New CEO prime time for change

There are few occasions in the life of an organization that represent a greater opportunity for meaningful change and progress than a transition in CEOs.

There are few occasions in the life of an organization that represent a greater opportunity for meaningful change and progress than a transition in CEOs.

And there may be none - outside of a major crisis - where communication can have as great an impact.

Effective communication can lay the groundwork for change by helping a new leader create energy and focus, define a shared vision, gain support, and build credibility. Unfortunately, given the expectations and time demands placed on a new CEO, this opportunity is often not fully exploited. The chief communications officer, however, is in a unique position to make sure it isn't wasted.

People expect change with a new CEO and will leave the window open for it. Stakeholders tend to be more open-minded, ready to see things differently, and inclined to give the newcomer the benefit of the doubt. It's a chance to shake up the status quo, recast the future, and raise the bar.

As John Kotter of Harvard Business School, among the leading change scholars, observes, "Successful transformations often begin, and begin well, when an organization has a new head."

But the window doesn't remain open long - three or four months, at most. With the typical CEO life span down to less than five years, most companies have an opportunity every five years or so to make major change without the burning platform usually required.

The goal is to earn the "votes" of employees, customers, and investors and to establish a basis for support of the new leader's vision, strategy, and direction. And the key to successful vote-getting is to run the CEO's first 100 days like a campaign, understanding and responding to what stakeholders are expecting to see and learn.

Those expectations unfold in three phases:

Introductions. The first test is whether the newcomer has enthusiasm for the company's prospects, how his or her personality and philosophy seem to fit, and how willing the new leader seems to be to engage and listen to stakeholders.

Learning. It's expected that the new CEO will spend the first few months listening, learning, observing, and asking for input. The emphasis is on relationship-building. Stakeholders watch closely for actions and statements that encapsulate the CEO's thoughts, personality, and values.

Strategy. Stakeholders expect that the learning will be synthesized and converted into a sound strategic vision and direction - one they understand and can embrace.

Communicators can get the campaign off to a solid start by imparting certain bits of important advice to the CEO:

Be clear in word and action. People want to know what you think and need help interpreting. Think about the legacy you'd like to leave, and use that image to paint a picture of the future. People respond better to change if they can see the payoff.

Focus. You will likely have a long list of things you want to change, but be deliberate about the two or three you're asking everyone to embrace. Quickly providing focus feeds thirst for insight into the future, for the context to understand decisions and actions - now and in the future.

Be decisive and take action - even small action. People expect and want to see things happen.

Move fast and ingrain the pace. This is your chance to integrate the momentum or allow things to backslide.

Keep your promises. Above all.

Scott Chaikin is chairman and CEO of Dix & Eaton.

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