to organizations having someone on the board with a communications background? And, conversely, are there risks for boards not having that skill set and experience at the table?

Maggie FitzPatrick: First of all, I am a huge advocate for communicators and corporate affairs executives in the boardroom. I think that we add a tremendous amount of value. And there aren’t many of us there, which I often find puzzling because some of my peers in the corporate affairs realm are some of the most dynamic and interesting and impactful professionals that I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with.

So, I would say it’s really important to have us in the room just for the sake of understanding the impact of external audiences, understanding what stakeholders require, and how to manage the insights both internally and externally for a company and how to manage risk. I think there’s a big role for us to play in that.

In terms of my own personal journey, I had a board member of a company where I worked who was a real advocate for me and was a sponsor, and I started with the encouragement of that person at the Harvard Business School Directorship Program, which I thought was incredible—it was really aimed at getting women into the boardroom. If you can envision the halls of Harvard having more than 100 professional women together learning about directorship, it was a really meaningful experience for me.

I then pursued directorship certification with the NACD [National Association of Corporate Directors] and found that very valuable. And what was valuable about it for me was learning skills like accounting principles and audit and finance, areas where communicators absolutely participate, but having a deeper knowledge of those things was critically important. So, building that muscle.

So, the advice I would give to those who aspire to the boardroom is to do the work. Look for mentorship. Find people who are in the role who can provide you a steer, and then find those programs that can help you build areas where you may not be as strong, so that you can legitimately go into the boardroom and sit at the table with a strong, basic foundational knowledge you need to be an excellent director.

Ina Sood: Thank you so much for this advice, Maggie. And one final question as we bring this conversation to a close. You started already sharing some advice you would give to leaders in the communications space who strive to be a board director in the future. Are there any particular skill sets you think they should be focusing on as they continue building upon their careers?

Maggie FitzPatrick: I would say just be open to new experience, first and foremost. So, I would have a general default position of just being open to serving on nonprofit boards, for example, working in different sectors, working in different kinds of companies. I started out my career working for a senator from my home state. I worked a little in presidential politics as a volunteer. I then worked at a government agency. I worked at a public relations agency. I worked for several Fortune 200 companies. I served in a commission, which was a mayoral appointment, as you mentioned. And I served on multiple nonprofit boards in the arts and community organizations. All of that was tremendous experience that helped me grow and understand what it means to effectively run, manage, and govern an organization. So, I would say don’t be afraid to build your portfolio of experience.

I think the second part is to do your homework in terms of building the muscle and the skill you need to succeed in the boardroom. There’s a lot in terms of understanding the public markets. How does the stock market work? What does it mean to be governing a publicly traded company? What are the rules of engagement? What is required from a regulatory perspective? Again, understanding audit, finance, and those types of things where corporate communications folks may not spend as much time, but there are lots of ways that you can build those skill sets to round out your overall day-to-day work experience.

Also, finally, just asking for help. I mentioned to several people that I wanted to join a corporate board, and some former executives who I worked with put my name forward and recommended me as someone who could serve as a director. And so I benefited greatly from their goodwill and their generosity in sharing my background and skills with people who were searching for new directors. So, where possible, let people know that it’s something you aspire to and ask for help along the way. 

Ina Sood: Maggie, this is really great, and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. You truly are a pioneer and have paved the way for others in our industry. Really appreciate all the great advice that you’ve given here. 

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.


About the interviewer

Ina Sood (isood@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, DC, office and a member of the global Healthcare & Life Sciences and CEO & Board of Directors practices.

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