Even in the most favorable situations, like a planned retirement, introducing a new CEO is challenging. Employees view leadership change as a time of uncertainty, raising many questions about the future of the organization, strategy and culture. Add urgency or complexity to it—like a firing or unanticipated departure—and the uncertainty multiplies.
Managing a CEO change with a well-planned communication strategy can help ease employees’ fears. In the past few years, I’ve helped clients introduce new CEOs or other senior leaders at various organizations. While every CEO transition is unique and should be treated as such, these three best practices helped for a smooth transition each time:
Communicate intentions. When employees learn they have a new CEO, many will start to speculate about the company’s future. To help manage rumors and build trust, create an opportunity for the new CEO to share intentions as close as possible to their start date. And they don’t need to share a polished business strategy immediately. For example, during a company-wide meeting, one new CEO presented a three-month road map, highlighting how he planned to approach forming the new strategy.
Prioritize listening. Typically, a new CEO will want to understand the current state of the company’s business and culture. To help the new CEO achieve this, create opportunities for them to gather feedback directly from employees and input from key stakeholders like members of the leadership team. For example, I helped another client schedule a listening tour where the CEO asked participants specific questions to help shape the CEO’s plan forward.
Demonstrate authenticity. Employees crave their leaders, including CEOs, to be relatable and genuine. To help the new CEO build rapport with employees, stay away from prescripted speeches filled with corporate jargon. Instead, look for ways to highlight the CEO’s personality and values—allowing employees a peek at the person behind the title. For example, I encouraged another CEO to include a personal story or a glimpse into her home life while meeting with employees.
Preparing for a new CEO can seem daunting, but I’ve seen first-hand how a solid communication plan will help manage the ambiguity. By incorporating these proven practices, the CEO will start off on the right foot—and employees will embrace the CEO right away.