Use these principles to effectively navigate major business events
CEO transitions are critical inflection points for businesses. Even when transitions are planned and favorable, such as a well-regarded internal candidate replacing a retiring CEO with a track record of accomplishments, there must be a thoughtful, strategic plan in place to ensure the transition’s success.
According to a McKinsey study, when leaders struggle through a transition, the performance of their direct reports is 15 percent lower than it would be with high-performing leaders, and direct reports are 20 percent more likely to be disengaged or leave the organization. However, if the transition succeeds, the leader’s company will likely be successful; nine out of ten teams whose leader had a successful transition go on to meet their three-year performance goals.
Given the importance of executive transitions, communication must play a critical role in the process. CEO transitions tend to be relatively infrequent, and many in-house communication professionals have limited experience with the unique demands of communicating effectively during these circumstances.
Based on our experience strategizing and executing numerous CEO transitions and major business events, there are several important considerations your communications team should support to ensure a successful announcement.
Executive transitions are an opportunity to reset and refresh the company’s public perception and brand. They also provide an opportunity to clearly define the new leader as the company spokesperson and build her or his brand publicly and internally.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Develop a communications action plan, including anticipated timeline of key activities, overview of internal and external stakeholders, desired outcomes and responsible party for implementing. This detailed roadmap guides the work of the communication team and other support personnel. Robust plans also allow for quick updates on communication plan progress, results and next steps. The action plan can be adjusted as needed and referenced as appropriate for other subsequent company announcements.
Develop thorough messaging
Prior to the transition, the “message platform,” a well-defined list of key messages for the CEO to communicate, must be defined. This should include their professional story, background and message of introduction along with their vision for the future. Key messages should accomplish the following:
Conduct media training
The skills that lead new CEOs to the top are not necessarily the ones they need to be effective as the company spokesperson. One of the biggest indicators of presence is a leader’s effectiveness when presenting or speaking with the media. The right training makes a big difference.
We often bring in a third-party media coach to help executives prepare for real scenarios. The coach works with the communications team and executive to develop key messages, practice answering tough or complex questions and provide real-time feedback on speaking and presentation skills. It’s often an illuminating and beneficial experience for executives who have not had this type of training before.
Leverage the media
Even when favorable, CEO transitions raise questions with internal and external stakeholders, and the media can be quick to report on perceived changes. Developing and deploying a proactive strategy helps ensure messages are clear and conveyed in the first round of media coverage. When possible, we often pre-brief a trusted reporter to secure a holistic, in-depth story at the outset of the announcement prior to the public distribution of a press release.
Well-developed communication plans for any major announcement are essential to effectively manage the narrative and ensure the best outcome. The areas above apply to much more than CEO transitions — we use them to navigate most major business events, whether they are mergers, acquisitions, opening or closing of facilities, significant corporate milestones and much more.
A positive CEO transition requires thoughtful planning. Our team has helped executives navigate transitions many times before and has the experience to help seize this important opportunity and help ensure success. If you have questions or want to learn more about our process and approach, please get in touch.
Julia Bonner is the founder and president of Pierce Public Relations.