Leadership Communications: A Critical Tool for Unlocking Shareholder Value
Recently I retired from CN Rail, this iconic company where I was privileged to work for 30 years, the last 14 years of those spent in the company’s Investor Relations function (IR). I joined IR with little experience or knowledge about the function and left having had the privilege of winning numerous awards, including for Best Investor Relations Officer in 2016 and 2022. These awards would not have been possible without the incredible people around me, like CFO Ghislain Houle who gave me the opportunity to lead the IR Team back in 2016 and worked closely with me to deliver a compelling message to investors in good times and in more challenging times. Janet Drysdale, who showed me the ropes of the function when I started in IR back in 2009, and our CEOS Luc, JJ and most recently Tracy Robinson, each of whom showcased in different ways the importance of Investor Relations at CN and their commitment and preparedness in communicating with the investment community. Finally, the small but mighty IR Team over the years with incredible talent and commitment to provide leading IR services.
I also learned from The Humphrey Group how important it is to shape all the great work a company does into a clear story to investors and analysts – and then how to build the skills in our executives needed to deliver that story. After hiring Bart Egnal and his team in 2016 we enjoyed a productive partnership that amplified our team’s ability to showcase the CN advantages every time we spoke.
Having now had the luxury of time to reflect on the lessons that I learned in this time, I wanted to share some conclusions about the importance communications plays in the IR process. Here are the three that are at the top of my list:
Conclusion 1: Investor Relations Can – And SHOULD – Be A Competitive Differentiator
CN always viewed Investor Relations as a critical function worthy of the time and energy of its executives. That meant the three CEOs I worked with always led the process of our quarterly calls, investor days and road shows and spent considerable amounts of time preparing the team for these events. They also expected their senior leaders to participate and looked for opportunities to showcase up-and-coming talent in front of investors. It wasn’t just lip service; the company put the time and effort into making our story clear and preparing to deliver that story.
The result is that investors and analysts over the years have praised the IR function at CN for being upfront, quick to respond and in constant communication with them in good times but also in challenging times. If you are not in front of investors on a consistent basis, they will make their own views about the company and that may be very different than what you want them to believe. Having the commitment of the senior leaders of your company is critical as you only have a few opportunities to interact with the investment community and your message has to be clear and consistent.
Conclusion 2: There are no “naturally great” communicators in the IR space.
When I started in IR I would listen to calls and watch executives who were just “naturals.” They spoke with confidence and poise and seemed to have all the answers. Yet over time, I came to realize that these individuals had worked unnaturally hard to reach this level of proficiency. They worked on the narrative for a quarterly call a month out. They partnered with IR to craft the story so it would resonate with analysts, investors and even employees. Then they rehearsed, in conjunction with their executive team and adapted the messaging so it would be on point. They prepared even more intensively for the Q&A sessions that were the real bread and butter of persuasion. Then after every call, they’d read the transcript and assess how they could improve.
The result was that over time I saw a significant improvement in our messaging and delivery to the investment community and it came across very positively via perception studies we had conducted where CN ranked a leader from an IR perspective. Our messaging during the earnings calls was clear and consistent across all the speakers and the Q&A session was an opportunity not only to interact directly with the analysts but to further deliver on our narrative.
Conclusion 3: Great IR communication unlocks shareholder value
Long-term investors will spend significant amounts of time researching a company before they make a final decision to invest or not in a company. The first contact is typically done via the IR team, and you have very few opportunities to make a good impression and that is why the IR function plays a critical role in the organization. Once the investors get a better understanding of the strategy of the company, they will want to meet with the senior leaders who will be delivering this strategy over time and ultimately have the confidence that the team will be able to execute and drive results over the long run. Investors have many options to invest their capital and having a good story is one aspect but being able to convince the street in a compelling way that you have the team and ability to deliver is as important.
The result is that IR can impact your share price thus the importance of having a solid IR Team, backed by the support from the senior leadership team that will take the time to prepare and interact with investors. For example, hosting an investor day is a significant task and one that requires meaningful amounts of time of preparedness that can be very rewarding when prepared and communicated well with key messages consistently laid out during the events.
Reflecting on my 14 year career in IR, I have to say that I believe working on investor relations communication was some of the most rewarding time I spent. I valued not only the task but also the opportunity to collaborate with Bart and the team at The Humphrey Group.
That’s why now I’m proud to lead The Humphrey Group’s new Investor Relations leadership communications practice. If you’re looking to make your IR function a competitive differentiator (and aren’t in the rail industry!) get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to the conversation.
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