September 16, 2021
Communicating Your CEO Transition to Stakeholders and the Public
Count the headlines earned by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and Merck when they announced their CEO succession plans – turnover at the most senior levels gets attention. It may be one of the few “all eyes on you” moments a firm can count on.
As such, these moments present valuable opportunities for a firm to articulate strategy and communicate a fresh vision for the future. However, recent research has found that most organizations are unprepared for the opportunities –and challenges –that a turnover will bring.
In a new report we worked with History Factory to develop, 90% of the 160 c-suite respondents surveyed agreed with the statement, “in today’s unpredictable environment, succession planning is more important than ever.” Yet the report also showed that less than half of corporations have taken the time to develop a succession plan. This is particularly remarkable considering that CEO changeover reached 20-year highs in 2019 — and after a brief pandemic-induced pause, now continues to rise.
Greentarget has helped many clients manage leadership transitions at the c-level. Given these experiences and the market research we conducted with History Factory, we recommend that leaders consider the following when facing turnover in the c-suite.
1. Tell a Compelling Institutional Narrative
An executive transition is one of the few occasions where your firm will garner earned media attention and public interest, whether you’re actively seeking it out or not. What’s more, the passing of the baton gives you a rare strategic opportunity to refresh your firm’s market position, either by affirming your unique value proposition, previewing a strong new direction, or underscoring your commitment to serving clients and stakeholders.
Keep in mind, though, that most people view CEO transitions with some level of suspicion. For example, a company’s stock price almost always takes a hit when a new CEO is announced. This happens even when a company rolls out thoughtful transition communications. “What’s really going on over there?” is bound to cross the minds of more than a few stakeholders.
Your audience will want to know the why behind a high-profile change. So seize this moment by telling them a compelling story you want them to remember. Share your outgoing leader’s accomplishments. Lay out the meaningful strides your company made during her tenure. Then paint a picture of what your firm is capable based on this strong foundation.
2. Capture the Intellectual Capital of Your Outgoing CEO
Recent research published by Harvard Business Review quantifies a startling truth: the amount of market value wiped out by badly managed CEO and C-suite transitions in the S&P 1500 is close to $1 trillion a year. That’s trillion with a T. Among the primary reasons for this, the researchers argue, is the loss of the outgoing CEO’s intellectual capital.
Don’t let a veritable wealth of information walk out the door with your departing leader. You need to thoughtfully gather that institutional memory so it can be transferred to your incoming CEO.
Your incoming leader needs to demonstrate an awareness of:
- Company timelines and achievements
- Market position and competitive analysis
- Industry challenges and trends
- Past and current strategic priorities
- Organizational ethos and values
- High-profile client accounts, past and present
- Employee culture, including talent-related strengths and opportunities
History Factory’s report offers thoughtful guidance and examples on how to draw institutional memory out of your departing CEO and use it to prepare the new leader. Reflect this transfer of institutional memory in your communications plan to convey stability and momentum. Your audience and stakeholders need to be confident your organization won’t take a step backward as a result of the transition. They need to know your incoming leader is sufficiently aware of the past to be ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
3. Communicate the Value Your Incoming CEO Brings (But Don’t Rush to Herald a New Vision)
Introducing your incoming CEO can be tricky. You want that person to lead, but you also want your employees and clients to confidently follow. While you may be eager to signal a new direction, vision, and momentum, resist the urge to move too quickly. After all, CEOs who introduce a bold new direction right away run the risk of alienating employees, clients, and stakeholders in the process. It’s more important for the new leader to affirm your firm’s organizational culture and demonstrate genuine excitement about becoming part of it.
Rather than introducing the specific priorities your CEO will tackle, focus on communicating the value your new executive brings to the table. (For example, are you one of the increasing number of companies appointing its first woman or person of color as CEO?) Share why they are best suited to lead the organization into the future, and give them adequate time to formulate their compelling new vision.
Are you promoting a leader from within? Tell the story of that person’s journey at your firm. How has your outgoing CEO offered valuable mentorship and leadership along the way? In what ways will the new leader build on and enhance the strategic direction your firm has taken to this point?
Only after your new CEO has had a chance to get the lay of the land should you really hand over the microphone. It’s time to broadcast his vision for the future while continuing to value the good work you’ve already accomplished.
A Positive CEO Transition Requires Thoughtful Succession Planning
To navigate the challenging dynamics of an executive transition, you need a solid and thoughtful communication plan. This is your firm’s newsworthy moment. Make the most of it by telling a compelling institutional story, capturing and transferring your outgoing CEO’s intellectual capital, and introducing your incoming CEO’s vision thoughtfully.
You don’t have to go it alone. We’ve been down this road before. We’re well-positioned to help your organization seize the strategic opportunity an executive transition offers.
Want to talk it through? Just reach out — we’d love to hear from you.