How to prepare for—and respond to—a leader leaving

Hear from experts on how to steady the ship in the aftermath of a prominent exec exit.

How to prepare for leadership changes

Workplace shakeups can be jarring—even scarring.

Especially when it involves a prominent leader, the aftermath of an unexpected departure can take a severe toll on your team’s morale. Communicators can’t predict the future—nor prevent scandals—but they can certainly prepare for change. They can also play a major role in facilitating companywide healing, clarity, calm and direction during times of transition.

If preparation for top-tier tumult isn’t on your radar, it should be. 2018 had the highest number of CEO departures since the recession-wrought chaos of 2008. The trend of holding the powerful to account promises to continue in 2019.

So, whether it’s a scandal-fueled ouster or just drama-free job-jumping, it’s wise to prep for potential departures. Here are three ideas to help control the narrative:

1. Be transparent and honest, but don’t go overboard. Your colleagues deserve to know the gist of why a leader has skedaddled. However, this might not be the time for “radical honesty.”

You can be clear, direct and candid without veering into TMI territory. Try to strike a balance between “straightforward” and “spilling every salacious bean that might bring forth lawsuits.”

Time is also of the essence when change is afoot. Saskia Jones, a communication coach and consultant, advises responding rapidly to prevent rumor mill discord:

Whilst it might be a shock to staff, it shouldn’t be a shock to you as a communicator. Planning for this scenario in advance is key, so you’re ready to take a proactive approach to enable a smooth transition. Help employees focus on moving forward. Respond rapidly and confidently with a clear plan of action, whether that is communicating about the experienced new leader you have coming in, or the trusted insider you are appointing as an interim CEO. Don’t delay communicating, otherwise rumors will be rife. A planned, proactive approach can help you pivot a potentially difficult change into a positive step forward for your company.

2. Steady the ship with clarity and affirmation of direction. Communicators earn their paychecks during times of flux. They must be the steady hand and reassuring voice that steadies the ship in distress.

The best way to keep a cool head in a stressful situation is to prepare for it. As Brad Phillips, author of “The Media Training Bible,” says, succession planning should be part of your communications strategy:

Too often, succession planning is a taboo topic within organizations. It shouldn’t be. Creating meaningful relationships between key reporters and those most likely to ascend to the CEO slot (assuming there are internal candidates) should start early—so when a CEO leaves either voluntarily or due to a scandal, a trusting relationship already exists between the two that can pay dividends in the form of more positive press coverage. Those succession conversations shouldn’t be relegated to the C-suite and communicators—everyone in the organization who may speak to reporters should be knowledgeable about what comes next, so they can be part of a unified communications approach.

Today’s aggressive “cancel culture” should motivate every communicator to have crisis response plans ready at a moment’s notice, says Alysha Light, founder of Flight PR. She recommends:

In light of the #MeToo movement and in today’s “cancel culture,” the likelihood that a company leader could make a sudden departure is higher than ever before. Communicators can prepare by having a strong crisis plan (already approved by Legal and HR) in place that articulates the company’s values so it’s clear which messaging and courses of actions are aligned and which are not. Take consideration of the platforms available to you to communicate an exit and determine which one(s) make most sense given the situation.

Additionally, having a succession plan in place that identifies an interim leader (e.g. CEO) is crucial so you’re not scrambling to put someone forward in the midst of a crisis. Sometimes, the next person in line isn’t always the best spokesperson or simply doesn’t struck the right chord from an optics standpoint, so those things should always be considered.

3. Be mindful of retention. It’s important to provide forums where staffers can ask questions, voice concerns and vent, but don’t allow negativity to fester. Don’t dwell on the past nor wallow in misery. Offer upbeat, forward-thinking communication that helps remaining colleagues move on with a sanguine outlook.

Brock Isanhart, Whirlpool Corporation‘s director of global communications, says it’s also crucial to consider relationships—and retention—in the aftermath of a prominent transition:

The sudden departure of any executive can be cause for concern to an organization as well as external stakeholders. As a communicator, it’s very important to understand the context and where there may be sensitivities. To better understand the context, I might ask questions like: Is the leader leaving voluntarily? If not, what can be communicated? How does the leader want the decision to be communicated? Is coordination on the timing of the announcement required with their future employer who may want to issue a press release?

An important next step is to consider who the leader is connected to internally and externally, and how those stakeholders will be affected. This could include peers, direct reports, suppliers, customers, shareholders and corporate and nonprofit boards. Other important considerations are succession or contingency plans that may be in place to ensure business continuity. This may require having retention conversations with top talent who are close to the departing leader and/or may want to be considered for the open position.

What say you, communicators? How are you preparing for any potential exec exits? Please share your comments below.

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