executive transition

Executive Transition Part II: Preparing Your Executive

If you missed part I of our series on executive transition, click here to read more about how to prepare for planned or unplanned c-suite changes.

Last time, we discussed how to prepare your organization for an executive transition. Because stakeholders watch these types of big transformations carefully for any signs, positive or negative, of what the future will bring, it is crucial to take the necessary steps to get everyone on the same page.

By far, the most important element of a successful c-suite transition is properly preparing your executive. This is where investor relations officers and communicators really earn their keep. Both roles play a critical role in supporting and enabling a successful executive transition.

Prepare to prepare your new executive.

First, take some time to gather key resources to help your new executive transition smoothly. For instance, create a portfolio including the most recent corporate overview, key messaging statements, shareholder overview, previous public statements, an analysis of the competitive landscape, key events/timing, etc.

Next, before you begin strategizing, put yourself in the shoes of your new executive. Ask yourself and your team crucial questions, for example: Is the new leader, whether interim or permanent, an internal hire or will she need to be brought up to speed on your organization’s culture?

Keep in mind that while the new executive may have been brought on to accomplish specific goals, the more she knows about the organization as a whole, the better able she will be to accomplish these specific goals. So, don’t be afraid to ask the new executive what support she needs from you during this transition period.

Answers to these questions will help you better enable your new executive to smoothly enter her new role. Once you’ve asked and answered these critical questions, you can now put yourself in the shoes of your key stakeholder groups and begin the hard work of prepping your executive for the transition:

1. Define key messages.

As discussed last week, executive transition = risk. Our communications goal throughout this process is to make the change appear less risky, insofar as possible. An orderly transition will give investors, employees, and customers confidence that the company, whether public or non-public, is in control of the transition.

What does this look like in practice? It means, at a minimum, defining key messages around the following: (a) any insight you can provide into the reasons for the change, (b) why the new executive is the right hire at the right time, and (c) reinforcement of key company strategic messages.

(a) Why did the previous C-suite executive leave?

Present a clear rationale for the change, whether it was by choice or not. That said, word choice in describing the transition is absolutely important. Aim for language that is natural, concise, and respectful to all transitioning parties.

Keep in mind that communications during this time can be a delicate balancing act between signaling Board control over the transition, legal sensitivities, and acknowledging organization strategy. So, be prepared for (and even welcome) multiple perspectives as this verbiage works through internal approval processes.

Even under the best of circumstances, there will be speculation about why the previous executive left. This makes it even more important to ensure that lines of communication are clear. Transparency will ensure that the company isn’t perceived as holding back information from stakeholders.

Whatever words you choose, be sure to avoid anything that makes transition communications appear confusing or bitter, as this can stoke speculation, spook investors and employees, and make for a generally unproductive business environment.

(b) Why is the new executive the right hire at the right time?

It’s important to have a clear message about why the new c-suite executive is the right man or woman to take on the job. Discuss the strategic criteria for this hire. What differentiates your executive from his or her peers? Leverage any previous experience leading similar organizations or leading through similar market changes.

Especially if this transition was unexpected, anything you can say to emphasize that your new executive has been preparing to step into this ideal position at this moment, is helpful. Don’t be afraid to think big here. Talk to your Board and your new executive about his vision for the future of the company and find creative ways to work that into your messaging.

(c) How does this support the company’s strategy?

Finally, make sure to re-emphasize the company strategy. This applies whether the overall strategy is changing (e.g., because the previous CEO was fired due to poor performance in shifting market conditions) or the basic strategy is staying the same, while the new leader is free to make small tweaks to business operations.

Either way, it’s a good time to revisit the corporate vision and mission to remind stakeholders that the fundamentals will remain solid through this period of transition. Bonus points for showing how the new executive has demonstrated strengths in key strategic areas.

2. Allow for acclimation.

To the extent possible, give your executive some time to get her feet on the ground and learn more about how the organization runs. Most executives will want at least a 30-day transition period. However, depending on the business circumstances this is not always possible. It’s best to be upfront with your executive about the timeframe from the beginning.

At the very least, be sure to carve out time before key meetings with employees, investors, and customers to prepare. Discuss the stakeholder group personalities, hot buttons, previous conversations/promises/expectations, and the competitive environment.

3. Consider key prep strategies.

Initial interactions with key stakeholders should reflect: (a) reasons the executive chose your organization and (b) assurance that the early stages will be about listening to key stakeholders to best understand their view and expectations for the organization.

If possible, it is a great idea to organize listening sessions with stakeholder groups during this transitional period. These sessions, can provide your executive with the opportunity to hear directly from employees, top shareholders, and key customers and get them out of the “headquarters bubble.” It can also demonstrate that the company is committed to listening to diverse perspectives during this time of transition.

If your company is public, it’s crucial to prep your new executive on RegFD, especially your firm’s policies regarding RegFD and the quiet period. Make certain that your executive is prepped to handle impromptu questions (in the elevator, at a conference, etc.) by returning to their key message of why he took the job and his commitment to listening to stakeholders for the first 30-60 days.

Along these lines, roleplay likely Q&A with key stakeholder groups. Remind your executive that it’s better to stick to what she knows even if it means not fully answering the question, than going off-script and saying something inaccurate.

As much as you aim to control communications, though, there will be questions, calls, emails sent to IR, CEO, CFO, CCO, anyone who can be reached. Make sure that appropriate communications roles are established and shared. Generally speaking, it is safest to have all questions routed to media relations and investor relations. From there, you can assess and engage your executive as appropriate.

4. Consider your best public introduction strategy.

Is an industry-specific trade show or other important event coming up? This might offer a good opportunity to introduce your new executive in a lower key environment and have key customer or partner intro meetings. These types of events are also good opportunities to conduct initial media interviews.

Do you need more time for your executive to get her feet on the ground? Discuss and agree on a timeframe to set market expectations. Then make sure this information is broadly communicated to key channels through press releases, 8-Ks, internal messaging, etc.

For example, you might include a sentence in an employee update that says, “Jane Doe expects to be meeting with our key customer accounts over the next 30 days and will visit our major employee population centers over the next 90 days.” When speaking to external stakeholders, set expectations with a comment such as, “John Doe will participate in XYZ conference/earnings call/investor day/etc. during the next few months.”

When it comes to ushering in a successful executive transition, there are several moving parts to keep in mind. As complicated as executive transitions can be, they are also exciting times for companies.

It definitely pays to think through your strategy and prepare your executive. Audacia Strategies can help make your executive transition as smooth as possible. We’d love to work with your team to develop the right strategy and outreach plan. Contact us to get started!

Photo credit: racorn / 123RF Stock Photo

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