What to do if your CEO suddenly dies

Not only is the sudden death of a top exec a crisis for an organization, it’s also a trying time for employees and people close to that leader. It’s worth preparing.

Tthe death of a spouse or a close family member are the number one and five most stressful life events for adults, according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Little can compare with this intimate level of loss, we have seen recently with SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, the sudden death of a CEO can profoundly touch a company’s employees, customers and shareholders.

When a crisis strikes, most leaders turn to legal, communications and human resources professionals for guidance. Think of investing the time now to plan for such an event like buying insurance: You hope you never need it, but when you do, it’s too late to initiate the process.

Here is a six-point plan to enable you to lead with confidence and composure, even when you may not feel particularly composed. (Remember, none of us is immune from experiencing the loss of someone meaningful to us.)

1. Prepare for the situation before it happens.

Now is the time for rational thinking. Use it to develop and implement a crisis communications plan that covers the unexpected death of any executive whose loss could have a material impact on the company. This includes obtaining current, digital photos of your senior executives, or ensuring they are available through your website (high resolution because the alumni magazine will want it to be big). And, yes, write the press release and get it approved ahead of time if you can.

Few of us are comfortable confronting our own mortality, so this process may be trying for all involved. Remind your CEO that taking these steps now will enable the organization to grapple with its loss and return to productivity–and sustaining her legacy–sooner if the worst occurs.

2. Act quickly.

The two most important things to have in your crisis plan are:

  • A phone tree that begins with the CEO’s family and goes to first, second and third points of contact who can inform the board of directors, the remainder of the executives, and the communications team.
  • A contact list of journalists (key national, trade and local reporters with whom the company has relationship), your exchange board and investors (especially those with key stock or bond positions). This way, if the unfortunate happens, no one is sitting around saying, “What do we do now? Who should we tell?”

By the way, it is a good idea to give the phone tree to all the executive families so they know who to call in case of any type of major emergency (such as accidents and other news-making events).

3. Anticipate and acknowledge the emotional response of the organization.

Employees may not have been family, but many spend every day working closely with their leaders. They take risks together and celebrate successes together. These dynamics create strong personal ties. Likewise, some employees may see the deceased as something of a hero, especially if the he or she led the company successfully through difficult times.

Some people have more difficulty dealing with losses like these than others do, and you may encounter erratic and sometimes irrational emotional responses. These people may be responsible for communicating internally or externally. If they resist doing the right things or have strange reactions (you’ll know them when you see them), seek out their peers to lend them support or to step in to manage their communication responsibilities.

4. Provide opportunities for employees and others close to the company to share their stories.

Goldberg’s recent death is an example of how far-reaching shock and loss can be felt. Even those who never had direct contact felt an undeniable pull to connect with the larger grieving community. The kind of outpouring Goldberg inspired can be quite organic and grassroots.

The company can also plan ahead to use the prevailing communication channels to encourage the sharing of stories and memories, and ensure that other leaders are willing to lead the way. Regardless of the channel (a special web site, a Facebook page or YouTube channel, for example), creating a forum that can be archived provides another benefit: Creating a shareable history of the CEO’s impact can help maintain his legacy and protect the organization’s culture in the future.

5. Expect major media interest.

Not every company has a high-profile executive, but if your company does, it could take a team of six or more to manage the media requests in the early weeks. If you don’t know your CEO’s life story, interests or business background, get to know them now. The press wants the story, not just the facts, and you’ll need to know it. If your CEO dies on a white water rafting trip or piloting a plane, you’ll need to share why he took part in that precarious activity.

6. Create a mechanism to continue honoring the CEO.

Charitable funds, academic chairs and other special remembrances can help cement a good CEO’s influence on the organization, build good will in the community, and help employees and others move forward.

Consider developing a crisis plan for the unexpected death of a senior executive like the corporate equivalent of estate planning. You don’t want your family to struggle with difficult decisions when all they really can do is grieve. Likewise, planning ahead will spare those who need to mobilize from rational paralysis and allow them to serve the best interests of the company.

Tracy Benson is the founder and CEO of On the Same Page, a business consultancy that partners with the world’s leading organizations to apply employee communication and engagement strategies. Beth Swanson has been a professional communicator for 20 years helping executives to engage employees in retail, manufacturing, aerospace, defense and IT services.

Topics: PR


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