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WELCOME TO THE STAGE – HOW TO INTRODUCE A NEW CEO

Your organisation just appointed a new CEO. Now it’s your job to introduce them to employees. With so much to consider when a new leader enters the spotlight, the opportunities, and challenges, are endless.

19th May 2020

Contracts end; feathers get ruffled; new opportunities come along.

There are many reasons why the role of CEO changes hands at organisations – but as one term ends, another begins, often with the promise of change and positive intentions.

But before it can get underway, introductions must be made. A bad first impression is likely to set an incoming CEO back with employees, so what can internal communicators do to ensure they make a good one?


Exiting stage left

Before you can welcome in a new CEO, you have to say goodbye to the outgoing one.

“The way you announce the departure of a CEO to employees will depend on their relationship with staff and what type of leader they are,” says Frank Dias, internal communications director at AXA XL.

“The key thing is to work with them to put in place a plan that will help you to reduce the amount of uncertainty employees feel once the message is out.

“A typical message may convey a CEO’s gratitude to the organisation and employees, and then acknowledge that it’s the right time for change, particularly when explaining why they are leaving. You should then follow it up by setting out what the next steps will be.”

In some instances, a more personal message may be the best course of action.

This is something Helen Willetts, director of internal communications at BT, encouraged when former CEO Gavin Patterson stepped down in 2018. “It’s important, as with anything you do with the CEO, to stay true to their personality,” says Helen.

“When Gavin told me he was leaving BT, I asked him how he was feeling. He’d been with the organisation for a long time, not just as CEO, and was well-liked. He’d formed a personal relationship with the business and its people, but he was an introvert, so we had to convey his feelings in a way that was comfortable for him without being too formal.

“In the end, we chose to craft an open letter from him to our 100,000-strong workforce that was – for him – pretty emotional and got his personality across.

“I don’t think people had any idea how much they meant to him. The replies he got were incredible.

“We then did a slightly more formal follow-up note from the chairman that covered the practicalities of next steps. I’d allow the CEO’s message to be personal and reflective, and then leave the forward planning to someone else.”

If a CEO’s departure is unexpected, you may find yourself with little to work with when telling staff.

“If a CEO leaves swiftly, it might not be possible to include many details,” says Cat Slatcher, senior corporate and internal communications manager at the Met Office. “Utilise internal channels to focus on the facts that you can share and tell staff you will provide updates as information becomes available, to avoid speculation.”


Bad reviews

Not all departures are amicable, and if a CEO is leaving following a major fallout, the narrative might not be so simple.

“This type of situation is very circumstantial,” advises Frank, “but if they leave in a bad way, one option is to focus on the interim structure that will be put in place, if able, and then link back to the values of the organisation and its priorities going forward.”

Helen offers another approach: “I think it’s really important for a chief executive to own their truth – even if they’ve left in difficult circumstances. This isn’t for every situation, but sometimes they may be able to offer some useful perspective, and that will reassure employees and let them know that it’s OK for this one chapter to end and a new one to begin.”


During the interval

A change in leadership at such a high level is likely to leave staff with lots of questions.

“If there is a gap between the position being filled, people can feel a bit lost, particularly those at mid- or senior-level,” says Helen. “During times like this, your executive committee team should step up and show employees, and shareholders, that the business is still going strong.”

Frank agrees, adding: “Having a hands-on chairperson or another suitable senior leader who is happy to be vocal in between CEOs will help to create stability.

“If possible, have this leadership structure in place for the interim before the announcement is made.”

Helen adds: “You should also review any recurring events that would typically involve the CEO, such as organisation-wide events. Figure out whether it’s best for these to carry on with the outgoing CEO until they leave, whether it is best to have another senior leader take their place, or whether you pause them until a new CEO takes over.”

 

“Having a hands-on chairperson or another suitable senior leader who is happy to be vocal in between CEOs will help to create stability.”
Frank Dias, internal communications director, AXA XL


The show must go on

Eventually, a new CEO will be appointed. Getting staff on board before the new arrival has even walked through the door can be a great way to show the incoming CEO that you’re there to help their transition into the company, and to show them the power of internal comms.

Two months ahead of Penelope (Penny) Endersby taking up her role as CEO of the Met Office in December 2018, Cat and her colleagues had announced her arrival by inviting staff to send questions they could put to Penny when she joined.

“We had lots of people email us questions,” says Cat, “and Penny answered them all in a series of blogs during her first few weeks, which gave employees a great sense of how invested she was in the organisation and its people.

“We also conducted a short 10-minute face-to-face interview that focused on her as a person, what the job meant to her and what it meant to be the first female CEO of the Met Office. We shared it as a news article, again encouraging staff to send questions, and we got a great response.”


Pre-show publicity

Helen found it’s not just early engagement with employees that has benefits.

“When Philip Jansen was announced as the new CEO of BT, his diary immediately began filling up, so I cheekily got hold of his number and texted him, and managed to wrangle two hours with him on his first day in the company – a month before he officially took over as CEO. I got to know his personality, aims and goals right away, and I could advise him on the culture he was coming in to, what to concentrate on, and what to look out for. Getting in early, telling the unvarnished truth and asking the most probing questions you feel you can is so important to them starting off, as it shows you’ve got their back.

“I also did a video interview with him so that people could see what he was like. For the first half, we did corporate stuff. I asked him about his history, why he chose BT, and his impressions of the organisation. It was quite informal, which gave it a relatability, and we agreed I wouldn’t send him the questions in advance so that his answers didn’t sound rehearsed. The second half of the interview was reserved for a game of ‘either/or’, like ‘jam first or cream first?’, in order for his personality to really come through.

“By splitting the interview the way we did, it catered to employees who wanted strategic updates, and those who wanted to see more of the personality behind the role.”

Another way to get staff on board is to look for quick wins that the CEO can put their name to.

“When John Neal joined Lloyds of London in October 2018, he gave everyone an extra day off during the Christmas holidays as a thank you for their hard work,” says Frank. “It was relatively cheap, quick to implement and people really valued it.”


Waiting in the wings

Some organisations like to keep things closer to home, and it’s not uncommon for an incoming CEO to be an established member of the leadership team. But does an appointment from within change the introductory process and challenges internal communicators face?

Laura Edwards, head of internal communications at Marsh Commercial, says: “Introducing a CEO who has been promoted from an existing position within the company comes with similar sorts of challenges to what you would expect from introducing an external CEO, but the main difference you may find is that a greater number of employees are likely to have preconceptions about them.

“Regardless of whether these preconceptions are positive or negative, it’s important to provide employees with the opportunity to make their own minds up by ensuring they get to know the individual in their new role as CEO.”


Building the brand

When Anthony Gruppo was promoted from northeast regional CEO of Marsh & McLennan Agency to CEO of Marsh Commercial in 2019, Laura’s team was responsible for building his brand within the organisation, despite his long-running career in the Marsh group.

“In the same way it would with someone external, the IC team needs to deliver an extensive engagement campaign that brings the new CEO to life and allows employees to see their personality, moving past the role they previously held,” says Laura. 

“Not all employees will know the individual who has been promoted, especially in a larger organisation or one that is geographically split, so you should still make an effort to showcase why they are right for the job.

“Utilise all channels as appropriate, and champion face-to-face communication, even to groups that were familiar with the individual in the context of their previous role.”

Some employees may view internal promotions as evidence of bias, so get a feel for concerns and ensure you address them. 

“Turn any scepticism into a positive by using the promotion as an opportunity to highlight the organisation’s willingness to develop careers and help employees grow,” says Laura. “You should then encourage employees at all levels to explore how they too can progress their careers internally.”


Playing to the crowd 

So, you’ve introduced the CEO to your employees, but how do you go about introducing the employees and organisation to the CEO? As internal communicators, you have a part to play in showing a CEO the organisation’s culture, and the value of employee engagement.

“Meet with them regularly if you can, and get them up to speed with initiatives that they can get involved in,” says Cat.

“At the Met Office, we have a popular initiative called ‘Random coffee’, where employees sign up, are randomly grouped and then meet for a chat to get to know each other. Penny immediately got involved, and not only did this help employees to connect with her, but it also allowed her to get to know them and get a better feel for the culture at the organisation.”
 

Penny Endersby, CEO of the Met Office, joins colleagues for a coffee


CEOs will also need to familiarise themselves with the structure and diversity of the organisation.

“The history of an organisation is important, so make sure the CEO understands it, including the things that aren’t promoted in public,” recommends Frank.

“Make sure you also know the insights of the organisation – numbers, audience and demographic – so that you can discuss the value of engagement from that point of view and show them why internal comms is important.”

Helen agrees, adding: “On Philip’s first day at BT, I took him through our IC strategy, which included the things that needed to change. Having this to hand and being able to explain it to him so early on meant he got a better feel for how things worked and the direction that IC wanted it to go in. In that first meeting, I actually even got him to sign off bringing in Workplace by Facebook, which I’d struggled with for months.

“If you have a more negative reality, tell that truth, but show how internal comms is there to help reform and improve it.”


Rewriting the script

A new CEO often signals a change in direction or strategy. This can cause further apprehension from employees, so managing it in a way that doesn’t alienate or overwhelm them is key.

AXA XL’s Frank Dias says: “John [Neal] did his due diligence when he joined Lloyd’s of London and asked around the industry to find out what stakeholders thought of us. He then took their responses and used it to explain to staff why a change in direction was needed to continue to remain relevant.

“No one could argue with him because he’d carried out the stakeholder research. The feedback from customers gave John enough content and steer to develop a new purpose and value proposition, and the change was driven by a clear desire to do better for the organisation and its stakeholders.

“Once the new direction was announced, we put John in front of staff on a regular basis. He personally committed to doing regular video blogs, and met people to ask for their input. A big push on the CEO to listen to employees and gather feedback really helped with engagement and ensured it didn’t look like he was ploughing ahead with no regard to employees’ thoughts and concerns.”

Like Frank, Helen also found her organisation’s new CEO willing to take the time to engage before making any changes. “Philip spent a lot of time understanding BT’s strategy, and he was very open with staff about what he thought could work, as well as what he wanted to alter, and why he would be doing so.

“If you have a CEO who almost never speaks about the past or wants to change the strategy immediately, advise them to get out in front of employees and take the time to understand the organisation first. It’s important to have respect for what came before, even if they don’t agree with it, as it helps employees to feel like the hard work they put in to it is still valued.”


Standing out from the crowd

It’s important for a CEO to be established as their own leader and person, avoiding comparisons to their predecessor, but finding the right balance between showcasing their individuality and leadership style without completely changing a culture employees value can be tricky.

“Penny is a huge advocate for internal comms, so when she came on board we worked very closely together. She told us how she preferred to communicate and the approach she wanted to take, and then our team advised her on how she could present herself in a way that stayed true to her style, but also resonated with our staff,” says Cat.

“She was receptive to getting out and meeting people, and she had a very open and honest approach, taking the time to answer questions from staff. This meant it felt more natural as staff were able to get to know her over a period of time.” 

Helen agrees, adding: “As internal communicators, we are in a privileged position to ask the right questions and understand what CEOs are motivated by. Find out what their strengths and weaknesses are and don’t beat around the bush. Through this, you’ll then learn about their leadership style, and also what they’re comfortable with.

“The first time I heard Philip speak, I told him what was good, what to alter, and what didn’t work well. IC’s job is to tell the CEO how they are coming across to employees, and it’s our job to ask the difficult questions early on in order to help them give a good impression. If a CEO believes they can trust you to make decisions that are based on their best interest, as well as the organisation’s, then it will give IC more leverage.”


“When you know a transition is coming, be mindful about the things you want associated with the new leader, and think about what you can retire with the old one.
Helen Willetts, director of internal communications, BT

 

An internal promotion doesn’t automatically guarantee a CEO is in tune with organisational culture either.

“Anthony Gruppo’s promotion took him from America over to the UK, so while he understood the organisation’s overall culture, he wasn’t up to date with the nuances of our UK workforce,” comments Laura.

“We’re a quieter bunch, and Anthony’s a really big character, so it became a balancing act to ensure we reached the right tone and presentation style without compromising his personality.”

A new leadership style is also a good chance to review channels.

“If your old CEO used the same channels to communicate time and again, you need to make a deliberate choice as to whether to stick with them or not,” says Helen. “At BT, Gavin [Patterson] had a regular podcast, but that didn’t suit Philip, so we stopped it. Instead, we had the chance to try some new stuff almost immediately as I’d saved a lot of ideas for Philip once I found out he was joining.

“When you know a transition is coming, be mindful about the things you want associated with the new leader, and think about what you can retire with the old one.”


The silent treatment

The opportunities are endless when a CEO is open to internal communication and willing to engage, but how do you manage a CEO who doesn’t see the value?

While Helen hasn’t had personal experience of a CEO resisting internal comms, she’s thought of how she would tackle it should the situation arise: “Every single person has strengths. Find out what those are, and then come up with ways for them to play to those, so that they feel as comfortable and in control as possible.

“The right channel, the right audience, the right content: all are key. The reality is, employees are likely to feel more motivated when their organisation hears and sees them, and motivation leads to productivity, which is something the CEO will certainly be interested in.”

Frank agrees, adding: “Give the CEO options on how to improve areas of interest and show them you are a trusted adviser who has their best interests in mind. Through this, you should be able to establish some sort of relationship and understanding.

“Try to establish close links with other members of the leadership team as well, in order to improve your standing. Hopefully the CEO will see this and be more willing to engage with your suggestions.

“Whether they like comms or not, it’s your job to show them what it can do and why it is important to the organisation.”

No matter how engaged a CEO is, there will always be times when you disagree, so endeavour to find the opportunity in the challenge.

“Approach the arrival of a new CEO and a difference in leadership style as a breath of fresh air,” says Cat, “and use it to help support IC’s vision.

“Change is becoming an increasing reality in our profession, so, rather than fight it, focus on making it work for you.”

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