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How Communicators Can Support Successful Leadership Transitions

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 — November 11th, 2022

How Communicators Can Support Successful Leadership Transitions

One of the most important things a company can do is bring on a new CEO, Chair, or senior executive.

If it’s not managed well, the company can create uncertainty, lose its top performers, and damage its reputation and market value. It’s a high-stakes game that will influence the course of the organization.

According to CEO magazine, the average tenure of a CEO is 3.7 years. If you are a Communication Professional, this means you are likely to deal with this situation a number of times in your career.

The Ultimate Guide to Change Management Communication

The role of the Communicator in supporting a successful transition can be one of the most significant and potentially fraught career experiences.

So I spoke with Communication Leaders Kate Davies, Head of Media and Communications at TransGrid, and Anthea Cudworth Director, Communications at Morrison & Co.

Between the three of us, we’ve dealt with 18 CEO and Chair transitions and wanted to share our collective experience.

How do you deal with the exiting leader?

How the organization deals with the exiting person will depend on whether the exit is planned or unplanned and why the individual is leaving.

The Communications professional will usually be responsible for creating a media release, shareholder, and internal announcements, often at short notice.

It’s important this is treated sensitively and respectfully and that you work with the outgoing leader, the HR team, possibly the Board, and other stakeholders to be judicious and get it right.

You’ll also want to try and get ahead of the news to avoid unnecessary speculation.

Kate says, “Focus on their contribution and not the reasons for leaving. Decide what messages to put out and stick to them. Be very clear on the narrative.”

How the exiting person is treated will speak volumes about the culture of the organization. It can be a positive thing to exit someone quickly for poor behavior, but if the outgoing person has made a significant contribution make sure appropriate time and effort is spent acknowledging their achievements.

“If quoting people they have worked closely with, carefully consider who gets quoted and how their comments will be received”, says Anthea.

How do you set the new leader up for success?

A new leader has a lot going on. How they communicate in their first few weeks and months can either set them up well or set them back (and believe me I’ve seen both!)

Here are seven things Communicators can do to help them get out of the gates strongly.

1. Introduce them quickly

Introduce them to the organization quickly —not just to the leadership team. People want to know who they are and what they stand for.

Get out a companywide message and/or video. Kate was able to get some footage of a new CEO coming through the doors on his first day so that the first internal communication was able to show a video with him saying, “I think I’ve been in the building an hour,” which showed that he prioritized communicating with employees.

2. Be positive about employees

“Be positive about employees at every opportunity”, says Anthea. As we know in today’s world, all internal communication is external, and all external communication is internal. This is particularly the case with big news like a change in leadership. “A media release will also speak to employees, so it’s an additional opportunity to speak positively about them. It usually goes down very well.”

3. Share something personal

It’s a good idea for the new leader to reveal something of a personal nature in their early communication.

Don’t push them to the point of being uncomfortable but help them understand this will help them build rapport – whether they enjoy swimming, family time or playing the guitar paints a picture of someone who is well-rounded and more approachable.

4. Get clear on goals

In these early days, it’s crucial that as a Communicator you quickly come to grips with what’s on your leader’s agenda and how you can support them to achieve it.

“It’s important to communicate the state and direction of the business clearly”, says Anthea. She also helps them identify “symbols of change” that demonstrate what they stand for and why this leader is different.

“Pick 3-5 things to focus on and tell your employees your “story.” Keep it light, tight and positive,” she says.

It’s not necessary to have a fully fleshed-out plan immediately—the more detailed strategy and priorities can come later. As long as the overarching goals and direction are clear that’s enough for the initial period. 

Don’t leave it too long though. If employees and stakeholders are left waiting a year, confidence can easily erode. 

5. Be visible and above all listen  

High visibility is essential in leadership roles and particularly in the early days. The new leader should be (in person or virtually), doing site visits, walking floors, posting on company socials, popping into team meetings, assembling leaders, attending morning teas with staff.

Above all, they need to be listening. The worst mistake a new leader can make is thinking they know it all. Understanding what went before them is crucial, and will ensure the future strategy is well-considered and more likely to succeed.

6. Focus inside, then out

Kate suggests an inward focus for the first six months. “This is an opportunity to understand the barriers and hindrances. They don’t have enough to say yet.

The outward focus can come later when they are better placed.” This ensures they are well briefed and across the key issues before they go out to the media, investors, major suppliers, customers, unions, and communities. When they do, a briefing book, including photos, can be a very helpful resource.

Anthea adds, “If they are not used to being under this kind of scrutiny, set them up with media training and practice their presentation skills.” She also advises encouraging them to speak at events that are aligned with what they want to stand for.

7. Establish a regular communication rhythm

Work with your leader to get a sense of their communication style and preferences and develop a communication plan. Anthea says, “This can be a really good opportunity to signal change by using a different tone of voice, different channels, and talking to different stakeholders."

"Anchor their messages in the business strategy and look to the brand and values as well as their personality to guide the approach," she says.

Kate recommends setting up a new communication rhythm quickly. “Establish a regular cadence and lock it down”, she says. “Don’t push them out early and then have a huge block of silence.”

One new CEO I worked with came up with the term “Rolling Thunder,” which meant he wanted positive news and announcements every two weeks.

It can also be a good idea to develop some communication principles to frame the leader’s messages. For example, Anthea has used “Be inclusive, Be purposeful, Be positive.” I’ve used “Clarity (of vision and strategy), Optimism, and Innovation for a new CEO.

Regardless of the leader, their number one goal is likely to be communicating and inspiring a bright vision of the future.

It is my strong opinion that if they fail to do this, they are highly unlikely to succeed.

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