October 16, 2023
Effective Leadership Transition: A 6-Step Guide for Communicators
Leadership transitions are pivotal moments in the life of any organization. When managed effectively, new leaders can quickly gain the confidence and trust of their teams and prepare the organization for a strong future.
Yet many research studies have found that transitions are often famously mishandled. Communicators are a common key missing link in helping leaders reverse that trend. When communicators are empowered and equipped to play a pivotal role, they can help ensure that transitions are smooth and understood by employees and stakeholders alike. Importantly, communicators can help set up new leaders for success in accomplishing key business goals and reaching the company’s long-term vision.
In this comprehensive guide, we consider the crucial role played by communicators in facilitating a seamless leadership transition. We will explore why such transitions are vital, the challenges they pose, the key ingredients for success, and provide communicators with a step-by-step plan to navigate this important process.
What Is a Leadership Transition?
A leadership transition is the passing of the torch from one leader to another. In some cases, transitions are planned and expected while in others, the change may be abrupt or surprising. In all cases, transitions call for a well-considered, strategic approach to communicating the change to employees and stakeholders.
Common Reasons for Leadership Transitions
There are naturally a whole range of reasons that new leaders are put in place. Sometimes, a leader comes in during a moment of crisis, such as when there has been an ethics or integrity scandal involving the departing leader.
More commonly, new leaders are brought in because the executive team decided the outgoing leader was not meeting financial or strategic targets and there was a desire to bring in fresh perspective or experience to meet the needs of the market.
Other times, a departing leader is retiring or being promoted to a new role and there has been some thought and planning regarding the transition of power to a new leader. The new leader may be coming in from outside the organization or has been trained or prepared to take the departing leader’s place.
Why Are Well-Executed Leadership Transitions Important?
The most important reason that transitions need to be done well is the fact that when they’re not, the new leader may fail and the organization’s goals aren’t achieved. According to an often-cited study on transitions by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., as many as 46% of leadership transitions are considered failures or disappointments two years after the new leaders come on board.
From our experience, there are four main reasons many new leaders fail to succeed within two years:
- Leaders don’t come in with a clear perspective on what they want to achieve for the organization; sometimes they come across as being scattered and not focused on what’s most important.
- Leaders fail to listen enough to employees and key stakeholders to understand what their needs and wants are.
- Leaders spend all their time listening and gathering perspectives and not enough time taking action. After two years, employees and peers may just feel as if nothing has actually changed.
- Leaders fail to establish a clear leadership agenda and can’t show their teams how their vision for the strategy and culture all fits together to achieve something special and important.
Additional Factors that Make Leadership Transitions Challenging
While leadership transitions often hold great promise, they are also riddled with challenges. Many communicators have seen some of these classic challenges and need help and fresh ideas for overcoming the following:
- Resistance to Change: Employees and stakeholders may resist change, fearing uncertainty and potential disruptions. This resistance can slow down the transition process.
- Loss of Institutional Knowledge: Departing leaders often take valuable institutional knowledge with them, making it essential to adequately capture and transfer this knowledge to the incoming leader.
- Cultural Shifts: Leadership transitions can result in shifts in organizational culture, which can create tensions and disrupt established workflows. Employees need to feel supported and heard as new leaders come in so strengths within the culture can be maintained. New leaders need help in knowing their audience, what’s on their minds, and what they need to feel motivated to change.
- Unclear Communication: Inadequate or unclear communication during a transition can lead to misunderstandings, rumors, and decreased employee morale.
What Makes a Leadership Transition Successful?
Employee buy-in is the number one factor in making transitions succeed. Too often, transitions are handled as simple announcements placed before the team with little context or strategy. The new leader needs to understand that job one is getting out in front of employees at all levels of the organization – making site visits, meeting with key stakeholders, and listening intently to what’s on the minds and hearts of the team. This is the best way to establish trust and help employees know and feel that they are essential ingredients in the future success of the entire organization.
Other key factors include:
- Clear Vision and Strategy: A strong transition requires a well-defined vision and strategy for the future. The incoming leader must articulate their vision with passion and purpose in a way that makes employees feel excited to be part of the new leader’s team.
- Strong Leadership Team: An effective leadership team surrounding the leader is essential to the leader’s success. Too often leaders jump in and don’t take the time to establish trust from peers and other key leaders. Trust is best achieved when the new leader seeks input and counsel early on in the transition. Leaders shouldn’t wait until they need help or support from a fellow executive team member to make contact with them. Rather, they should focus on building genuine relationships with their peers and fellow leaders from the start.
- Strategic Communication: Open, transparent, and consistent communication at all levels of the organization is essential. This helps manage expectations, reduce anxiety, and foster trust among stakeholders. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, including leader coffees, site visits, small group meetings, one-on-one calls with key employees, and “Ask me Anything” sessions as part of regular Town Hall meetings.
- Strategic Planning: A comprehensive transition and communication plan that includes timelines, milestones, and clear goals must be done. This is just one place where a crackerjack communications team can add a lot of extra value to the process.
The strategy used in a transition needs to match the reasons for the departure. For instance, sometimes new leaders make the mistake of trying to “make their mark” on the role when in fact the company is in a good position, had a strong leader, and simply needs to continue building on existing strengths and successes. In those situations, new leaders should resist letting their egos get in the way and realize that leadership is not about any one individual but instead about motivating the people getting the work done to deliver and feel great about it.
In other situations, such as when the new leader may be coming into the organization at a time of crisis, that context needs to be fully understood and addressed in the new leader’s approach. Perhaps the outgoing leader was pushed out because of an ethics or legal scandal. In response, the new leader should share his or her vision for how the organization will overcome the crisis – such as an even clearer focus on integrity and standards. Communicators can help the leaders explain the new standards in a clear and compelling way, helping to gradually regain the confidence and support of the full team.
In the end, the best new leaders strike a balance between emphasizing the new standards and also empowering and energizing the team to continue doing great work. Together, leadership and the team can collaborate to set a new course.
6 Steps to Effective Leadership Transition and Communication
From our experience working on effective leadership transitions, here’s some of the most important steps for communicators as they work alongside the full executive transition team to establish a smooth transition process:
Step 1: Assess the Current State
The communications team can help the new leader get up to speed in their new role by providing a detailed overview of the current state of the organization. This could include insights from the outgoing leader, other leaders summarizing the departing leader’s strengths and achievements, and insights on weaknesses and areas for improvement.
Communicators – in coordination with HR professionals and other key leaders – should provide specific data points on the overall strengths of the organization and insights into ongoing challenges for employees and the culture. This data can come from employee surveys, past focus groups, and interviews with key members of the leadership team. Helping the new leader understand the mindset of employees is super important and a great value add that communicators can provide.
Sample “Briefing Book”
As part of the organizational assessment, one especially effective tool is a briefing book that provides succinct and current information. The following are items often included in typical briefing books:
- Perspective from the outgoing leader with their own institutional knowledge of key processes, relationships, and strategies to ensure a smooth transfer
- Macro view of the environment and the industry in which the organization performs and/or competes
- The organizational structure, including make-up of senior leadership teams
- Key audiences (for example: customers, employees, investors, NGOs, communities, and the news media)
- Results of any recent research that has uncovered current trends or issues of concern to key audiences
- Summaries of any ongoing initiatives that are affecting large portions of any key audience
- Organizational strategy and how that has been communicated to key audiences
- High-level view of the communications infrastructure and key contacts
Step 2: Interview the New Leader to Capture “The Leader’s Story”
One of the most important things a strong communications team can help with is essentially unveiling the new leader as a real person who truly cares about the organization and its future. This involves hearing more about the leader’s background and qualifications.
A Leader Story Case Study
We worked with a leader of a major national food chain who did an exceptional job sharing his own leadership principles, the tenets of leadership he felt were most important to make the organization stronger. The leader used this as the main frame by which he introduced himself to the organization and shared what mattered to him, emphasizing the key concepts of collaboration and co-creation. He then repeated these principles in several talks with employee teams over the next several months. The leader also shared stories of why this mattered to him, relating to experiences in his own life when collaboration created a better outcome and experience.
Keep in mind: Employees need to know the answer to the key question of why this person was chosen to lead the organization at this particular time.
Leaders who share their “why,” what matters to them, and the reasons they are excited to lead the organization go a long way toward establishing employee trust. Employees want to follow leaders they feel they know and can relate to and respect.
Some details from the leader’s story can be captured in the initial transition announcement, but many more can be shared through subsequent narratives and meetings. Often, new leaders can describe more of who they are in the initial all-employee meeting or in small group meetings planned over the next several weeks and months.
The communications team should meet early on with the new leader to get to know him or her, hear the leader’s story, and begin to put the pieces in place for an ongoing narrative that helps employees get to know and understand the perspective, expectations, and goals of the new person in charge.
Step 3: Craft a Communication Strategy
Communicators should develop a comprehensive communication strategy that outlines the key messages, target audiences, and communication channels for the leader to employ. Be sure to gain early input from the new leader on how they like to communicate and what tools and tactics they feel might help them get to know the team even better, and make strong connections that will carry over for months to come.
The communication strategy should align with the overall transition plan and provide multiple opportunities for the leader to meet employees, peers, and other key stakeholders as early as possible.
A Transition Case Study
For example, we recently worked with a new leader transitioning into a new role as president of a division within a global medical manufacturing organization. Just days into the new role, that leader was busy meeting with employees on the manufacturing floors at several global locations. The leader got to know key stakeholders on those visits, including patients impacted by the medical technology. By getting in front of people early on, this leader was able to quickly establish an understanding of the business while also building new relationships and employee trust.
Step 4: Help the Leader Communicate Their Own Vision and Plans Over Time
Once the leader spends several weeks getting to know the strengths, challenges, and mindset of employees, communicators should work with the leader to begin rolling out the leader’s personal vision and plans for achieving the organization’s goals. This step is critical and should be part of the overall communication plan, and yet it often never happens very well. In many cases, the attention is focused on the early weeks of the transition and there’s little follow through in months two and three, when the leader needs to share next steps and expectations of the team.
Keep in mind: Timing is critical here. In fact, research shows that a new leader has a window of only about 12-18 months until key constituents will judge the leader a success or failure.
This means that communicators need to ensure that ongoing support and communication with the leader is set up from the start, with regular touchpoints, onboarding, mentoring, and assistance in navigating the organization’s culture. Creating a 100 Day Plan for the new leader is a critical part of this communication support.
Step 5: Coordinate External Communication Plans
While employee communications is obviously an essential part of the transition work, it’s also important to manage external communication carefully and ensure alignment with internal messaging. Communicators should help craft messages that reassure customers, investors, and other stakeholders, highlighting the organization’s commitment to continuity and growth.
Step 6: Monitor and Evaluate
Regularly monitor the impact of the transition on the organization and its stakeholders by soliciting employee and stakeholder feedback. Leaders need to know how their vision and communication is landing with employees and others impacted by the change, so this means soliciting regular feedback and adjusting the communication strategy as needed.
For instance, if employees find the leader’s communication is not thorough enough or they lack understanding of what’s expected of them, communicators should help the leader with new strategies and tips to rectify this.
How Do You Announce Leadership Transitions?
Announcing a leadership transition requires careful planning and execution.
Here are some best practices:
- Timely Announcement: Timing is crucial. Ensure that the announcement is made promptly after the outgoing leader’s departure is confirmed but with enough time to plan for a smooth transition.
- Clear Messaging: Craft a clear and concise message that explains the transition, introduces the new leader, and emphasizes the organization’s commitment to its mission and values. Help in setting the stage for why the new leader was chosen for the organization at this particular time, what strengths the leader brings to the organization, and how this new leader will help to ensure the organization’s long-term success.
- Multiple Channels: Utilize multiple communication channels, including emails, internal memos, press releases, and town hall meetings, to reach various stakeholders.
- Employee Engagement: Involve employees in the announcement process. Consider organizing a meeting or town hall where the new leader can address employees directly.
- Address Concerns: Be prepared to address concerns and questions from employees and stakeholders. Create a FAQ document to anticipate common questions and concerns.
Putting It All Together
In the ever-evolving landscape of business, leadership transitions are inevitable. However, with the right approach and a well-crafted communication plan, these transitions can be opportunities for growth, innovation, and renewal.
Communicators play a pivotal role in guiding organizations through these critical junctures, ensuring that they emerge stronger and more resilient than before. By following the steps outlined in this guide and embracing the principles of transparency, engagement, and strategic planning, you can help your organization navigate leadership transitions with confidence and success.
Are you in transition? What context do you need to succeed?
Help leaders transitioning to a new role set the right tone from the start by being purposeful, organized, and action-oriented with the help of this 100 Day Plan Template. Click the image below to download today!
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