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.


When Bad News Comes Knockin’ at Your Door

wolf at the door

You know all the signs. Conference rooms are booked. Doors are shut. Quiet conversations cease when someone comes near. Then the suspense is over: you get the call – come meet with the management team; an announcement is near.

Whether the news is layoffs, your company’s been sold, or benefits are being cut, you already know what the next few weeks are going to be like – grinding, stressful, busy, and just plain no fun.

A good chunk of your plan is business as usual. Bring the team together, sign non-disclosure agreements, craft the key messages, segment your audiences, identify your stakeholders and nail down a tight schedule.

But breaking the news to employees? That’s never business as usual.

Because no matter how good your plan is, if you can’t manage the employee reaction, you’re not going to succeed.

Managing Management

Before we even get to employees, let’s talk about a couple of pitfalls to avoid with senior management.

Pitfall #1: Senior management underestimates the time it takes to absorb the information. This group has been talking about and planning for the change for weeks, if not months. While there may be full appreciation of the shock employees will experience, they may underestimate how hard it is for employees to grasp the facts. Result? Impatience with employees asking a lot of questions. And that impatience will come off as management not caring about employees.

Pitfall #2: Senior management has unrealistic expectations for a successful rollout. No one ever thanks you for changing the game on them. While senior management may see some positives in the changes that are coming, employees likely will see none – they’ll just see takeaways.

Never has this been more brilliantly portrayed than in the original British series, The Office. David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, has an announcement to make:

“The Office: Judgement (#1.6)” (2001)

David Brent:

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you wanna stay. I know, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I’ve been promoted, so… every cloud. (sobs of workers fill the room) You’re still thinking about the bad news aren’t you?

David Brent

Part of our job is to prepare senior management for employee reactions – let them know what to expect. Helping them to understand that a successful outcome may simply be that employees accept the change and move on will make your job much easier and less stressful.

Managing Your Communicators

 Sad news. You are not the most influential communicator during tough times. Nor is your team. Nor is your CEO. Nope, the most influential communicators are your supervisors, managers, and human resources. These are the folks who are going to be hit with all the questions, and these are the folks who will shape the reaction of employees by how they react.

So we need to help them help us. Here’s how.

Human Resources

HR plays an important role in any change the organization goes through. While these folks are pros at handling tough situations, even they get nervous about dealing with angry, confused employees.

One approach that works well is to invest in training of the HR team – and to do so in stages, tying the training to anticipated employee reaction. For example, let’s say you’re announcing outsourcing, resulting in layoffs.

The employee reaction curve looks something like this:

Employee reaction

You can help soften that reaction by providing tools and training at critical points. For example, prepare HR before the announcement goes out. Then have HR prepare managers, who are on the frontline with employees. When details are ready, have HR and managers prepared again, ready to answer questions and manage reactions.

Why wouldn’t you want to do this?

OK, there’s a risk that word may get out.  So have HR sign non-disclosure agreements and then train them properly. Give managers a heads-up but do it just the day before the announcement. This will limit the rumor mill.

If your organization is publically traded and you’re announcing a material change (one that could affect the price of your stock), you can’t tell anyone before you announce it externally. That may mean that without non-disclosure agreements, you must stay silent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t immediately get support material out to your managers when the announcement is made.

Tools and Training

Few people are as motivated to learn as those who know they’ll have to answer questions and explain an unpopular decision to a bunch of anxious and angry employees. Take advantage of this and put together a powerful training session to help them cope.

A good training session should:

  • Provide a clear, concise description of the planned change – explained in a conversational, straightforward manner. This must be jargon-free zone.
  • Train participants on how to handle difficult questions. Provide practical tips that are easy to remember and follow.
  • Create a list of those tough questions (best practice: have the participants brainstorm the list of questions that scare them the most) and then, as a group, brainstorm the answer.
  • If formal employee meetings are in the plan, role-play the meeting for them. Ask them to act like their employees will, and ask you difficult, emotional questions so they can see how you’d handle them.
  • At the end of the role-play, ask for a critique on how you did – how did they feel, did they believe you, what was their reaction?

A good toolkit should include:

  • No more than five key messages
  • Speaking points
  • FAQs
  • A meeting kit, if holding formal meetings (versus more informal Q&A sessions) is a requirement

Setting Expectations

HR and managers need to know what you expect of them – and what you don’t expect of them. For example:

It’s not their job to make employees happy about the change. It is their job to let employees know the facts so employees can make up their own minds.

It’s not their job to know every detail of the change. It is their job to know why the change, what the change is on a high level, and what will happen as a result of the change – these should be contained in your five key messages.

It’s not their job to answer every question on the change. It is their job to handle questions in a calm, professional and objective fashion, not adding fuel to the fire. And not knowing the answer is perfectly acceptable – “I don’t know” is an honest answer.

Image Stays

In the end, how articulate managers and HR are at answering questions is not as important as how they interact with employees. We tend to forget words but remember image – confidence, aggressiveness, sympathy, impatience all shape our impressions.

Helping our communicators help us means making them into ambassadors who empathize, listen, and try their best to answer questions. And you’ll be hero for making it happen.

(Like this post? You can find loads of interesting original blog posts at Baker Brands including – ahem – this one! Lots of smart people there with cool perspectives. Check it out!)

Beware the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

When is communication just communication and when is communication actually change management? I’ve struggled with this for years, and have been frustrated by change projects that really didn’t amount to much more than strategic communication. But I’m finally able (I think!) to articulate the difference – and how it impacts the project. My warning? Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing!


I recently wrote this piece for Baker Brands in Santa Monica, an awesome creative branding agency with whom I’m privileged to be associated.  You can find the post here, or you can just read it for yourself below…

From the fabulous Baker Brands website…

I’ve done dozens of change management projects. Usually, they’re disguised as communication campaigns, but when you get right down to it, the company is almost always looking to change behavior. Treating the effort as a communication project alone is dangerous, because you’re not taking into account the challenges presented by what’s hiding inside.

Just like petting a nice sheep, unaware of the wolf within, you can get bit by underestimating what is needed for success.

A standard communication project focuses on knowledge – what the audience knows today and what you want them to know tomorrow. A standard change management project focuses on behavior – what the audience is doing today versus what you want them to do tomorrow. These different objectives demand different approaches.


If you’ve known me for any length of time, than you’ve heard me harp about the importance of understanding the knowledge, attitude and actions of your target audience. Most people think of this as know/feel/do. Here’s what it looks like and why it’s important.

know feel do

Should you find that most of the activity of a project has to do with giving people new information – for example, making sure employees understand a new pricing model – than you have a genuine communication project.  You’re dealing with what your audience knows. Not much wolf hidden inside of this assignment.

But should you find that while knowledge is important, changing people’s attitudes and actions are required – for example, reinventing your corporate culture – than you have a change management project. You’re now concerned with how your audiences feel and what your audience does. And if you’re depending solely on PowerPoint presentations and key messages to succeed, you’re going to fail.

Each of these objectives – know, feel, do – require different tactics to move the needle. We’re most familiar and comfortable with knowledge tactics:

  • Key messages
  • Emails
  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Speeches
  • Posters

Changing people’s feelings, however, requires a different approach:

  • Personalization – how do the facts of the change affect me as an individual?
  • Context – why the change, impact of the change in my business area?
  • Emotions – how does this change make me feel? Are the materials inspirational, appropriate, interesting?
  • Role models – how does our CEO feel about this, how does my manager feel about this? Are their actions aligned with the change?
  • Peers – how do my colleagues feel about this?
  • Consequences – what happens if I don’t go along with this? What happens if I do? What are the rewards and consequences for compliance?

Changing people’s behavior requires changes to both knowledge and attitudes – and then a little more:

  • Training – do I have the skills I need to succeed?
  • Clear instructions – do I know exactly what I have to do?
  • Feedback – how am I doing so far?
  • Reinforcement – am I being recognized for my efforts?
  • Results – is the change bringing about positive business results? How?


Creating tactics, from key messages to training programs, require a lot of work but are not that difficult. A solid communication person and training professional can generally put these materials together relatively quickly. What’s harder is changing attitudes and building acceptance.

That’s where your stakeholders come into play. Who is a stakeholder? Very simply, a person, group or organization that has interest or concern in your project. Some stakeholders are important because they hold the purse strings. Others are vital because they have special needs you must meet to succeed. Others need extra attention because they are influencers – of senior management, of other stakeholders, of employees.

You can’t win the hearts and minds of your audience if you don’t have backing from your stakeholders.

In a recent IT change management project I led, my team and I put together an Excel spreadsheet to help us identify and track our stakeholders. It looked something like this:


As we created our stakeholder plan, we identified distinct stages of the project and what level of support we needed from each stakeholder. We then assigned a value between 1 and 10 to indicate where that stakeholder’s support was currently and where we needed it. Finally, we created action plans for each critical stakeholder to make sure we had the support we needed at each point in the project.

This was a ton of work, and it continued to require a lot of attention throughout the project. But the payoff was clear – we had support from key players when we needed it, and we were able to anticipate and meet the needs of important groups of employees. Fewer surprises meant we could keep to our schedule and budget.


There’s a lot of lip service given to listening in communications and change, but lip service doesn’t cut it. You have to be willing to listen to feedback, to change your process based on feedback, and to stand up to feedback that doesn’t make sense. No small task.

We built in listening opportunities throughout our process, sponsoring receptions at offices around the world. Our sessions were structured, combining small group work and big group discussion, all sweetened by a great lunch and a light attitude. We took every piece of feedback we received as a gift, and made major modifications to the rollout process as a result. We publically gave credit to our employees for the positive changes, and urged them to keep the comments coming.


When you’re making technical changes, training is an absolute requirement. We made sure it was available 24/7, translated into 12 languages, and we broke all video training into short, manageable chapter of information. The result? Our folks took the training and were prepared for the change.

Final Thoughts

Change management requires planning, organization and a thick skin. It’s not about fancy academic models nor is it about just communication. Surround yourself with a great team who you like, give yourself the gift of time to plan, and prepare for a great ride. Your reward will be when people say to you, “I’ve been through a ton of change efforts at this place, but this is best I’ve ever seen. Great job!”


Among my communication friends, the whole Yahoo “work from home” “don’t work from home” debacle has been the subject of loads of speculation. A lot of us were highly critical of the move; a lot of us were very supportive of the move.

But no one, not one person, thought it was well communicated. And the whole disaster reminded me of what I’ve preached for years – that communicators are risk managers, change agents, advisors, who can add tremendous value to their companies when they have earned the respect of the leadership.

Here are my thoughts on the subject, recently published on the website of Baker Brands, a Santa Monica-based design and branding consultancy:

The Changing World of Employee Communication

The Mysterious Case of the Stretched Brain

That would be mine.

And can I say, “Ouch!”?

I spent most of last week facilitating my first ever Melcrum Black Belt course, Black Belt Two.  This course is designed for communicators who want to be more than tacticians and delivery agents – it’s for those who want to be trusted advisors to their executives.  And it was hard.  Hard work to be an attendee, hard work to be a facilitator.  Geri Rhoades, my training partner, and I collapsed each night after class (OK, possibly aided by a couple of well-earned glasses of wine but still…).

I’m no stranger to training or to teaching or to speaking.  I’ve done a ton of this work in my career.  But this class was very different for me, because I wasn’t there to be the expert. Rather, I was there to enable the participants to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and then to help them help themselves to grow. So instead of asking, “What would you think about doing ….”, I would ask, “How do you think you could handle this?”  And when you’re used to being the smartest kid on the block, stepping away from giving advice to getting people to dig for answers within is just plain hard.

Melcrum is a very well established brand in the U.K., and has been working hard – and successfully – to gain traction here in the States.  They do training and research like nobody’s business, plus put on amazing conferences.  So as you would expect, the course was well-designed and filled with interesting content, exercises and activities. Much of which was new to yours truly.

I had a ton of work to do before I could walk into the classroom last week. I read and re-read the material, researched the material, thought about examples and what I might say about my parts of the program.  What I didn’t anticipate was having my own, personal, huge “Aha!”.

As I learned more about coaching (versus consulting), I came face-to-face with my own failures at Sun to reach some executives.  And I was horrified.  Horrified at my hubris, horrified at my blindness, horrified at what I could have done differently, if I had only known. And I was humiliated.  How could I have been so self-centered and, well, clueless?  I wasn’t rude, but I certainly was determined – to be right.


So as my brain was stretching with new knowledge, my ego was shrinking with new-found humility.  To paraphrase the comments of one of our Black Belt participants, why does learning always have to be so darn hard?

Well, perhaps later is better than never.  My brain hurts from growing so much over the past couple of months and my ego hurts from bruises coming from self-awareness.  I guess they’ll both recover, but I’ll be blushing for a long time over mistakes I made at Sun.   And didn’t understand until recently.

Take the class.  I wish I had it available to me 10 years ago.

Money Can’t Buy You Love

There’s a lot of talk about employee engagement these days in the circles I travel. As times stay grim and companies continue to make unpleasant decisions to keep their doors open, worries abound as to how to keep employees onboard. Companies have the luxury of not worrying so much about employees quitting – in today’s economy, after all, where would they go? But they are, and should be, concerned about how much heart and soul folks are putting into their jobs.

I hear it from friends who work at some of the world’s biggest and most respected corporations.  For example:

  • “All this company cares about is making a buck.  They don’t care who they run over to do it.”
  • “This company fosters an environment of no trust and no risk-taking.  If you don’t CYA, you’ll get canned in a heartbeat.”
  • “Just shut up and do your job – that’s my company’s idea of employee engagement.”

Ouch.  It makes me wonder how much longer those employers will be the biggest and most respected around.

If you talk with management, you’ll hear that there is limited money for raises and employee development.  You’ll hear that bonus pools have been cut and discretionary travel eliminated.  What tools, they wonder, do they have left to engage employees?

Well, here’s a tip.  Look at what people are bitter about – they are angry at being taken for granted, at not being appreciated, and working in a toxic environment.  I don’t care how big your budget is – money can’t buy you love.

But listening to employees and valuing what they have to say costs nothing, and can make a huge difference in how people feel about your organization.  And this applies if your company is in the knowledge management or in the fast food business.  People who are close to the customer and far from the ivory tower just might have something to teach those with fancy titles.  Just look at the popularity of Undercover Boss, a show which has resulted in transformational moments for the participating company, the boss and the employees with whom the boss interacts.  Those “Aha!” moments change perspectives and they change lives.

So here’s my tip for the day.  Instead of wringing your hands because you don’t have a big budget for employee engagement, take a look at how people are treated in your company.  Are employees afraid to speak up?  Then you have a problem.  Do your executives think they are smarter than everyone else?  Then you have a problem.  Do all the ideas and insights come from the same place?  Then you have a problem.

Successful companies have all their employees excited about the company’s future and feeling as though they contribute to their organization good fortunes.  That starts with listening and ends with appreciation.  It means treating employees as fully functioning adults who can and should understand the business, including the good, the bad and the ugly.

I’m going to be speaking on this subject at IABC next fall in Chicago, and I really can’t wait.  If there’s one place a passionate communicator can make a difference, it’s here.  And you don’t need a big budget to do it.

Sharing on SlideShare

OK, how cool is this? We posted my talk from Ragan on SlideShare yesterday and already have over 550 hits, plus 13 viewers marking it as a favorite! I continue to be amazed at the world that social media has opened for all of us…

Check it out!