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GETTING READY FOR A NEW CEO: BEST PRACTICES IN CEO SUCCESSION COMMUNICATIONS

Over the last several months, there have been many high-profile CEO changes:   HP, Apple, IBM.  You can decide who has done this well and who has not.  Regardless of whether the current CEO was ousted, died or planned for with an orderly succession process, knowing how to help your organization successfully get ready for a new CEO—or any other senior leader for that matter—is a crucial strategic and operational skill set.   Yet many mistakes get made.  Lack of appropriate communication on a timely basis, absence of real planning, failure to truly explain the process or rationale behind the leadership choice, and over promotion of the new top dog at the start are some of the pitfalls.  Perhaps most importantly, is the need for true collaboration among the board of directors, the human resources leader and the head of communications to ensure a team that is totally in synch around process and messaging.

A leadership change is a key time for Chief Communications Officers to step up to the plate.  Here are lessons learned to help ensure a positive outcome.

Be Transparent. As with most communications, the work starts way before the announcement.  First, be as transparent as possible about the process.  Let key audiences, including employees and shareholders, understand the timeframe and criteria for selecting the new leader.  Is a professional search firm being used?

Do Your Homework. Although identifying the candidates publicly is often not possible due to confidentiality, use the search process time to create strategies and messages around the two or three final candidates to have ready to be ahead of the game.   Of course, the approach will differ depending on whether the candidates are internal or external.  At the same time, research and anticipate any negatives or potential concerns about the candidates.  For example, does she have a reputation for dramatic downsizing?  Does he come to the company with no relevant industry experience?

Make It Personal.  Don’t get so caught up in presenting the strategic reasons why the new CEO will be a great leader and forget about the personal aspects.  Gather as much history and lifestyle information as possible to humanize this new senior executive.  Audiences want to know about the backgrounds and values of their leaders as much as their intellectual prowess.

Set the Stage for Success. Use the opportunity of the announcement to help redefine the organization.  What will improve or change?  By addressing these factors up front, it helps set the stage for future success.

Don’t Overexpose.  Certainly, the new CEO needs to communicate his or her point of view and focus on Day One and demonstrate immediate leadership and confidence.  But don’t set up the expectation that he or she has all the answers from the beginning.  One of the biggest mistakes made is to overexpose the new CEO with the media.  Depending on the situation, decide whether a select high-profile interview is best or a press conference.  Either way, don’t have the CEO spend the majority of his or her time giving interviews.  It’s usually too soon.   Most importantly, the new CEO should be spending time with employees, clients/customers, partners, government influencers and other key audiences to really understand the business’s issues and culture.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but waiting for the first 100 days before doing more extensive media outreach is a smart thing to do.

Secure Outside-in Storytelling.  As with many communications plans, don’t forget to line up third-party endorsers who can comment on the past achievements and style of the CEO.  In addition to validating the previous accomplishments of the new CEO, these spokespeople can also share personal stories about the leader’s style and attitude that will make for great anecdotes.

Remember the Devil’s in the Details.  Finally, always be aware of the company culture and pay attention to the tiniest nuances.  Where should the announcement be made, from the executive suite or the factory floor?  What should the new CEO wear?  Amusingly, when GE announced the passing of the CEO baton from the iconic Jack Welch to Jeff Immelt, they both wound up wearing the exact same outfit:  blue blazer, open blue shirt, similar slacks.   Did that convey the correct message?  Did it divert attention from key points?   Today more than ever, there is a laser like focus on CEOs; assume everything, no matter how inconsequential will be noted, discussed, videoed and tweeted about.

Naming a new leader is a defining moment for any organization.  Ensuring a smooth transition, exciting and engaging all audiences, and reinforcing company success is a tall order.  And there are no do-overs…the first impression has major impact.   With thorough and advance planning, including benchmarking best practices of leading companies, the defining moment will have lasting positive impact.   It’s up to the Chief Communications Officer to help make that happen.