Develop a Long-Range Succession Plan

The big picture is often the hardest to see for communications executives, who—especially given today’s business environment—are constantly putting out fires that ignite unexpectedly. Mired in the crises of the moment, they fail to see the forest for the trees, but the biggest challenges are those just beyond the horizon. Take, for instance, CEO (or a title of comparable importance) departures. Sometimes these leaders make a planned exit, but more and more often they abandon their posts unexpectedly, be it from illness, scandal or unceremonious ousting. History has proven that, regardless of the reason, these departures can have devastating effects on the organization’s brand, reputation, internal culture and bottom line (just look what happened when a false report of Steve Jobs’ death spread in late 2008— Apple’ s stock price tumbled before spokespeople could correct the error). But these crises aren’t the only reason for communications execs to look toward the future and establish long-range succession plans; when one leader leaves and another enters, communicators’ own jobs hang in the balance. With that, consider these to-do’s for developing succession plans that can be rolled out at a moment’s notice. â–¶ Start yesterday. Best-case scenario, you will have years to prepare for the transition from one CEO to another, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take preemptive action. Sometimes it’s a non-issue; many companies have a mandatory retirement age, for example, so you can begin planning a few years out. If your company’s top dog hasn’t already addressed the issue, find time to sit down with him/her and put it on the table. Don’t take an antagonistic stance (“We need to talk about your departure from the company” probably won’t go over well); rather, frame it positively, and talk about it as a far-off occurrence. The following intros will make the conversation easier to stomach: • “We are in a position of strength right now, so it is a good time to begin thinking about …” • “We want you to be directly involved in grooming your future successor, so let’s talk about a long-range plan …” • “What do you want your legacy to be?” The legacy question is especially compelling for CEO-level executives; their future success and, frankly, their egos are completely dependent on the lasting impression they leave on their current organization, so framing the discussion in this context is a good way to make them committed to the planning process without feeling threatened. â–¶ Make corporate culture a top priority. The corporate culture is critical to so many facets of a business, and succession planning is no exception. Your team must audit the culture periodically to have a deep understanding of its characteristics, because this will determine how resilient the internal brand will be to a transition. It will also help with the decision between an internal or external successor. Typically, promoting from within softens the impact. That said, if upon close examination you don’t see a few viable candidates, you should plan accordingly. â–¶ Look ahead. Don’t fall into the trap of looking for a new leader who can mimic the organization’s past successes. Instead, take a close look at the state of your industry and the direction your competitors are taking, and use this to help shape the future direction of the company. Then think about the type of leader that is best equipped to meet these goals. You will probably find that the person is very different from the one who came before. â–¶ Anticipate their struggle to let go. When the transition begins, you will be inclined to put all your time and energy into the new leader, but this is a mistake. Especially in the cases in which a CEO retires, remains on the board or takes a non-executive chairman position, this person may have a hard time letting go of past responsibilities. If he/she doesn’t make a graceful exit, he/she can unintentionally (or intentionally) sabotage the transition. Before the process begins, agree on a step-by-step transfer of power, down to specific dates and times. There is a reason the president-elect becomes president at exactly 12 noon on Inauguration Day. â–¶ Identify the new CEO’s mentors and confidants, and gain their trust and respect as quickly as possible. Everyone has a close circle of people they turn to for advice, and one of your first priorities should be to identify the individuals that comprise the new leader’s circle. Become fast friends, because they will be your plan B if your first attempts at advising on an issue fall on deaf ears. And don’t assume these individuals work within the company. Oftentimes the most trusted advisers will be past bosses and colleagues, and even former competitors. PRN

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