27 May 2019
By Ron Murray
Organisations encounter all manner of jolts in the course of their existence.
They can be financial – hard economic times, or physical – fires, floods and quakes, people-related perhaps – accidents, layoffs - or just some wild, unpleasant surprise out of the miscellaneous basket.
But one event that can appear relatively benign yet still pose a risk to the organisation’s stability is the change at the very top – the arrival of a new CEO, MD or GM, and the departure of their predecessor. Watch the business press – and there are some notable recent examples – and even in the most prestigious organisations disruptive leadership events can occur suddenly.
Such a change is part of life in business and the transition is usually relatively smooth: a CEO nears retirement, the anointed successor is known, and when the boss steps down, their replacement slots in without fuss. At the other end of the angst scale, the departure may be acrimonious and/or the identification and appointment of the replacement may be drawn-out and troubled.
Between the extremes there are many shades of how it pans out. If it’s less than smooth, however, there is a real risk of cultural damage to the organisation. By that I mean uncertainty about what’s happening among employees, uncertainty emerging about the direction of the organisation and how it will be run and managed, and ultimately concern around job security.
There is also, of course, considerable risk to the organisation externally with customers, stakeholders, investors and other acutely interested parties whose perceptions of what’s going on need to be carefully and accurately managed. But I want to focus on the internal risk – it’s critical to manage that in the first instance because your employees are your business.
Let’s map a potential sequence. A CEO resigns, possibly unexpectedly and suddenly. They have been there a long time and have built up a strong bond with the staff, who understand, and are comfortable in the most part, with their style of leadership and management.
Suddenly, they’re gone. Hopefully, the leadership vacuum is quickly filled by a capable stand-in or permanent replacement. But it’s a new face – and mind - at the top for employees, an unknown factor. Everyone waits for the information they all need and want: What (if anything) is going to change?
There are a number of possibilities. It could be very much BAU (but for how long?) It may be BAU but things start to not happen, or don’t go as well. It may be about some key changes, that may make absolute sense or none at all. Does the new broom sweep clean? Or – perhaps the worst scenario – it’s not clear at all what’s happening, change or no change. A communications blackout. Managers shrug and everyone keeps doing what they’ve been doing, assuming they should, but with a shade of doubt.
The best organisations will have systems in place under the stewardship of Human Resources and the corporate office to anticipate this leadership-switcheroo culture-risk in advance, and be able to quickly set up processes and activities to ride smoothly over the cultural uncertainties. But such provision and pre-planning is far from universal. What can and should you do then to prepare for change at the top?
Preparing for change
Get your comms right for a start. Management change is but one of many things that happen in an organisation that staff need to know about. How do you communicate with staff? Depending on the size of the organisation and its relative dispersal, there should be a mix of meetings and emails, a newsletter perhaps, maybe a functional intranet with a viable discussion forum capability – Facebook, Yammer or similar.
Be very wary of the rumour mill, which populates a lot of bogus stuff if left to its own devices and the surrounding official comms is feeble. Fill the void with good information - and not late in the piece or miles after the action.
If leadership change is on the way, orderly in its genesis or not, do your best to advise staff of the change and particularly why it’s happening. The rationale is important to them – and so is reassurance that the management team (and Board) have things under control; that, throughout, there will be a hand - and preferably a firm one - on the corporate tiller.
Post-transition there is an important need for the new leader to be visible and reassuringly vocal. They have a duty to cushion any disruptive change on their agenda and ensure the arguments for making it are robust and communicated well to all. There may be a lot of pent-up action poised to be unleashed in the new leader’s game plan, but it will encounter resistance if it’s bulldozed in. You must be prepared to temper or even drop some things if the counter-arguments are good.
Gold standard in comms at such times is face-to-face, with opportunity for two-way communication so people don’t just get the scripted spiel but also answers to the questions they want to ask. But work all the channels – people receive and process information in different ways – and be patient. Modern HR practice usually overlays a consultation blueprint over change which all parties should respect and allow to proceed.
For me, best practice in terms of the full-court press for CEO comms in the transition period and beyond would be a combo of a regular (and not-too-fancy) internal email message/newsletter – perhaps fortnightly, a regular organisational gathering (town-hall-style meeting) or roadshow around the traps if the business is dispersed, a vibrant noticeboard programme maybe and good intranet capture of the information and opinion.
Above all, don’t leave this important period of cultural challenge to resolve itself in an ad hoc, hit-and-miss, leave-it-to-chance way. Understand and accept that a leadership switch can be a wobbly time for many people and careful planning can bring much needed order – and thus smoother day-to-day operations and, ultimately, ongoing business prosperity.
Ron Murray is a Senior Account Director and Writer for Wright Communications
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