Communicators become counselors during leadership transitions. Here’s how.

Boeing’s executive departures are the latest reminder that listening, observing and preserving culture are key.

This morning, Boeing announced that CEO David Calhoun will step down at the end of the year and Stan Deal, Boeing’s head of commercial planes, will step down immediately.

The latest chapter in Boeing’s high-altitude crisis is a reminder that leadership changes present both challenges and opportunities for communicators.

On one hand, such shakeups offer a chance to rethink how your organization approaches its leadership communication strategy. On the other, it’s a time of adjustment and pivoting towards differing personalities and priorities that new leaders bring to their roles. But it’s on you as a communicator to ensure that the transition goes smoothly and everyone is saying the right things at the right time.

Closing gaps in understanding

In the chaos of a leadership change, particularly an unexpected one, it’s critically important to have agreed-upon processes to make the transition go more smoothly. Shannon Iwaniuk, head of global internal communications at Alcon, described a situation at a previous organization where an entrenched and successful leader suddenly left the company. For her, success relied on closing any potential gaps of understanding between the comms team and the new leader.

“When you have a new leader coming in, you have to give your comms team a talk track to work with them on,” she said. “Then make sure you’ve got your leader installed and familiar with comms processes.”

Getting leaders in front of smaller parts of the company, such as ERGs, allowed for more connection and authenticity.

“I’ve always tried to employ things like videos or podcast content where it’s a little bit off script,” she said. “You can hear the person talking about their background or what’s important to them. And I found that that’s been successful in helping both the new leader and communicators get on the same page moving forward.”

Listening and observing the human condition

In the comms world, it’s often better to listen first before making a statement. That’s especially true when you’re working to get a read on a new leader’s personality and goals as a communicator.

For Iwaniuk, adjusting to a new leadership comms strategy is as much about being able to relate to other human beings as it is about understanding how to disseminate a message to the rest of an organization.

“It’s about watching the human condition and knowing how to read it fast,” she said.

Iwaniuk went on to say that in the first 30 days or so of a new leader’s tenure, communicators should work to observe that leader’s comms persona. The next 30 or so days can then involve building a persona for that leader, culminating with a fully-fledged plan at the 90 day mark. While these are loose guidelines, they’re helpful for benchmarking comms successes.

“Some qualities are just innate for people that you want to amplify,” she said. “When you show off a leader’s humanity, it’ll build connections successfully.”

Translating cultural expectations

While a leadership change might come as a welcome shift for some employees, others might view it more pessimistically. Clueing new leaders in on what employees expect from them is a good way to help preserve or build a positive work culture from the top through transparency and tone.

“It’s important for comms to help a new leader understand what’s expected of them,” said Melissa Musiker, interim head of communications at UPSIDE Foods. “We live in an era where there are more expectations of transparency than ever. In many instances, building trust comes from the tone with which information is shared. If the tone isn’t right, people might expect to be surprised by something negative.”

Leaders should also communicate what they do and don’t know about their new organization from the jump. This recognition of knowledge gaps will empower other members of the team to step up, creating a more collaborative work atmosphere.

“You (a leader) were hired for a reason, but there is a lot about the org that you need to observe and experience as a leader,” Musiker said. “Don’t assume everything is broken and needs fixing even if it’s been struggling.”

Positioning comms as a counselor

Comms can serve as an instrumentally helpful force for new leaders. Sometimes the role of a counselor can include walking leaders back from making sweeping changes at the very outset of their tenure.

Musiker said that comms should advise leaders to follow the 90-day rule to get used to their surroundings before making any big changes. This will engender more positive relations and communication with colleagues.

“Nothing will make people want to work with you less than if you come in and cause massive disruption for no good reason,” she said.

For Musiker, comms should be in a new leader’s ear reminding them of one simple sentence that should serve as a communications north star.

“It all comes down to the simple idea of not being a jerk.”

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports and hosting trivia.

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.