5 Best Practices for Communicating Changes in Leadership

CEO turnovers are becoming an increasingly common occurrence in the business world. According to a recent report by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 90 chief executive officers left their positions just in June 2018, and 631 have stepped down since the beginning of the year (an 11% increase in comparison to the first six months of 2017).

Position changes at the top can come for a variety of reasons, as shown in recent resignations and appointments in the news cycle. Sometimes the executive decides to step down willingly, such as PepsiCo’s first female CEO Indra Nooyi, who announced on Aug. 6 that she would be stepping down after 12 years in her post. Or sometimes a new leader can present a major shift, like Land O’Lakes’ freshly-appointed CEO Beth Ford, who is the first openly gay woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

What’s most important when it comes to leadership changes, though, is how the news is communicated to stakeholders, especially to internal employees. Change can be scary, and it is crucial to ensure the company’s workforce understands what’s going on, how it will impact them and the organization as a whole and how the transition process will take effect.

PR News recently held a roundtable of internal communications experts covering best practices for relaying information to employees during times of upheaval. Here are some of their top takeaways:

Relay messages as soon as you can. “In employees’ minds, no news equals bad news. This is why communicating quickly in a variety of ways—including employee meetings where [they] can ask questions, through email, the intranet and message cascade with managers—achieves the best results.”—Katina Arnold, VP Corporate Communications, ESPN

Don’t forget to lead. “Leadership in the form of company leaders, armed with a good communications plan and a supportive communications team, make all the difference….The one thing you can’t overdo during periods of significant change is to over-communicate.”—Robert Hastings, EVP/CCO/Chief of Staff, Bell

Don’t use canned speech in your messaging. “Avoid jargon, acronyms and corporate speak. Find ways to keep the change story relevant and interesting…Make use of video and infographics, deploying different channels aimed at specific audiences, and integrate it broadly so your messages become part of the fabric of the company, rather than one-off communications.” –Marie Andel, EVP, People & Culture, CSAA Insurance Group.

Allow space for face-to-face conversations. “Last year, [our] founder/CEO stepped down after 30 years. We fostered dialogue with staff throughout the succession process by conducting multiple Town Hall discussions…where anyone could ask any questions. Our staff appreciated the opportunity for dialogue and our executives gained insight and perspective by listening to and reflecting on these staff questions. And the sessions set the tone for further open communication with the new leadership team.”—Lauren Hodapp, Director, Internal Communications, Conservation International

Prioritize empathy. “It’s hard to deliver tough news in times of uncertainty, but it’s harder to be on the receiving end. While communications don’t need to be apologetic, consider the emotional impact to employees who don’t have the broader view of decision makers.”—Morry Smulevitz, Head, Corporate Communications/Media Content, AbbVie

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