The top 5 communication pitfalls to avoid during a CEO transition
There are five considerations when it comes to developing an effective plan for maximising communication during CEO transitions, write Donna Teach and Michael Watkins
Even in the best of circumstances, CEO transitions are challenging. The transfer of power in large organisations is a time of potential uncertainty and even instability. In fact, the term "interregnum" was coined by the Romans explicitly to refer to this critical period – the time between the reigns of kings when there could be widespread unrest, wars, foreign invasions, or the onset of a new power.
Fortunately, CEO transitions (and top executive transitions more generally) are rarely so fraught. However, even in the most favorable circumstances – when a well-regarded internal candidate is promoted to replace a retiring CEO with a strong track record – these transitions must be managed comprehensively and with care, guided by a well-planned strategy. When these transitions are managed poorly, they can lead to unnecessary confusion, loss of focus on the business, and departure of valuable talent.
A McKinsey study showed that when executives struggle through a transition, the performance of their direct reports is 15 per cent lower than it would be with high-performing leaders. The direct reports are also 20 percent more likely to be disengaged or to leave the organisation.
Much has been written about the key elements of successful CEO transitions, including the process through which the successor is chosen, how the operational transfer of power is structured, and whether there will be an overlap between the outgoing and incoming CEO. One key element which has not received systematic attention, however, is communication. Communication plays a critical role in CEO transitions for the outgoing leader, the incoming leader, the incumbent leadership team, and the overall organisation, with materiel impacts on engagement and performance.
CEO transitions tend to be relatively infrequent events, so most communication and HR professionals have limited experience with the unique demands of communicating effectively during these critical times. The experience of Donna Teach, chief marketing and communication officer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in leading communication for CEO transition teams over several decades offered her the opportunity to learn from multiple experiences. Similarly, Michael Watkins, co-founder of leadership development consultancy Genesis Advisers, has witnessed first-hand the impact that effective and ineffective communication have had in the transitions of new CEOs he has coached.
A guaranteed good start
In the case of an internal transfer of power, communication is important to reposition the leader from their previous role to CEO. Without a concerted effort, the new CEO can miss invaluable organisational perspective and stakeholder insights crucial to future success; or worse, they can create issues or misperceptions that will require repair far into their tenure.
Consider, for example, the CEO who has operations in multiple locations but chooses to spend much of their first 90 days planted in corporate headquarters. Not only could they miss vital insights by not engaging with a broad set of stakeholders, but they squander a priceless opportunity to be visible in their new role. Failure to engage early and actively with a broad range of leaders and frontline personnel can foster alienation with senior leadership – attitudes that are difficult to change.
In the case of an externally hired CEO, the time demands can be even more daunting than for an internal hire. Externally hired CEOs generally come in without established board and senior leader relationships, and they must make important choices about how to allocate their time to engage with key stakeholders and assess the business. A well-thought-through communication strategy can help prioritise audiences for the onboarding period and maximise the impact of the time given to these efforts by the new CEO.
Regardless of whether the new CEO is an internal promote or external hire, they need a comprehensive communication strategy, informed by a proactive posture and planned and executed by a competent communication staff. Every CEO transition has its unique elements: there is no one-size-fits-all formula. However, there are guiding principles that can be applied to shape new CEO communications (and communication for new top executive more generally) in virtually all transitions.
Avoiding communication pitfalls
A good way to understand what helps facilitate a CEO's transition is to look at common mistakes that undermine communication effectiveness during these times. Care must be taken to avoid these five pitfalls:
1. Not focusing adequate attention on the outgoing CEO. When planning for a CEO transition, the selection and introduction of the new leader naturally receives the bulk of the attention. Off-boarding may be relegated to ceremonial tasks and party planning, even if the departing CEO is leaving on positive terms, such as retirement after a long, successful tenure. If a leader is leaving under less favourable terms, there may be the instinct to avoid communication altogether and “just move on.”
What gets overlooked, in both these scenarios, is a thorough examination of staff attitudes, perceptions, and needs around the departure of the ongoing leader. Frontline workers, for example, may have different needs for closure than upper management, who have had more regular access to the outgoing CEO. In the event of a CEO leaving under duress, it is even more important to communicate, understanding there may be significant staff concerns and misperceptions, especially since word-of-mouth and the rumour mill may be leading sources of misinformation around the transition. In the case of a planned internal succession, there is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate a cohesive, smooth, and positive transition between the two leaders.
How an organisation treats its departing leaders makes a strong statement to staff and also to external stakeholders of the organisation. Providing appropriate opportunities for closure, whether in positive or negative situations, also creates a smoother runway for the new CEO to make a successful transition. Staff at all levels, who must carry on work under the new leader, are given the appropriate opportunity to understand and process the change, and therefore, experience an organisation that is transparent and values staff engagement.
To make the off-boarding as smooth as possible, it helps to:
- Take inventory of and recognise the accomplishments and impact of the outgoing leader, as appropriate.
- Provide authentic opportunities for staff engagement and closure during the transition period. This could include events or online venues for staff to submit personal messages to the departing CEO. Many companies now create digital “memory books” for the departing CEO, allowing thousands of frontline staff to contribute.
- Leverage support managers during the transition as key communicators. Toolkits, FAQs, and check-ins are all helpful.
- Illustrate the positive connection between the outgoing and incoming leader, as appropriate, to support a more seamless perception of transition.
2. Missing or underprioritising key stakeholders. To be effective, CEOs have to build and maintain a complex set of stakeholder relationships, both internal and external. It’s therefore essential to communicate effectively with the full set of them about and throughout the transition.
Meeting with external stakeholders is on every new CEO’s to-do list and is one of the most important strategies for accelerating early learning and connection. The new CEO often has strong guidance from the board, especially concerning external stakeholders. Even here, however, the communication team can give the new CEO a broader sense of the external landscape, and sometimes of the intricacies of board dynamics. That way, importer stakeholders don’t get missed and the use of the CEO’s time is optimised.
The more common mistake, however, is to pay too little attention to internal stakeholders. It’s very time-consuming to fully connect with the organisation, and new CEOs must take care not to underinvest. This occurs, for example, when internally promoted CEOs don’t prioritise internal stakeholder meetings because they are focusing on establishing new external relationships. What they miss is the importance of rebranding themselves in the eyes of the employees. They may assume staff knew them in their previous role, and there is less need to prioritise internal stakeholders. Even for long-time C-suite executives promoted to CEO, there will be internal segments who are quite unfamiliar with them or those who need to see the CEO in a new light.
Preparing comprehensive lists of internal and external stakeholders – focusing not just on individuals but on key institutions and their agendas, interdependencies, and priorities – will help new CEOs allocate their time most efficiently and effectively. Well-constructed stakeholder maps are the foundation of workplans that guide meeting scheduling and communication for the first ninety days and beyond. Initial stakeholder meetings can and should extend far into a CEO’s early tenure. Unplanned developments may alter the sequencing, but solid initial stakeholder communication plans are an invaluable reference for CEOs and their schedulers.
It typically takes many months to engage with the full range of stakeholders, so it is important to continue allocating time for these activities and adapting stakeholder lists as needed to address the internal and external environment. Communication staff should work with the CEO’s support staff to track meetings, set schedules, and manage correspondence following visits. Once a comprehensive set of stakeholders is developed and prioritised, a simple, concentric circle diagram (see below) can be created to help manage engagements with both internal and external audiences.
3. Not balancing telling with learning. Good communications advisors help new CEOs strike the right balance between telling their story to build authentic, credible relationships and engaging in listening sessions to learn and gain insight. Both aspects of communication are important, and the right balance depends on the situation and the new leader’s communication style and preferences.
More extroverted, charismatic CEOs may be very comfortable speaking to large groups and selling their story or vision. They may be less skilled in effective listening techniques or adapting their style to various group settings, running the risk of appearing less authentic or approachable to some stakeholders.
Conversely, more introverted CEOs may struggle with bringing energy to larger forums, but excel in small group settings and listening sessions. They run the risk of under-projecting and they may be challenged to instill confidence and enthusiasm in others. As a result, audiences struggle to understand what the CEO stands for and their vision for the future.
Both types of new CEOs can be very effective with proper planning and preparation. What they all should have in common is a message platform for their first stakeholder meetings, supported by authentic ways to learn and engage with key stakeholders. The platform should be consistent but adaptable enough that it doesn’t appear too “packaged or scripted.” Key elements include:
- Your story: what brought you to this role and how has your experience uniquely prepared you to lead this organisation.
- Your assessment of the state of organisation: where it is today and what brought it there, emphasising the positive when possible and the reality when necessary (especially if the company is facing a difficult time).
- Your aspirations for the future: where do you want to take the organisation, why is it important to go there, and what roles can the audience play.
- What are you going to do next: how are you spending your initial time and what is the next milestone? What should the audience expect as next steps? This is especially important in the first ninety days.
4. Not establishing consistent two-way communication across multiple channels. Gone are the days when CEO communication could primarily be one-to-many projections, using presentations, memos, emails, and videos. Employees today expect opportunities to engage with the new leader and to provide input. Failure to do this is a sure way for a new CEO to seem remote and unapproachable.
New CEOs must leverage a wide array of communication channels and venues supporting both one-way and two-way communication. Social media has been a gamechanger for communication, yet a study conducted by Brunswick Group showed that only 48 per cent of CEOs in top US companies maintain social media accounts. This is a big missed opportunity, considering employees say they would prefer to work for CEOs who have a social media presence.
Social media, while not a substitute for face-to-face communication, is a particularly potent channel because it is accessible to both internal and external stakeholders and facilitates two-way exchange. LinkedIn is the most popular platform for CEOs, with 44 percent of them maintaining a presence on the site. Additionally, many organisations’ intranet platforms can support social media-type exchanges through applications such as Yammer. Blogs, vlogs, and live video conferencing allow new CEOs an array of options that can be tailored to specific communication needs.
These new media opportunities should be considered alongside traditional face-to-face engagements in both small and large venues. The right mix depends on the size and structure of the organisation and the needs, including generational differences, of the key audiences. Social media and blogs are not a replacement for the authentic connection made through face-to-face exchanges. The value-add, however, is that traditional communication can be amplified with blogs, social posts, photos, and other channels to extend reach.
What has not changed over time is the importance of consistent and credible CEO visibility across multiple channels. According to research by Burson-Marsteller, in the US, a CEO’s reputation accounts for 50 per cent of a company’s reputation. Building an effective communication strategy from day one accelerates positive reputation building. Consistency of communication is also key to establishing CEO credibility and positive impressions.
Once an effective mix of channels in determined, it is important to fuel the process with a regular flow of quality content from a well-designed message platform. Face-to-face engagements, whether small group or large venue should always be maintained in the mix. There is an approachability and sense of connection that is best fuelled through face-to-face meetings. These encounters, especially those held in larger venues, can then be shared across the organisation via video or intranet to offer broader access. Although it is difficult for many CEOs to have face-to-face encounters with all their staff, they can certainly optimise the perception through strategically planned, documented, and shared events.
Most CEOs have communication staff on their teams to assist with managing channels, organising events, producing content, and tracking responses. These activities are too time-consuming for the CEO to manage alone, but it’s vitally important that they are briefed and engaged with any channel carrying their name. Many organisations create a dedicated email for CEO inquiries that is constantly monitored and managed with direct input from the CEO themself.
5. Not getting new CEOs the right communication training. It’s easy to assume that all CEOs became leaders because they are great natural presenters and are comfortable speaking to others. Sometimes this is the case, but often it is not. CEO-level communication is different than that of other positions, with the audiences being larger, the pace more demanding, and the stakes greater. Also, the skills that get new CEOs to the top are not necessarily the ones they need to be fully effective in the role. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t necessarily keep you there.”
Even the best presenters benefit from polishing their skills. As Dale Carnegie so aptly put it, “There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.” A survey of 400 leaders showed that all believed presence can aid success, and 78 per cent thought a lack of presence could hold them back. A prime indicator of presence, of course, is a leader’s effectiveness when giving presentations or when speaking with the media.
The right training can make a big difference; however, staff can be afraid to raise the subject at the risk of offending the new leader. The communication leader can play a crucial role in building an early relationship of trust with the CEO and introducing processes such as media training or speech coaching. The best way to broach the subject is simply by asking. A CEO who is well-seasoned with media and presentations may have an existing go-to resource that could be applied to this new role. In most cases, CEOs express their interest in support, whether that is a tune-up or more extensive training. In all cases, the organisational communication leader should be highly engaged in facilitating and leading this inquiry.
Once the subject has been broached, consider engaging a coach external to the organisation for speech and media preparation. A coach brings value in their external perspective, helping the CEO make small adjustments that may not be apparent to the individual or those around them. Small changes in dress, body language, enunciation, or inflection can make a dramatic impact if sustained. Coaches can give private feedback that staff may find awkward or difficult. Many coaching relationships are long-lasting, helping CEOs prepare for significant media interviews or presentations. It’s important to find the coach that is a good fit for your CEO and allow the relationship to mature. Additionally, coaches can work with communication staff to enhance their support of the CEO in terms of preparing speeches and presentation briefs in a way that compliments the CEO’s training.
Avoiding these five pitfalls – while, of course, do not guarantee success – provides a solid basis for developing and implementing an effective, impactful plan for maximising and leveraging communication during CEO transitions. Many of the same principles (see communication checklist below) also can be applied to most top executive transitions in large organisations.
A new CEO communication checklist
Offboarding the outgoing CEO
- Assess the need and willingness of the outgoing CEO to engage in communication about the departure. Some CEOs are reticent to engage, sensing this is a self-serving activity, but it is important to emphasise the need for staff closure and create a smooth entry for the new leader.
- Conduct a qualitative and/or quantitative organisational scan of attitudes and communication needs around the departure and develop a stakeholder analysis and recommendations for channels and messages.
- Find ways to help all employees reach closure. Not every employee can have direct access to the departing CEO, but there have been very innovative off-boarding activities using intranet town halls and virtual recognition activities.
Onboarding the new CEO
- Map the external and internal stakeholders with whom the new CEO should engage within the first ninety days. Leverage this analysis to develop a communication plan aligned to organisational and individual priorities for the new leader.
- Organise stakeholders into priority groups so the new CEO can reach the most important within the first two weeks, the next group within the first thirty to sixty days, and onward from there. This prioritised list becomes a roadmap for allocating CEO time and is updated regularly.
- Define the “message platform,” a well-defined list of key messages and topics for the CEO to communicate in their first ninety days. This will always include their personal story and message of introduction married with, depending on the situation, their plan to learn or their plan to act. The message platform should be updated following the initial ninety-day period and should be used on-going with the CEO.
- Identify the communication channels, considering a variety of in-person, digital, online, and video options. Use those that are most authentic and complimentary to the new CEO’s style and approach. Media and presentation training should be offered and encouraged to all new CEOs, regardless of their previous experience.
- Lay out a team action plan, a timeline of key activities, describing the target audience, desired outcome (in attendance or engagement) and responsible party for implementing. This detailed road map guides the work of the communication team and administrative support personal. This also allows for quick CEO updates on communication plan progress, results, and next steps. The action plan can be adjusted over time as situations necessitate.
Donna Teach is chief marketing and communication officer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. In her 30-plus years as a communications professional, she has worked on numerous CEO transitions under a wide range of circumstances. Michael Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at IMD. He is the author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Shaping the Game, and numerous other books and articles on successfully taking new roles. A recognised expert on leadership and transitions, he coaches C-level executives as they take charge, build their teams and transform their organisations.