The Care and Feeding of a New CEO

You have a new CEO. Congratulations! You’re in good company. The average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO is just 4.6 years, so many of us have walked in your shoes.

As the head of employee communication for your organization, it’s your job to help that CEO be accepted and respected by employees, and to communicate his or her vision of the company under new leadership. Heady times, indeed!

Getting Started

To get started, your first step may be to…



What??? Say what???

Honestly, this advice comes from deeply painful personal experience. If you were a close trusted advisor to the outgoing CEO, the new CEO may look at you suspiciously.

You cannot be successful if you are not welcome, trusted and valued. So before you jump into this assignment, ask yourself:

  • Do we have good chemistry?
  • Do we have mutual respect?
  • Are our styles compatible, and if not, can I modify mine?
  • If this position were open, would I be the new CEO’s first choice?

If the answer is no, please reconsider moving forward. You will be in an uphill battle for years, and you will not be happy.

OK, so let’s assume that you feel comfortable that you can be successful in this challenge. What next?

Lots of people want to be near to the new CEO. There’s a seismic change going on in the power structure during this time, and you’ll be one of many vying to establish a relationship with your new leader.  So it’s important to think about what value you want to provide, what role you want to play, and how you’ll go about establishing yourself.

Your Value

To establish value, start by establishing need. Ask your chief human resources officer about your new CEO’s style and current/desired relationship with employees. Understand what your business requires, and how this CEO can help move the company forward.

Look at your organization with a clear head and critical eye. What’s working and what’s not working? Is the change in leadership welcome, dreaded or neutral? What do employees need right now – reassurance, encouragement, clarity about the future? What do managers need right now – guidance, reassurance, information?

What does your new CEO need right now, even if he or she won’t articulate it? How can you help your CEO get established with employees and other leaders in the company?

Back up this anecdotal data with facts. Review your latest survey results to remind yourself where the communication gaps exist, the credibility of leadership, and the engagement level of employees. If you don’t have this information, you need to get it. Put this at the top of your list.

Your Role

Now that you know what the organization and leadership need, you can think about what your role is. You also need to think about the team you need around you.

Enabling the success of a new leader is a team sport. You can’t do it alone. So team up with your communication colleagues in marketing, public relations and investor relations – that way you’ll be able to build consistent messaging and a tightly coordinated communication plan that reaches both internal and external audiences.

You also need to be part of the human resources transition team. As a trusted member of this group, you’ll gain insights into your new leader’s strengths and weaknesses, how the CEO will be received by the leadership team, and what, if any, politics needs to be considered. This information will be invaluable as you put together your communication and change management plan.

So what are your responsibilities, and how do you want your role to evolve? The first impression you make with the new leadership will influence your role in the future, so step and plan carefully.

Establishing Yourself: Planning

You need an internal communication 100-day plan for this leadership transition. There are many great examples of these – a quick Google search will reveal lots of case studies.

The plans tend to agree on these points:

  • Establish a set of short-term and longer-term goals. What do you hope to achieve in the first 100 days? What do you look to accomplish in the first year?
  • Know the landscape. All that knowledge gathering and collection is an absolute must for this communication plan.
  • Focus on relationships. People want to know the new CEO, so being visible and accessible is key. Relationships with the leadership team, with stakeholders, and with employees need care and feeding during this time.
  • Articulate clear messages. Create a message platform that’s easy to remember and compelling to the audience. Short is key. I usually think about limiting these platforms to three what’s and two how’s.
  • Be deliberate about channels. Some leaders are natural speakers, others find their sweet spot in one-on-one conversations. Think about what the mix of channels should be, based on CEO strengths and employee need.
  • Listen. Get your new CEO out on the road, to meet employees, hear what they have to say, and let people get to know him or her. This should be a top priority for the CEO, and it will pay huge dividends in the months to come.

Establishing Yourself: Expectations

What does your CEO want from you? What do you think your CEO should want from you?

In an ideal world, you two would sit down and have this conversation. But it likely won’t happen because your CEO is very busy and time is the most precious commodity. So you may need to align yourself with others who do get some face time with him or her.

Whether you meet with the CEO in person, provide a plan in writing, or ask a senior person to be your representative, you need a way to make your thinking visible.

Don’t present your full communication. Instead, hone in on the three key points.  Be brief, be snappy, be compelling. Come in prepared to talk about short-term needs. Know what your ask is. Don’t reach too far in these initial phases: focus on what is most important to you.

Establishing Yourself: Execution

In the end, it’s all about getting the job done. Follow through on your commitments. Deliver quality. Show results. Build on your successes. Reassess your failures and see how you can turn them into opportunity.

Build feedback into your plan. Make sure you know what the impact of your work is, and how employees feel about it. Be sure to schedule a follow-up communication survey to monitor progress and identify ongoing issues.

From Doer to Advisor

Over time, if you earn it, you can move from the person who thinks up the plan and executes it to someone who shapes the CEO’s relationship with employees.  The CEO needs people around him or her who are truth tellers, willing to give difficult feedback.

That may never happen for you. It takes a CEO who is open to it, and it takes a communicator who has superb relationship-building skills and has the real goods – knows how and what to counsel.

Typically, the chief marketing officer, chief human resources officer and chief operating officer are the ones who offer counsel and direction. But don’t underestimate the difference that you – the person who knows what employees think, say and believe better than anyone else in the company – can make.

You can make a difference by:

  • Providing direction and advice prior to a town hall. For example, questions employees will ask and body language during the session, based on your observation of previous events
  • Urging straight talk. Don’t let your CEO indulge in marketing hype. Employees want the truth, and they can spot a spin job from miles away
  • Arranging for personal visits. Your CEO needs to be seen and heard from. More important, your CEO needs to listen to employees. Make it your job to keep him or her visible and engaged.

An Amazing Opportunity

These are the big times. These are the opportunities that make or break communication careers. Be honest with yourself, be thoughtful, be courageous. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Team well with others. Make it about the CEO, not about you. Come with facts and deliver results.

It’s a new world for your company – and you. Make it happen.


4 Responses

  1. As always, great perspective and advice, Terry!

  2. I agree with Suzanne. Very insightful and relevant. Thanks Terry!

  3. Spot on. That’s why CEOs would do well to heed your advice, Terry.
    Always someone who can be trusted to tell it like it is, and inspire those around you to do their best work.

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