by Christine McEntree, FASAE and Laura Van Eperen | 2.14.22 | ASAE Center
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A clear communications plan should be an integral part of any C-Suite transition to make sure there are no surprises and the change in leadership goes off without a hitch. A former CEO and a communications expert offer their advice.
In 2019, we had firsthand experience planning and developing a communications approach for handling Christine’s leadership transition from CEO and executive director at the American Geophysical Union. Based on our experience successfully organizing this planned CEO transition, we have some tips for other associations.
The departure of a key leader through a planned transition, a sudden event, or a board of directors’ decision to make a change is a significant transitional event in the life of any organization. While the steps for phasing out one leader to selecting and onboarding a new one have many moving parts, too often proper communication planning is an afterthought, which can lead to confusion, uncertainty, and less efficient change management.
Here are some real-life scenarios to demonstrate why communications planning is integral to effective transitions:
- The CEO informs the board of their departure, and the board selects a search firm. The start of the search and the search firm is publicly announced, and yet staff and key stakeholders have not yet been informed of the departure and the search. That raises many questions, which can lead to speculation and rumors.
- The CEO is informed by the board that their contract will not be renewed. The board announces a search and search firm without informing the CEO. The board continues the search without any updates about the search status to the outgoing CEO, leaving they unable to answer basic questions from staff and key stakeholders.
- The board and CEO agree to a departure date. A search firm is selected, and the search begins. However, the board chair does not keep the board or membership informed of the status of the search, or when the board will select and announce the incoming CEO.
A well-developed communication plan for any major announcement is essential to be fully prepared to manage the narrative, ensure the best outcome for the transition, and pass the baton from one CEO to the next. When key personnel departures are done well, the communication elements—from the announcement, through to the onboarding of the new leadership professional—present many beneficial opportunities, including supporting the change-management process and positioning the organization for new and future success.
Key personnel, personal, and organizational factors must be considered. Thinking through communication steps with various scenarios will help anticipate problems and help plan for the appropriate action to take for each situation. We have found that a comprehensive communication framework must map out who, when, where, and how to share the transitional news with a variety of factors considered to account for a change in course. The framework can be outlined in a leadership transition communication plan.
A well-developed communication plan for any major announcement is essential to be fully prepared to manage the narrative, ensure the best outcome for the transition, and pass the baton from one CEO to the next.
Here are additional communication elements and guidance for board chairs, CEOs, and communications professionals:
- The communication begins the moment the CEO informs the board chair they are departing. In preparation for that conversation, the CEO develops an outline of key messages that they want to convey regarding their reasons and the selected departure date. These early messages will inform the foundation of the messaging and communications throughout the search process.
- The CEO and board chair jointly develop a plan and key message points for informing the board officers and board of directors, the expected timeline for the search process, and key date ranges during the process when key stakeholders—including the departing CEO—will be informed of the status of the search and who is conducting it.
- The CEO and board chair engage a communications expert (internal, external, or both) to assist with the development of the communications plan.
The key elements of the communication plan for major announcements typically include goals and objectives, strategies, key messages, stakeholders, a timetable to inform stakeholders and keep them informed as appropriate during the search, and announcement copy for internal and external communication audiences and channels.
Additionally, a planning team that includes the CEO, board chair, and communication expert needs to develop their own communication schedule to touch base regularly with updates, feedback, and to review the draft communication plan and adjust it as needed.
After the initial department announcement, the board leadership should develop a schedule for providing regular updates to the entire board and from the CEO to the staff. To more effectively handle incoming questions and messages about the departure and search process, it is a good idea to establish an email, a dedicated phone number, and a person responsible for triaging and responding to the messages.
On the traditional and social media front, a communication professional needs to be dedicated to monitoring and responding to any inquiries or online conversations with prepared messaging on the issue.
A thoughtful communications plan should be a part of any C-Suite transition to keep everyone informed and to minimize uncertainty and confusion. Our experience taught us that careful planning and transparency go a long way toward achieving a successful shift in leadership, easing the departure of the outgoing CEO and the arrival of the new CEO.
About The Authors
Christine McEntee, FASAE, is former CEO and executive director of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC.
Laura Van Eperen is CEO and cofounder of FOVNDRY, a communications consulting firm in Rockville, Maryland.