Smart Planning for Executive Transitions: When Time Is Not On Your Side (Part 2)
This is the second part of our two-part series on executive transitions. If you missed the first one, you can read some tips for handling a planned executive transition here.
Transitions are high stakes for both companies and investors. It’s emotional, especially if an organization has seen a lot of executive turnover in a short time. In fact, 70% of CEOs and managers—i.e., people leaders—are considering quitting. Experts suggest that emotional burnout, the stress of the pandemic, and the shifting labor market and economy are all likely contributing to this trend.
Executive turnover brings up a variety of reactions. While some employees get very anxious about having to manage or “break in” the new leader, others—like those who were “quiet quitting” before it was a thing–check out entirely. Neither extreme is healthy for individuals or companies.
In Part 2 of our Executive Transition Series, we’ll consider a situation that’s a bit different than the planned exit of a long-term CEO.
Imagine it’s three years into the pandemic, and your current leader, who has been with the company for two years, has admirably faced the challenges the pandemic brought to all organizations. Although she has managed quite well, another opportunity comes up and she submits her two weeks’ notice.
Without a transition plan in place, the company could be thrown into chaos. Some employees may have come to the company only to work with her, and others might be suspicious of how leaders are going to handle the change, or whether the company has a future at all. Executive transitions are emotional and complex, and the fact is that there isn’t always time to prepare.
In a case like this, context will drive a strategic communications plan. What’s the context around the exiting CEO? What is the plan for the interim leader? Are we looking internally or externally? Most importantly, how do we set up a new leader for success and demonstrate stability to our employees?
4 Tips for Unplanned Transitions
This tops our list again because storytelling is how humans best connect and communicate. That doesn’t mean telling fairytales—employees can tell when a communication is bullsh*t or hiding the truth. It is important, as much as is professionally appropriate, to be honest about why change is coming.
Tell the truth and allow room for employees to both have and share their thoughts and feelings about what’s happening. You’d be surprised at how much it helps to have leadership acknowledge that a particular situation is really challenging. Otherwise, you risk making employees feel as if they’re being gaslighted. Transitions are inherently challenging, and employees need to know they’re not alone in feeling it.
2. Due diligence
You’ve made space for the feelings, and now it’s time to do your due diligence. This has two parts: finding your next leader, and continuing to achieve your goals.
Finding a new leader will be your utmost priority. Most likely, your Board of Directors will take the lead to determine an interim leader and initiate a search for the next leader. You’ll need to announce and introduce the interim leader while also giving employees, customers, and partners a sense for the plan to find your new executive.
Finally, you want to help your team keep their eyes on the prize, whether that’s increasing sales or another goal for this quarter. Transition can be a major distraction. While it’s okay to acknowledge feelings of uncertainty, it’s also important to support your team in moving forward.
As the saying goes, companies are bigger than one person; success is shared vision and collective action. By providing the right support, you can empower your team to keep pursuing the strategy. This will not only help maintain a sense of stability and continuity, but it also ensures you avoid larger business problems if performance falls off.
3. Fact finding
This is related to storytelling, but it’s different because this is not just about providing employees with a narrative that they can understand. It’s also about addressing any unanswered questions that may surround the circumstances of the exiting CEO and the changes that are coming.
People should be able to ask questions and feel they’re being heard. They should be able to say, “you’re the third CEO in three years, why should we trust that you’ll stay?” The sooner you get it all out there, the sooner you can move on.
If you don’t answer the questions your employees have, they will fill in the blanks. It is better to be transparent and to provide honest answers to the difficult questions. Sometimes the honest answer is, “we don’t know yet” or “we’re still looking into it.” That’s okay. Better to be honest and give a sense for what you expect to be a timeline to an answer. This will build trust and, if done well, help with employee retention.
4. Introducing New Leadership
As with planned transitions, employees want to know who the new leader is. In an unplanned transition, and especially a fast one, there might be more skepticism and suspicion. Being as transparent as possible about the new leader’s background and vision are crucial. What’s her background? Does she prefer to hire from specific universities? What’s her vision for the next five or ten years?
Offer employees a variety of opportunities to talk with and about the incoming leader, and keep in mind that everyone has different levels of comfort with asking questions. Consider holding “Donut Wednesdays,” fireside chats, and other informal channels where leadership and teams can connect. You might also offer webinars where more introverted employees can submit questions virtually. As much as you can, provide ample time and spaces for teams to have conversations with transitioning executives as well.
The Need for Strategy
Executive transitions—whether planned or unplanned—require strategy and careful planning. Storytelling, transparency, and diligence can help ease the growing pains of your company. However, it’s important to note that there are important and subtle differences in strategy for planned and unplanned transitions.
For instance, employees are far more likely to feel insecure about their job and the future of the company amidst an unplanned transition. And without careful communication, rumors are more likely to distract from workplace goals. Honesty, diligence, and insight into company culture and employee needs are key for maintaining normalcy and retaining your valued employees.
In all cases, I recommend you use a variety of channels and venues to soothe your most anxious employee and to engage your most checked out employee. Hold fireside chats, host Q&A sessions, send email updates from the hiring team, and create spaces for leadership to connect with their teams.
Transitions can be chaotic, but they can also be opportunities to engage employees, customers and partners. A smart executive transition can open up a gold mine of insight into how these stakeholder sets are feeling about the company more generally. With the right support, you can use the transition as an opportunity to zero in on your systems and communications. If you’re willing to be present with the process, the results can be better than you ever imagined.
Want an experienced set of eyes to help guide your executive transition plan, or don’t know where to begin? Audacia can help. Reach out to us for a consultation here.
Photo credit: Young Businesswoman Receiving Praise From Her Colleagues During A Meeting In A Modern Office by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com