Communications Playbook on Managing C-Suite Changes

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When it comes to communicating with employees and other stakeholders, I find that a lot of companies overthink what is ultimately very simple. This need to overcomplicate things happens with minor news, as well as big news, such as C-suite changes.

That’s where I come in to help — I’m Captain Obvious, and I like to show my clients that the keys to success are really very simple and obvious.

Another obvious fact is change. It’s constant. And it’s happening in the corner office at companies all over the world. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., Q3 2019 saw 434 chief executives leave their posts, the highest quarterly total on record. There have been recent high-profile CEO departures at McDonald’s, Nike, Under Armour, and WeWork, as well as CMO changes at companies like Hyundai and Tommy Hilfiger. These leadership transitions require companies to adapt and evolve their communications with external audiences, as well as employees.

The good news is that it’s actually not that difficult to execute flawless communication during C-suite changes, if you have a solid communications infrastructure in place and follow a strategic playbook. The bad news is that many companies just aren’t equipped to engage their audiences appropriately, during transitions or otherwise.

The Pillars of Good Communications Through Leadership Transition

Consistent, Timely Communications

When faced with new leaders, communicators need to align with executive stakeholders on messaging and ensure they’re delivering information to internal and external stakeholders in a timely and transparent fashion. You need to own the narrative; otherwise, you run the risk of leaving others to tell your story for you. Trust me, they won’t tell your story the way that you want it told.

The messaging should emphasize the value the leader brings, as well as reiterate the company vision and strategy, and how it aligns with the company direction. For example, Nike’s new CEO, John Donahoe, brings an extensive consumer tech background, which was emphasized in its announcement as part of the company’s focus on digital.

For messages to really stick, they need to be consistent and come from all pockets of the company. I’ve written in the past about the value of ambassadors and champion networks. Transitions are a prime opportunity to tap into your internal ambassadors, along with managers throughout the organization, to build deeper engagement with employees in support of new leaders.

Leadership Visibility and Trust

Employees will likely respond differently when leadership is elevated from within the organization, compared to an outside hire. At Under Armour, they selected President and COO, Patrik Frisk, who has been at the company for two years and has a 30-year career in retail. As a known entity, there could be a higher level of trust and existing visibility to build on, compared with Nike, where the CEO is effectively an outsider. (He served on the board of directors, but was not previously an employee.)

Visibility is also critical when the new leader is replacing a long-standing CEO, like Mark Parker who led Nike for 13 years; or a founder like Kevin Plank of Under Armour, who founded the company in his grandmother’s basement. Many times, long-standing leaders are synonymous with the brand itself, and new leaders often have big shoes to fill.

Employee town halls are valuable visibility opportunities to begin signaling leadership style and sharing the new executive’s approach and perspectives. It helps to include mechanisms for employee engagement and feedback, such as a live Q&A and post-event surveys, so you get employee buy-in from Day One.

Technology to-Scale

These days, every communications toolbox needs to include digital tools. Technology is especially crucial for large global organizations with geographically dispersed employees.
I recommend live broadcasting employee town halls and making recordings available for those in other time zones. Allow remote participants to submit questions in advance or in real-time to make the meetings more interactive for the employees who aren’t in the room.

Another valuable way to leverage technology is to set up channels for ongoing leadership communication and access, such as a blog, regular global town halls, and monthly digital “ask me anything” style meetings.

Leadership Alignment

Communicators and marketers not only need to support the announcement of a new leader with internal and external stakeholders, but they also have a “new sheriff in town.” The leadership announcement itself is a great opportunity to begin the engagement process with the new C-level leader.

Try to engage new leaders early in their tenure to get an understanding of their vision and goals, while sharing your existing communications strategy. Then work together to adapt the strategy to address the direction of the leader and organization (under their stewardship).

Now is an ideal time to get familiar with the leader’s communication style to ensure authentic communications and content, moving forward. What worked for the prior CEOs, CMOs, and other “Cs” may not work for the new regime.

Start Preparing Now

Leadership turnover is a fact of corporate life. And while your organization may not be going through it today or tomorrow, Captain Obvious will tell you that it will happen eventually. Use this time to make sure you have the tools, technologies, and foundational strategy in place so that when there is a transition, you’re ready to spring into action and follow the playbook for success.