Comms lessons from Paramount’s leadership upheaval

A current and former CEO share the secrets to a smooth leadership handoff.

When there’s a shakeup at the top of an organization, the impact cascades through the organization, creating ripple effects well beyond the executive level. The leadership change that took place at Paramount earlier this week is a prime example of how shifts at that level can impact a company from the top down.

CEO Bob Bakish was ousted from his role amid news that the Paramount board is trying for a merger with Skydance Media.

Bakish’s parting remarks were amicable, with the longtime leader calling his time as CEO “the greatest honor of my professional life,”. But for those who remain at Paramount, questions and uncertainty abound.  Bakish’s job will be split between division heads in the new “Office of the CEO.”

What does that mean for employees, and how can organizations more clearly communicate about leadership changes? And how are an organization’s comms duties affected during these times?

“Don’t let all the external noise distract you from one of the top coms priorities —communicating clearly and concisely with employees so they understand the method to madness,” said Ted Birkhahn, managing director at Vested.

“The new leaders and their lieutenants must find a way to address the obvious questions and concerns running rampant throughout the organization,” he added. “Anything less will fuel speculation among employees and could lead to paralysis by fear, resulting in significant productivity loss and potentially irreparable harm to the employees’  trust in the company and its leaders.”

For a deeper dive into the issue, we spoke to two individuals who dealt with a similar situation together. Dr. Jean Accius, the new CEO of CHC: Creating Healthier Communities, and Tom Bognanno, former CEO of the same organization and current partner at Alliance Practice, shared how they navigated their leadership transition, tips for communicators, and how to keep the ship steady.

The incoming leader

When Accius started his new role as CEO, he knew that having a plan in place was the top priority for a smooth transition for everyone in the organization. That began with assessing the current situation and plotting a detailed, clear path forward, and it meant embracing change and preparing for uncertainty along the way.

“In my first week as CEO, I was drinking from the metaphorical firehose,” Accius said.

But Accius added that his team’s preparedness made the transition much easier.

“I had briefings. I had one-one-ones. I had a clear picture of what the challenges the organization faced were,” Accius explained. “I wanted to build relationships in which people felt valued and heard.”

When he took on the CEO role, Accius instituted a series of informal conversations with employees called “Breakfast with Jean,” in which members of the company asked him questions about his new role. From these talks, he was able to learn more about the employee experience.

“I asked people what their pain points were, what they wanted me to do, and what they wanted me to not do,” he said. “Fostering a culture of learning helps us all grow together.”

Ultimately, for Accius and the communications team supporting his accession to the CEO role, it came down to being intentional with communication.

“I think it’s critically important for leaders to overcommunicate when they come into their roles,” he said.

The outgoing leader

Fortunately for Accius and CHC, the outgoing CEO of the company, Tom Bognanno, was also instrumental in ensuring a smooth transition for employees and communicators alike.

For Bognanno, that meant a meticulous process of background work what the person who would fill his role might need — and what employees would need — when he stepped down.

“We needed to think about how the constituents were going to deal with the change,” Bognanno said. “How was it going to be perceived?”

Bognanno emphasized that the feedback of all employees, regardless of where they fell on the org chart, steered the messaging during the transition. To ensure that happened, he enlisted the help of comms and HR to help keep confidence in the company amid the change.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone knew this was going to be an orderly transition. We didn’t want them to worry about the safety of their jobs,” he said. “We communicated every step of the plan to our employees, partners, and funders. We took everything into consideration, and it might have been overkill, but clear communication throughout the process was our number one priority.”

Pulling the right comms levers

A major part of the success of the leadership transition at CHC centered on the communication not just between leaders, departments and employees, but between the incoming and outgoing leaders themselves. Accius said that having Bognanno act as an advisor before he took on the role was key to his adjustment as CEO.

Additionally, Bognanno said that coordinating with the comms department to invite employees to speak with him as he transitioned out of his role and into retirement helped reinforce confidence in the company he was leaving behind.

“We wanted to make the effort to tell them that we wanted them to stay,” he said. “I might be leaving, but you’re important to this place and a big reason why Jean is stepping into the role. You have to step up and communicate actively to your employees if you want to be effective.”

For Accius’ part, meticulous communication with employees formed a major part of his transition into the CEO job. He created an internal blog that outlined his day-to-day activities over the first 90 or so days in the role. Posts included what he was learning, who he was meeting with and his experiences along the way. This way, he was able to create a culture of transparency with employees and partners.

“You can never overcommunicate in these situations, because at the end of the day, we’re all people,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as leaders to manage change as effectively as we can.”

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

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