Few surprises have the potential to disrupt a company's operations like the abrupt, unplanned departure of a CEO.
While interim leaders are usually appointed to help the company stay the course in the short term, the reality is that a change of this magnitude can impact every company stakeholder - from customers and employees, to shareholders and nonprofit partners. For those tasked with communicating to internal audiences, there are four keys to helping employees navigate the uncertainty that often permeates the organization when there's an empty chair at the top of the house.
1. Keep the communication flowing during the search period.
You can't answer what your employees really want to know (Who is being considered for the job? How long will it take?), but there’s still plenty you can share.
Talk about what makes the job and company attractive. Share the credentials of the firm and/or board members leading the search, highlighting their experiences and successes. Solicit employee input on the attributes that would make the next CEO successful. Be clear this input will not be used in the search process, but that the company is always interested in hearing what’s on employees’ minds. It makes employees feel valued, and gives them a sanctioned outlet for their angst during an ambiguous time.
2. Thoughtfully mitigate the media coverage.
Your friends and partners on the PR team are likely doing yeoman's work sharing the company's perspective and fighting for accuracy and restraint. Still, some reporters have their own agendas and you will find two universal truths in their coverage. 1) They will overstate your company’s troubles (using sensationalist terms like embattled, failing, struggling, etc.) and 2) soon after, they will rush to embrace the new hire and the most nominal signs of progress he/she makes on behalf of the company.
Your job is to smooth out the peaks and valleys of the internal narrative. Keep employees focused and moving forward during the uncertainty, while prepping them to embrace change once the new leader is in place. Make sure they hear any breaking news from you before it hits Google alerts. Tone is critical – if you come across as a paid company cheerleader, you lose credibility. Acknowledge the company’s challenges and counter the specious media rhetoric with facts about your company’s continued relevance and potential for success.
3. Prepare for the senior executive revolving door.
A new CEO often results in a roster shakeup in the senior executive ranks. Some will leave of their own volition, others will be forced out and a few will depart under a gray-area combination of both factors. Simultaneously, new leaders will be hired from the outside. These personnel changes generally will be anchored to a broader retooling of key functions, which creates ripple effects for employees at all levels as their teams are moved, restructured or merged with other departments. It’s enough to give your employees a case of org-chart vertigo, but you can reduce the dizzying effects of so much organizational change.
For starters, let them know it’s coming. Leadership turnover is a natural and often healthy outcome of a CEO transition. A long-term and popular exec is heading for the door? We appreciate his contributions and look forward seeing his accomplishments in the next phase of his career. A Silicon Valley big shot will soon be taking up residence in the C-suite? We’re thrilled to attract such a talent, and look forward to the advances she’ll bring to our organization. Ultimately, you need to prepare your employees that their company will begin to look and feel different over the next 12-18 months – and that’s likely a good thing.
4. Realize the real work begins when the lights and cameras go away.
For most employees, the early stages of a CEO transition are non-events. They continue to show up for work each day, feeling little impact from the machinations taking place behind the board room doors or the sensationalist headlines in the local dailies.
But when the CEO and his/her new leadership team are firmly in place, the changes they make begin to impact employees – sometimes in a trickle, sometimes a tidal wave. Employees will experience a range of emotions, from excitement to fear to paralysis.
This is where all the groundwork you’ve laid (points 1-3, above) begins to bear fruit. You’ve been transparent and honest and kept the lines of communication open to maintain and strengthen the credibility of the Communications department and senior leadership team. Now you can start showcasing the early signs of success from the new strategy. Highlight teams and individuals who are making a difference in the new world order. Arm your front-line managers with key messages, and help them articulate how their teams and work fit into the larger strategy. Celebrate big wins, always with an acknowledgement that there’s more work to be done.
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