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.


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.

Georgia on My Mind

I’ve been waiting for this week in Atlanta for months. More than waiting, I’ve been planning, researching, writing, collaborating, begging for input. I’ve been the beneficiary of critiques, material, ideas and design from my partners, Greg and Sloane Mann, at The Fibonacci Design Group.  I’ve picked over my material, fretted over it, rewritten it, and gone back to source material to make sure of my facts.  All this so that, over the past 36 hours, I could lead a three-hour workshop on how to be a fantastic presenter at the Melcrum Employee Engagement Conference, and then move on to present to a packed room at the Ragan Social Media Conference, hosted by Coca Cola, on social media governance.

And so you’ll forgive me if I am now a bit exhausted, the last ounce of adrenalin fleeing my body, as I kick off those pretty but oh-so-uncomfortable suede pumps and try to relax.

I’m a speaking junkie.  I admit it without shame.  I love every part of the process, from being given the ultimate compliment of a speaking invitation to writing a new talk to the thrill of doing the actual presentation.  I’m transported when I’m on stage, my satisfaction directly related to the energy of my audience.  When a talk goes well, I couldn’t be happier.  When a talk fails, I couldn’t be more miserable.

So I work hard to avoid failure.  No, you won’t find me rehearsing in front of a mirror for hours before the event.  I prepare in other ways, from always knowing my first line in front of the group to having a fistful of relevant, snappy anecdotes that I’m ready to work into the talk.

Success means nodding heads, folks taking notes, the occasional belly laugh and more questions than there is time to respond.  Failure shows up as blank stares, discreet texting/emailing on smart phones, and, of course, no questions or comments.  When I’m getting stony stares from my group, I know I’ve failed to engage them (Failure to communicate is always the fault of the communicator, never the receiver.).

I’m so appreciative of Melcrum and Ragan, both terrific organizations that provide a huge service to professional communicators, for inviting me to their parties.  Please, please… ask me again!

Note: I’ll be posting slides – or at the very least, excerpts of my presentations – next week. Stay tuned…

Go Ahead – Be a Square

My friend and business partner, Greg Mann, posted a really interesting blog on Piet Mondrian last week.  The Dutch painter is best known for his Neoplastic work, such as Broadway Boogie Woogie:


Mondrian had a heavy influence on a generation – and not just painters, in fact.  A quick look at Wikipedia tells us this:

He inspired painters, composers, couture, architects – and at least one writer – me.

I led two webinars last week on presentation skills* last week) and I really pounded on the point that you need to know and be passionate about your topic if you want to rock the house.  But even more important, you need the discipline to focus on two or three messages if you want your talk to be memorable.  As it turns out, Mondrian gives a perfect structure to build that (pardon the pukey jargon) message architecture.

Consider the Yves Saint Laurent’s dress referenced above:

Yves Saint Laurent

Where does your eye fall? The red square, I would wager… The black lines frame that square, re-emphasizing its importance,  The blue area draws you away briefly, while the yellow hem snaps the picture together.  Just like a tightly told story should work.

So let’s play with this for a minute, using Mondrian’s painting, Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray:


Let’s say that I want to tell the story of The Three Little Pigs, who had to defend themselves against the big, bad wolf, but I want to use it for a business metaphor:


The first thing I like about this particular painting is its diamond shape, which reminds me that good stories have a strong start-to-finish plot that is clear and easy to understand.  The next thing I like about this piece is that it gives me structure for the two main messages I want to make: a strong defense is the best offense for these three little underdog pigs (apologies for the cross-species contamination) and that spending money on good strong bricks can be a wise investment.  There’s a sub-theme I’d like to subtly introduce, which is that just because you’re bigger doesn’t mean you’re better.

Is this the tool for you?  Try it and see.  I do know that it works for me, not only helping me structure a communication but giving me a little creative boost along the way.  Thanks, Piet!  And thank you, Greg, for reminding me how much Mondrian has to teach us, over 60 years after his death. (By the way, there’s even a site where you can create your own online Mondrian designs! How cool is that?)

*Shameless plug: I will be giving a half-day workshop on the same topic at the Melcrum Annual Employee Engagement Conference in February.