How to Communicate a Change in Corporate Leadership

At the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.

Communicating a change in leadership is a high-risk assignment, especially for publicly traded firms such as Apple or IBM, where every move of the CEO is followed closely. Businesses can experience substantial swings in their stock value depending on how well they manage the way they inform clients, employees, media and shareholders about a change in leadership — and certainly private companies, large and small, help or hurt their brand equity depending on the quality of their communications. The key to managing a change in leadership is to plan as well as you can and coordinate all the communications channels at your disposal, including events. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Understand the Context

The context behind a change in leadership affects everything from the tone and speed with which you need to act. Did your outgoing CEO retire as part of a natural succession, or did they leave suddenly? Is the change happening for positive or negative reasons? A sudden change will put you into crisis mode, and rapid communication is a must. A change that is planned allows you to spend time orchestrating your communications approach, including designating a date for a celebration to honor the outgoing CEO’s career.

Context also helps you manage expectations. If you need to act quickly to manage an unexpected change, it’s more important to create a triage system identifying who needs to hear the news first. You might not have the luxury to manage all channels and audiences as well as you would like. For instance, a publicly traded firm may need to communicate a sudden change in command to shareholders first and foremost for regulatory reasons even though it might be more desirable to tell employees ahead of time.

Assemble a Team

If it’s your job to plan this kind of communication, don’t go it alone. You’re going to need to talk with employees, clients, influencers and many other stakeholders. Unless you work for a small organization where you manage all communications, you’ll need to rely on a cross-disciplinary team to make sure every audience hears a consistent message at the right time. You’ll also need to involve many other stakeholders outside marketing/communications, including legal, HR, and, of course, the outgoing and incoming CEOs. This is the kind of project that might happen only once in your career. Let everyone have a voice and a role. You want to get it right.

Achieve a Balance

Communicating a change in leadership is as much about talking about the new leader as it is honoring the legacy of the outgoing CEO. I’ve seen companies meet both needs by relying on special events to announce the retirement of one leader and to introduce the next. In those cases, prepping both CEOs beforehand is crucial to ensure you deliver consistent messages with the appropriate tone. You want the outgoing CEO to step down graciously and assure employees and other audiences that the company is in good hands with the new CEO. You want the new CEO to warmly honor the outgoing CEO and then provide a very clear, compelling vision for the company’s future in order to dispel doubt that can naturally occur during a leadership change.

Look Forward

The real work begins after you are done with your initial communication. During the first weeks and months of the new CEO’s tenure, all the people who have a stake in the success of your company will be asking the same questions: is our company in good hands? What kind of changes will occur under new leadership? If you’ve handled your initial communication well by introducing your new leadership as you say farewell to the outgoing CEO, you will have created a positive first impression, but you need to nurture that impression.

That first year under new leadership is an opportunity to provide more depth behind the new CEO’s vision and more transparency into how they will lead. For many businesses, taking the CEO on a road show to visit with different offices and stakeholders is a crucial way to do so — as well as make the CEO more approachable, a topic we’ve discussed on our blog. It might not be practical for you to do so, but you have many other tools to make the CEO more visible across far-flung locations, such as webinars and social media. The more you reinforce the value that your new CEO provides — and the more you help the new CEO amplify their own voice and personality — the more you shift the focus from where the company was to where it is going.

These are just a few tips to get you thinking about this highly sensitive topic. At some point, your company is going to encounter this challenge. It’s better to think through a communications plan now so that when you need to hit the ground running, you’ll be ready to act.

Image source: Asa Mathat/Fortune Live Media via Wikipedia

We Love Live®. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing bduffy@onesmoothstone.com

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