Communicating leadership changes effectively

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Leadership changes and transitions are common across the globe and industries. The most recent and widely publicized leadership exit at Groupon fueled much online conversation about what really transpired and how the CEO got the boot. Even though CEO Andrew Mason (pictured at right) sent a mail describing the reason for his leaving it definitely left a lot of questions unanswered.

Internal communicators can play a leading role in ensuring leadership transitions are communicated well and that employees get to know the story direct and upfront.

In India, the tenure of CEOs and MDs has come down to 1-3 years. Their role is often examined closely and every action scanned. Apart from employees and the board they also need to gain the confidence of analysts, stock markets and the sales teams. Those organizations expanding globally also need to consider keeping leadership transitions smooth to avoid unnecessary media attention. Communicating in a timely and suitable manner can allow stakeholders to focus on the way forward.

Here are a few top tips to ensure a smooth transition at the top:

1. Address the reason for transition: It pays to speak of the reason directly. Everyone wants to know the truth and it is best to avoid ambiguity. For example, ‘Leader XX has decided to pursue opportunities outside of the firm’. Or ‘Effective XX, we will have leader XX take on the CEO’s role as part of the organization’s ongoing rotation policy that provides leaders to take on larger responsibilities and harness potential’.

2. Clarify the plan and process: Before the transition takes place it is important to craft a communication plan. Identify the key spokespersons. Have a trusted leader announce the transition. Provide a detailed flow chart for cascading the news beginning with leaders. If possible, make the announcement face to face and allow opportunities to clarify questions employees may have. For example, they may want to know if there is a thought through succession or replacement plan in the organization and if the process of choosing the successor is logical. It is helpful if senior managers distribute their own communication to their teams identifying the milestones of their now-former CEO as well as what the transition means for the organization. The successor should discuss his/her new role and stakeholders’ expectations. It’s also important to specify a timeline to complete the transition.

3. Get ready for media interest: Leadership transitions are news worthy and many journalists will want to cover the change. Therefore, it’s essential to craft messages on the strategy, the successor’s credentials, the way forward and how the organization plans to overcome concerns from staff about these changes.

4. Identify who will be the most impacted: Inside the organization the leader who is moving on will have worked closely with several teams of employees. Depending on how smooth the transition is, there may be concerns that employees who have directly worked with the individual may feel insecure about the changes. There can be attrition among key team members as well. Questions that will most likely need to be addressed are: ‘How does the structure change?’ and ‘How will relationships change?’ Remember to address the leader’s executive administration team since they will be field the most questions.


5. Constructing messages
: Each audience will need to be addressed differently. Employees will be keen to know if the leader stepped down due to issues with the business or that he/she wasn’t seeing a future. Help share the state of the organization by speaking of ‘business as usual’ or how the transition will mean ‘changes to the business landscape’. The organization needs to speak in the support, leadership, commitment and achievements of the two leaders. In addition, acknowledge the contributions of employees involved in making the leaders successful.

6. Be prepared to tackle frequently asked questions by stakeholders: As part of the transition briefing list, prepare for questions that can be asked by stakeholders.

Here are some questions that usually get asked:

• Why is there a change?

• How did the organization arrive at the successor?

• How will the organization manage the transition?

• Is there an impact to the business functioning?

• Are all stakeholders informed?

• Do our clients know of the change?

• What are the credentials of the successor?

• When can we see a strategy and plan from the new leader?

• Are there changes to the organizational structure and reporting?

• What are we telling the media?

7. Managing the transition: Set up a briefing meeting or call to announce the change. Be clear about the agenda. Mention ‘leadership changes’ as part of the communication. Keep the subject line and content neutral. Avoid mentioning names and reasons in the invite. There are possibilities of the content getting circulated beyond the group intended. As the internal communicator who manages the communication you may be asked questions about the changes prior to the announcement. Avoid discussions and encourage participants to join the briefing.

8. Post announcement: After the briefing call have a checkpoint with all communication core team members to debrief on questions asked, lessons learnt and changes you may need to make. Have a strategy to quell rumors, if any, that you are hearing.

Other crucial inputs

Most organizations have systemic triggers that alert human resources employees during the hiring phase and when staffers quit. This helps them prepare for exit conversations and other formalities. However, it can also be the starting point of a communication leak. Ensuring that the human resources team understands the confidentiality of such cases will help in keeping the word from spreading. Also, many employees know that the corporate communications team is well connected and aware of organizational developments ahead of it going public. Be wary of employees trying to phish for information.