Does this sound familiar? Your organization is one of the bright, rising stars in your industry. It has taken years of hard work, but you’ve finally reached a point where you have strong leadership across the board, a steady vision for the future, and everyone from the executive team down to the employees on the frontlines are working together like a well-oiled machine.
And then…the CEO turns in their resignation letter. Does the prospect of C-suite change send a shock wave of panic through the company? Or are you ready to guide everyone through a smooth transition?
If your initial response is panic, that’s okay. This is the perfect time (i.e., before this scenario becomes your reality) to come up with a plan. Let’s look at how you can reframe c-suite change as an opportunity rather than a potentially destabilizing event.
Revisit Company Culture for Successful C-Suite Change
First, recognize that C-suite change is a natural part of company evolution. The person you had steering the ship during the start-up phase may not be the best person to lead you through the next stage and beyond. Thinking about how far you’ve come and how your culture has evolved will help you choose the right CEO for this next phase.
Also, if you’re moving from a founder as CEO to a new corporate executive, you’ll want to consider how much of the company culture is tied up with the founder’s personality and whether that makes sense going forward.
For example, suppose your Founder and CEO is a literal rockstar. He plays the guitar and performs regularly with his semi-famous band. He has even been interviewed by Rolling Stone. It’s an interesting draw and has given the marketing team lots of fun campaign ideas. But is this crucial to the DNA of the organization? In other words, is it critical that the new CEO also play the guitar?
Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that you need to figure out what is part of the DNA of your organization and look for a new CEO that shares the same values — someone for whom your culture is authentic to who they are as a leader.
Why is culture so important when considering C-suite change? Well, it’s likely that culture is one big reason that scaling and reaching the point where everyone is working together like a well-oiled machine has happened. So as you consider the selection and managing of the C-suite change for customers, investors, and employees, keeping the culture consistent should be your first priority.
How to Keep Company Culture Consistent:
Once you begin to see your CEO’s resignation as part of the evolution of the organization, you can turn your attention to deciding, likely with the help of your board, what is crucial to the company’s DNA. Take your time here because decisions about how to separate the former CEO from the company culture will determine whether stakeholders perceive the C-suite change as energizing or destabilizing.
Keep the following tips in mind:
1. Have a good sense of the culture as seen through the eyes of employees.
Find a way to take the pulse of your employees. One good approach is to use an external team to conduct Voice of the Employee interviews. You may be surprised that what you think of as crucial to the culture of your firm is really hidden from your employees and vice versa. So this kind of research is hugely beneficial for smooth executive transitions.
It’s also important to announce the transition itself to employees at the same time as you announce the C-suite change publicly. If you announce internally and externally at different times, rumors will fly and rumors are a huge source of instability during big transitions.
We recommend having a specific employee communication plan to address key cultural issues and how the C-suite change will affect the organization from a macro perspective. Also, as soon as possible, set up a town hall meeting where employees can be formally introduced to the new CEO and have their questions and concerns addressed.
2. Ground everyone back into the company strategy.
While the CEO may be changing, the company strategy is staying the same, especially if we’re sticking with the scenario where everything is going well and the CEO needs to move on. This means it’s a good opportunity to go back to basics.
Let your mission, vision, and values drive you forward. Get everyone to recommit to company fundamentals and talk openly about what is changing and what will be staying the same.
3. Be as honest and transparent as possible.
This third recommendation is a big one, so strap in. As soon as your executive gives you notice that they’re even thinking about moving on, you want to have a strategy in place. This will allow you to be as honest and transparent as possible. This goes for all of your key leadership, not just your CEO.
Perhaps you will want to call a board meeting to open discussions about all of the topics above. Perhaps you’ll want to make an announcement (internally and externally) early and reassure everyone that the transition period will last several months. Whatever your first move, having a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) around C-suite change is a smart idea.
In a previous blog article, we talked about the elements that plan should include whether your C-suite change is expected or unexpected.
4. Know your game clock.
Timing is also important here. The more you can be in control of the timeline, the greater your ability to control the message of the transition. Unexpected changes can raise questions about the stability of an organization. One way to ease these concerns is to share (at a high level) your succession planning process with key stakeholders so that they understand the corporate calculus behind the leadership selection.
For public companies: if you have a planned transition with a good amount of lead time, it’s good to make this announcement as part of your quarterly reporting cadence. If the transition is unexpected, public companies will likely have to disclose the leadership change via an 8-K within four business days, but make sure to consult with legal counsel to determine your specific disclosure requirements.
5. Teamwork makes the dream work.
If possible, make time in your transition strategy to allow the outgoing and incoming CEOs to work together. If appropriate, having a “pass the torch moment” can be a critical element to transferring credibility and trust from the outgoing CEO to the incoming CEO. Part of this strategy should include coordinating their narrative. As an example, the outgoing CEO may talk about why they built the company and why the new CEO is the right person to carry the mantle forward. This gives the new CEO the opportunity to share their own vision about the future of the company.
Finally, make sure your new executive is prepared to take over. Is the new executive on the same page when it comes to the company culture? Have you defined your key messages? Have you acknowledged that C-suite change requires an acclimation period that can take at least 30 days? Have you organized listening sessions and key meetings with stakeholders? Do you have a comprehensive introduction strategy?
For our private equity-backed companies: if your CEO has experience with public company boards and they will be transitioning to working with your private equity board, do they understand what that entails? This is a helpful resource to share from McKinsey.
C-suite change can be a powerful signal of an organization’s evolution. If you’re ready to move into the next phase of your company’s metamorphosis, our team can help make the transition energizing instead of panic-inducing. Let’s talk about your next business transformation!
Photo credit: Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com