Friday, May 25, 2012

The company is just not that into you: Breaking up with your CEO with class

Given the scorcher of a Memorial Day weekend they’re predicting for Chicago, it’s hard to believe it’s still only spring. Yes, spring: A season of rebirth. Rediscovery.  And an uprising of some variety. During the 2011 Arab Spring, we watched rulers fall across the Middle East, and this year, we have what the media is calling the Shareholder Spring. Instead of overthrowing governments, the protestor of 2012 is an angry activist investor bent on ousting CEOs they deem overpaid and underperforming. No, this year’s unrest doesn’t pack quite the same visual punch as a good old-fashioned revolution (how often does the NYT photograph a gang of pinstripe suits hurtling a statue of the chief exec off HQ’s roof?) but for those of us in corporate, this is as close to an all-out revolt as we get. For internal communicators, unplanned leadership transitions are, along with surprise mergers, our Super Bowl. It’s exciting, uncertain and you better know what you’re doing because the heat is on.

I spent the better part of a week working with a company who was indeed bidding adieu to its CEO. We spent an entire afternoon with the new chief executive brainstorming a proper send-off for his predecessor. As is often the case, there was nothing salacious or improper driving the leadership change; the board simply felt the outgoing CEO wasn’t taking the company in the right direction. (We also mapped out a plan to position the new leader among a variety of stakeholders, but that’s another post for another day.)

Based on that discussion, here are four considerations for breaking up with your CEO with class and dignity: 
  1. First, consider the circumstances. If the CEO is leaving because of some sort of impropriety, he or she will likely not be highly involved in transition communications – no symbolic handing over the reins to the new leader, no teary-eyed farewell toasts, no sweeping highlights reel from the leader’s tenure. But if there’s nothing embarrassing or fraudulent behind the shakeup, the old CEO can play a bigger role in the transition. That’s assuming he or she wants to, of course, so be prepared to ask the departing leader how involved they want to be in such activities.
  2. Be thoughtful about what you say about the outgoing CEO. Externally, the press release will probably say as little as possible about the reasons behind the departure; “leaving the company to pursue other opportunities,” is a classic standby. But internally, people are going to want to know more: Is the CEO sick? Dealing with family issues? Leaving the rat race to take up extreme kite surfing? If possible, ask the outgoing leader what he or she would like you to say about their plans. During the transition we just completed, the former CEO asked us to tell people he was looking forward to taking on several board positions and traveling with his family in his retirement.
  3. Determine when and how employees can say goodbye. Employees will want to know the CEO’s last day in the office, if there will be a formal send-off, and how they should reach out personally to say goodbye. Each situation is different, but our client decided to honor the outbound CEO at an already-scheduled employee picnic; the new chief executive also demonstrated class by encouraging employees to stop by and wish their former leader well before his last day. 
  4. Give employees a way to ask anonymous questions. This is one of those catch-all pieces of advice that applies to virtually every employee communications program. Especially during major leadership transitions, it’s critical to give people a faceless forum for voicing concerns, since many will assume the world may change with a new CEO on board. In our case, the new CEO wanted to establish himself as an “open door” leader. “People can just call or email me directly,” he said during our meeting. While I love his intent, most people would never feel comfortable giving the hard truth to their mother, let alone the person who ultimately decides whether they have a job. We ended up setting up an anonymous, one-question SurveyMonkey poll with just a single, open-ended text box for employees to share their thoughts. Comments started rolling in 20 minutes after the announcement, and we were able to respond to frequently asked questions during the town hall later that same day.

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