The art of conversation and the elevation of health in society

An interesting thing happened during this awful pandemic.

We began talking to each other again. Actually, talking to each other. And the topic of course was COVID-19.

When the vaccines became available, conversations around science, health and efficacy increased. Of course, utilizing social and digital platforms to seek and find information was critical in our quest for answers, but they were used to complement not substitute for discussion, dialogue and debate. The key attribute we learned in rediscovering personal connectivity is context. What we are experiencing today is the resurgence of science in our lives based on conversation and context.

Healthcare companies – especially pharma companies – have often communicated above and around consumers thinking that other stakeholders carried more import or influence. But COVID-19 leveled the playing field so to speak, uncovering the power of consumer engagement and empowerment. Instead of social and digital technology becoming a crutch for companies, they became a means to an end – a conversation.

Now, it’s about information being ubiquitous and citizen journalism rampant. People’s appetite for more is growing – for context, rationale, meaning, purpose. They want a peek behind the curtain to comprehend the “how” and “why” companies took certain actions, made certain choices, and operated in a manner that was appropriate.

In Science, Context Matters

Context can be seen everywhere. Reality TV is a direct by-product of society’s increasing appetite to comprehend and experience the real dimensions of life, not the ideal placed on us. It’s the same inside organizations. Employees want to be involved with and aware of the choices that leadership is wrestling with or the options that lead to a key decision. Not just the decision itself, but the information and choices that inform it.

In science, context is multi-faceted. It speaks to breadth and depth. It relates to both thinking and emotion. It establishes a point in time and points of reference. Context strengthens arguments and disarms criticism.

It used to be common practice for public communications to be viewed in a vacuum – going from announcement to announcement, and from action to action, without necessarily thinking or worrying much about explaining the interconnectivity. Today, information on the internet lives forever. As a corporate spokesperson, you need to put your opinions, actions and decisions in perspective to mitigate negative or inaccurate interpretations later. You need to “put the past in context with the present and put the present  in context with the future.”

Being an “Insider”

More importantly, context allows for consumers, patients, customers and employees alike to be “insiders” about the organization’s mission, purpose, aspirations, challenges, politics and, in the case of COVID-19, treatment. In so doing, companies can turn adversaries into advocates while gaining new perspectives and insights to inform decision-making. Being an insider is probably the most important benefit an employee strives for today.

Similarly, from a customer perspective, context reinforces benefit of the doubt, while lack of context generates doubt. Context helps pre-empt crises, lack of context fuels crises. Context helps tell a logical, cohesive story about a company’s choices and direction; lack of context paints a picture of a rudderless, leaderless organization.

For all these reasons, the melding factions of language and intent – context – is central to a company’s ability to engage. Decisions are no longer “one and done,” particularly in the age of the internet. The social nature of the internet means that dialogue around your company continues in perpetuity, and few are shy about referencing your seemingly innocuous comments from three years ago to support their argument – comments that can potentially support either side if they lack context. In a world in which people turn to a variety of  sources for information – friends, employees, media, bloggers, politicians – context is what enables you to influence how that information  gets presented and interpreted.

This can sound academic on the surface, but the implications are practical if not critical. More than ever, it’s crucial that your past actions be brought together with your decision-making – to form a complete picture.

Context, in the end, is as much about substance as it is about intent. Bringing details, nuance and connectivity to communications, context widens the aperture and broadens the argument.

A Test for Healthcare Leaders and Communications

Context puts even more pressure on leaders, who may be stronger pure communicators than their forebearers, but who may not be used to connecting the dots between past, current and anticipated future actions. It also puts more pressure on communicators, who more than ever need to understand potentially foreign topics – clinical trials, manufacturing, purchasing, regulations – to be more conversant about the big picture, and to offer better counsel to senior leadership.

Ultimately, everyone involved must be adept at nimbly offering insight and rationale. Business pages and magazines are filled with any number of organizations that have recently done or not done an adequate job at this.

Context and Storytelling in Science

For science-based organizations, an unspoken element to this point has been the relationship between creating context and storytelling. Establishing context is comparable to telling the ongoing story of your endeavor – conveying all its successes and failures in a manner that makes sense based on past events and future expectations.

Accomplishing this requires several considerations:

  • Recognizing that consumers are the primary stakeholder and influencer in the war on disease and a healthy lifestyle.
  • Providing information and data with empathy and emotion.
  • Orchestrating communications from content to context to dissemination to result in dialogue, discussion and debate or conversation.
  • Understanding that social and digital should complement not substitute engagement.
  • Giving communicators full access to information and senior management; they can’t provide context without that.
  • Recognizing that “top down” communications by fiat is no longer beneficial. Today’s successful organizations communicate on a horizontal axis, drawing on numerous voices and numerous communication platforms.
  • Staying current and telling your story in ways large and small. Creating context is an everyday effort, not one that takes place only when there’s a pandemic.
  • Being dynamic – relating information to the audience to make it personally meaningful.
  • Recognizing the organization no longer controls the narrative. Know your influence ecosystem.
  • Employing peripheral vision. Connecting things large and small, in view and out of focus all work in
  • Constantly assessing consumers, patients, customers and employees to discern issues, trends, challenges, frustrations, lifestyle habits, etc.

In the healthcare industry, organizational leaders and communicators have a unique ability to accelerate the current positive perceptions of pharma and guide their companies in a manner that helps constituencies connect the dots among actions, decisions and events. This will create a cohesive, consistent context that makes sense and helps establish confidence.

Giving people a sense of being insiders engenders ownership, which leads to trust and engagement. In the end, a public that is inspired and engaged along with a patient, customer and employee base that is motivated and biased toward your work is perhaps the most sustainable competitive advantage one could hope for.


It’s time to ensure internal communication is based on what’s really going on

The key question today for any communications professional and leadership executive regarding internal or employee communications is: “How smart and engaged do you want your employees to be?”

The answer allows for either a robust process and system resulting in a confident, involved and informed workforce or a superficial voiceover of the business sprinkled with events to encourage interaction. During the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have lifted internal communications to become the former, viewing it as a strategic necessity to cultivate retention, productivity and trust. However, one aspect we’ve noticed recently is that companies are becoming overly positive – cheerleading – in their quest to gain attention, motivation and positivity. The result has been less than satisfactory.

Employees at such organizations complain that leadership is neither in touch nor in tune with the realities they face and the challenges they navigate each and every day. This divide forces people to become apathetic – or worse, angry. The tendency to equate internal communications with propaganda is not a new one. For decades, internal communications was secondary to media relations and external communications, with information repurposed for internal use only after it was disseminated externally.

But, as society changed, business changed. And organizational communications became a strategic priority as companies competed for talent and, with talent, competed for interest, intellect and involvement. Communicating with employees became both a science and an art form as efforts were modulated and tested to ensure the right amount of relevant information, content, context and data to accelerate performance and calibrate behavior.

While the pandemic has up-leveled empathy, collaboration and integration, it has also spawned the need in some places to ratchet up only the good news, leaving behind the true situation and fate of an organization that employees experience.

As such, people can discern what’s true from what’s accurate. To balance such inconsistency and reflect the increasing complexity of the business, internal communications must become more sophisticated and demanding. This is where companies become truly resilient to external forces, navigating even among the most tumultuous terrain.

As we look ahead, grounding internal communications in the current reality – warts and all – requires four actions:

  1. Clear description of current state – deep understanding of where the organization is at this moment
  2. Line of sight from employee to result – a direct relevance from employee performance and business decisions to competitive results
  3. Hypothesis and areas for improvement – a strong belief based on data and insight on the “why” and a path forward (the “how”)
  4. Interaction – opportunity for discussion, dialogue and debate

By following the above, communicators and leaders can gain the trust and legitimacy necessary for organizational excellence. The most powerful decision any CEO can make is to establish a real-time relationship and conversation with the workforce, apprising employees of the situation ahead and providing a pathway to think, act, share and probe further to find the answers necessary to succeed.

Think of it this way: If your internal communications is not reflecting reality, then your employees have no chance to succeed and neither does your organization.


Understanding Business Evolution As A Guide For More Effective Decision-Making, Communications Planning and Organizational Positioning

Sometimes watching companies and brands evolve in today’s digital reality is a painful experience. The communications and storytelling approach doesn’t align with the business reality, causing confusion, apathy and distraction. Much of it has to do with the speed and connectivity that digital entails.

The business acumen and leadership discipline required to generate a savvy, smart portrayal of a company as it evolves today goes without saying. What’s really intriguing, from a communications perspective, is the ability to inform and influence decisions projected on how the business would evolve, and not on what it is today.

This reminds me of what hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Understanding business evolution is not just about corporate strategy. It’s also about clearly designing initiatives and programs, directing behaviors and guiding resources on behalf of the enterprise. Business evolution requires companies to think on two planes at once: where they are, and where they are headed. It requires leaders to make moves today that will affect the way their world looks two or three iterations down the road. Companies hoping to understand their evolution – and where their game will be played in the future – need to foster alignment among their leadership, core management and communications. Each is an essential ingredient required to anticipate – and define – the future.

From a communications perspective, knowing where a business is in a digital-oriented lifecycle allows managers to better determine the real questions that need to be answered involving corporate reputation, brand relevance, internal credibility, competitive balance and customer trends. Additionally, from the standpoint of communications as a system and corporate function, comprehending a business’ evolution is critical, because it:

  • Ensures various elements of the organization (departments, locations, managerial levels) are sharing information – and that all of this information is filtering upward to senior management;
  • Brings the outside world into the organization, eliminating the myopia plaguing many laggard companies;
  • Helps identify best practices from comparable industries through an ongoing exploration of how leading companies are marketing themselves and carving out new niches.

Even in today’s digital world, there remain finite ways for organizations to distinguish themselves. These include employee knowledge and motivation, technological superiority, manufacturing practices, product development and unique pricing strategies. Communications enables companies to understand how all of these are evolving.

If you insist that “communications is for telling people about us,” it’s time for your organization to evolve, as well.

The magic, if you will, lies in comprehending and pulling the right levers at the right time to advance the business.

Business evolution is far more than a euphemism for “keeping current.” Over the course of time, we’ve learned that, successful businesses drive growth that incorporates lessons and failures to push it forward.

The organization that fails to see its own evolution is too often dismissive, or has its figurative head in the sand. It fails to capture its narrative  adequately, and eventually becomes marginalized, purchased, or non-existent.

Managing Evolution

Ultimately, there are three major evolutionary phases that managers and communicators must be cognizant of in their strategy planning, budgeting and training:

Managing the Downside

At each phase of a company’s evolution, it will confront downside issues. The downside comes for every company – upward trajectories don’t last forever. The key is to manage the downside, minimize its “steepness,” and identify ways to reverse the curve as quickly as possible. This requires constant reality-checking and information-sharing among the various company functions. It can even mean employing outside-of-the-box thinking, such as consulting with futurists about cultural trends that might directly or indirectly affect what you provide.

Leading the Growth

Growing companies feel invincible. But, the growth needs to be channeled and guided, lest spending run amok and employees fail to keep up. It’s critical that senior management continue to articulate a vision that is simultaneously aspiring, inspiring and practical. Communications and training must facilitate the ability to lead and maintain growth, while performance measures and reward and recognition must encourage the behaviors to support it.

Shifting the Playing Field

The time comes for every organization when the nature of the game shifts – huge stereo systems gave way to portable music and online music options, for example. Assuming that your company has anticipated this sort of shift, it is imperative that you adequately prepare your organization and your customers to accept you as a player of a new game – after all, what gave Apple the “right” to become a music company?! It built a reputation for being at the forefront of technology. Apple could probably invent a better automobile today and be accepted.

Getting the Right Inputs – Analytics and Insights

One of the most subtle – meaning often missed – aspects of determining your organization’s evolutionary position is how the company gathers information.

More often than not, strategy and planning sessions undertaken by the Board, CEO and leadership team are comprised of the same type mindset – that is, people who are in the business now and have been for a while. While their opinions are certainly important, they are also biased by what they can and cannot see.

How does such blindness happen? Simple. The inputs sought and received are from people who share the same beliefs, see the same data, and interpret the same insights.

Smart organizations utilize analytics, insights and perspectives concerning stakeholders who either are or aren’t using the company’s products to open the aperture and gain different viewpoints.

Further, strategic-oriented chief communications officers, sensing the need for “fresh air” in decision-making and internal discussions, are “opening the windows,” so to speak, and peppering internal communications and management communications channels with external cases, viewpoints, philosophies and business models from outside the organization’s core business.

Self-awareness requires a full 360-degree scanning.

Who do we talk with to gain insights? How many “outsiders” are invited to strategy, planning and/or management sessions?

Does our senior management engage outside influencers and experts to discuss common issues and opportunities?

Coherence Out of Chaos

One of the key elements of recognizing the organization’s current state in its evolution is the ability to bring coherence out of chaos for employees, which is inherent in business today.

Employees are inundated with information, contradictory objectives and irrelevant messaging and are watching actions versus words. In effect, people are “working with the volume off.” To crack this code, leaders must employ a “discover versus sell” approach to managing and communicating with today’s employees.

With growth a necessary reality, it’s both practical and critical to assess how leaders can create and sustain momentum in order to move forward. Is leadership continuously focusing on the future, maintaining a sense of urgency, testing the limits of individuals and teams, challenging the status quo, embracing uncertainty and driving real and substantive changes?

One of the most beneficial aspects of comprehending your organization’s position, and thus its evolution, is that it allows you to frame initiatives, decisions and programs against a real-time view.

For example, a relatively innocuous program to improve the content and channels of internal communications can in fact be a window on its future. The results of such an effort may in fact provide a clear vision of the need to overhaul or dramatically strengthen all of communications or even other key staff functions, such as marketing, HR and IT.

Starting from a place where everyone inside the organization comprehends the company’s current position is the basis for creating new excitement around the brand and new ideas around the products.

In today’s complex and competitive business environment, leaders and communicators who figure out where the game is being played, assimilate their position, and encourage an active dialogue among employees will avoid the downward slide of business’ evolution.

So, where are you?

12 Strategic Considerations to Properly Navigate Your Business’ Evolution

Where is your company on the evolutionary curve? Equally important, are you directing decisions and aligning communications to optimize your position? Ask yourself:

  1. From a digital standpoint, where is the connectivity with key stakeholders?
  2. Can we realistically expect our product/service to still be in strong demand next year or two years from now? If not, what are we doing about it?
  3. Do our senior leadership, management and communications functions jointly envision the future?
  4. What is the current state of our industry revealing to us about “where the game is being played?” Is it marketing, technology, innovation, channel, pricing, etc.?
  5. What are smaller competitors doing that looks and feels fundamentally different from what we do? What do they see?
  6. Where are we right now on the Business Evolution scale? How do we know? Do our employees know?
  7. If we keep doing the same things the same way, where will we be in our lifecycle one year from today?
  8. Do we have the right employees in place for what’s needed tomorrow? If not, are they trainable?
  9. What analogous industries can we study to determine how they have dealt with such issues as disruptive technologies, commoditization or maturation?
  10. Do we have an infrastructure that brings the outside world (trends, industry news) into our world? Do we analyze that data and then do something with it?
  11. How smart are our employees about the business and the future?
  12. Forget products and services for a moment. What made us “uniquely us” when we became successful and do we still operate that way today?

Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.


Ensuring your organization knows what to communicate next as part of a clear, holistic story

What is the “Perfect Fit?”

The “Perfect Fit” is what an organization needs to be communicating at a specific moment for its story to unfold properly. Communicators are often blessed (or plagued) with multiple choices to communicate to the world that are plucked from myriad business functions, product and service areas, announcements, events, processes, geographic areas and personnel moves.

At the senior-most levels of the company where there is often an eagerness to build momentum, executives want to tell a variety of stories at once – often a hodgepodge of news about products, services, technologies, environmental initiatives and investments, among other things.

What’s often missing is the apparent linkage among the stories.

As chief storyteller, however, the communicator must identify the Perfect Fit – the next chapter in the organization’s evolution that both strategy and logic dictate must be told now in order to build or sustain organizational momentum. And it’s important that the communicator know how to identify each successive chapter.

Think of a puzzle that reflects your company’s value, purpose and future direction. And with each moment or milestone, a puzzle piece so to speak is identified and communicated to continue filling out the picture.

Identifying the Perfect Fit

Knowing that you need to create the Perfect Fit is different from knowing how to identify it. Sometimes it’s easy: if your industry’s leading trade publications or national business media claim you’re the best at what you do, you’ll probably want to build on that reputation. But for most organizations, the Perfect Fit is harder to come by. Particularly in transformational or change efforts when all bets are off with regard to past practice, brand image or corporate reputation. Fortunately, identifying the Perfect Fit requires the same skills and strategies that many corporate communicators leverage every day.

The Process

An integral objective to achieving alignment in narrative is the ability to view and manage communications – both internal and external – in a synergistic manner. Establishing a Situation Room is a key approach that demands a frequent coming together of all communication areas comprising internal and external stakeholders. It is here that a disciplined, yet fluid methodology is employed to guide discussion and inform decisions regarding the business and the right sequence, channel and cadence for communications. The purpose: a coherent, clear and believable story that allows people to follow the organization, increasing both interest and affinity in its success.

Powering the Situation Room process is an analytics-based system that continually identifies stakeholder needs, concerns and interests to allow communicators to view the business from the “outside in” and “inside out” in order to best determine how the story needs to evolve.

Note: An actual Situation Room template is depicted below.

A Look Ahead

A critical component of the business’ context is a look forward, trying to anticipate external events that may have a positive or negative effect on the business. Anticipating these events can also help establish an understanding of impact to help in contingency planning.

Answering these questions – certainly not a simple task if approached seriously – allows communicators and managers to inform decisions and plot priorities. The act of answering these questions also facilitates an open, ongoing dialogue between all communication functions and ensures that internal and external communication are in sync. A complete picture of the company, its audiences and its marketplace is painted – often for the first time.

Ultimately, the answers are the only things that truly enable a company to develop a cohesive story inside and outside the organization – who we are, where we’re going, how we define the future, short-and long-term goals, and how success is defined and measured.

Thinking Differently

To identify the Perfect Fit, it’s imperative that organizations do several things:

  • Integrate functions and departments that currently exist in solos
  • Gear communication toward whatever is promoting momentum and growth in the marketplace
  • Understand the factors critical to the organization’s success, such as
    • quality
    • cost reduction
    • ability to deliver cutting-edge products
  • Take a realistic view of consumer opinions and media interest

Acting on the Information – Telling the Story

It is critical that someone – preferably the company’s chief communicator – serve as a mediator to keep the storytelling process moving. The chief communicator acts as chief strategist: in sync with leadership, defining the Perfect Fit for vital segments of the organization, constantly reiterating why it’s the priority message, mapping out how this chapter will be told inside and outside the company – from media, investor and employee perspectives – and putting measurements in place to ensure that the story is being received as planned. Ultimately, the chief communicator determines when the next piece of the puzzle must happen to make sure the story stays on course and sustains momentum.

Staying on course is about sensing and responding, rather than force-feeding. Too often, companies make the mistake of telling or selling stakeholders instead of allowing people to discover the story for themselves in a manner that reflects their interests, needs, concerns and satisfaction.

– Gary




The Situation Room is a mechanism that allows an organization’s communications function to easily organize their thinking and prioritize activities to drive the business forward. It allows the following questions to be addressed:

  • Where is the business today in light of the “real” world we operate in?
  • Where is the business going?
  • How is the business perceived externally?
  • What elements within the company and in the marketplace are propelling the business?
  • What elements within the company and in the marketplace are impeding the business?


The purpose of the Situation Room model is to make communications a powerful driver of the organization’s growth – “a means to an end.” It achieves this by:

  • Plotting priorities on a regular basis
  • Ensuring internal and external messaging are in sync
  • Developing a cohesive story inside and outside the organization – who we are, where we’re going, how we define the future, short- and long-term goals, how we measure success


The Situation Room brings together all facets of communications with a mediator in an agreed-upon venue to identify weekly and monthly priorities. The discussions are driven by industry and marketplace events that impact the company in order to understand and articulate the current reality – what people are hearing and saying inside and outside the company.

Why It Works

  • Content is fresh
  • Dialogue is going in an actionable direction
  • Breaks through budgets, egos, silo mentalities, departmental priorities and the “myopic” view of communication planning
  • Pools resources from all areas of communications
  • Discusses what’s happening within each facet of communications to ensure consistent messaging and awareness of internal and external changes
  • Identifies what communications can do as a team, not as an individual function or department
  • Builds a complete understanding of what people are seeing, thinking and feeling
  • Develops a holistic view of communication

Situation Room Logistics

Representatives from each area of communications are engaged in the Situation Room process. A particular space is designated for weekly meetings, and easels, paper and markers are placed throughout the room to ensure participative and dynamic discussions. Responsibility for managing the Situation Room might rotate on a quarterly basis.

Situation Room Framework

#1: Where Are We Today? Building Momentum

[What Are People Talking About Inside and Outside the Company?]

  • Hot/new products/services
  • Industry recognition
  • New management hires
  • Performance
  • Financials

#2: Key Organizational Initiatives/Internal Priorities

[Do recent happenings propel or impede our business and organizational priorities?]

#3: Current Industry Issues

#4: A Reality Check: Macro Issues Going on Around Us

#5: A Look Ahead

What factors on the horizon will propel our business and organizational priorities? Which will impede them?

#6: What’s the Story?

What does this tell us? What should we be doing?

Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.

In 2019, executive consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas recorded 1,640 CEO exits in the U.S. alone.

Leadership change can create momentum: positive or negative, internally and externally.  Depending on where a company is starting from, the move can be perceived as the driving force for continued, positive momentum, a new direction, or a continuation of what was before.

One thing is certain – a new CEO attracts attention.  Suddenly, everyone is interested in the company. Stakeholders may ask, perhaps for the first time in a while, “How is the company doing?” “Where is it headed?”

The “honeymoon” or first 100 days of a new leader becomes a unique window to define the company’s future while establishing a distinct leadership style and approach.

During this time, a cogent plan is needed to re-emphasize or re-define the company’s relevance.

The irony is that it really all begins with the outgoing CEO.

Companies are faced with a delicate balancing act – providing a positive retrospective on the departing leader’s tenure, specifically for an iconic CEO – while emphasizing the new leader’s strengths and fit with the organization. Even in the case of a planned retirement, companies must be prepared to communicate both proactively and reactively to key constituents starting with employees. In looking at recent examples of leadership transitions at leading organizations, communications professionals can better understand how to prepare and communicate this type of change in a way that will minimize the negative impact while leveraging maximum momentum while key audiences are paying attention.

Navigating the Transition from Multiple Angles

Most successful CEOs begin their tenure by focusing inward. Establishing a relationship and new dialogue with employees and then ensuring the right senior management team is in place typically takes on priority status – as it should. Dealing with Wall Street or the media during the early stages is also important, of course, but should be tightly orchestrated with an emphasis on gaining external understanding of newly defined messaging and goals.

How will the external world respond?

When a corporate leader steps down, the media typically responds in several ways. First, they will examine the departing leader’s tenure, scrutinizing it for successes, major milestones, key errors and a legacy. When it’s an iconic figure, media analysis and Wall Street will place the new CEO in the context of needed changes or reforms, continuation of a successful agenda, or a complete overhaul of the business.

The incoming leader should be prepared to face the media’s scrutiny head on. When considering the arrival of a new CEO, the media and financial community tend to look at both skills and persona – and, specifically, how they are linked to the company’s current needs. For instance, when Tim Cook replaced the larger than life Steve Jobs at Apple following Jobs’ death, initial media reports and Street analysis called into question the wisdom of replacing a visionary with an operations expert.

Preparing for Scrutiny

The main question that audiences ask when faced with a new leader is, “Are they up to the job?”

During the first year of the new leader’s term, people will be watching closely, assessing effectiveness, looking for shortcomings, and trying to find the answer to that key question. During this “probationary period,” the media will be quick to link blame for problems to the change in leadership. For example, when Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced he is stepping down and turning the company over to Andy Jassy, the media and analyst communities were quick to point out the great shape the company is in as a threshold for measuring future actions.

Prior to the arrival of a new leader, the company must assess the critical issues that could arise during this probationary period. Perhaps the most effective way to protect a new leader from undue blame is to ensure a relentless focus on the business and an avoidance of extensive media attention. Companies also must avoid allowing the new leader to become “the face” of the organization but rather an element of a much larger picture. While the tactic sometimes works, a company does not want its future inextricably linked to a single person, particularly during this sensitive period when the new leader is under the media’s microscope.

Today, corporate leadership is more important than ever. When introducing a new leader, companies must be prepared to respond to the concerns of employees, media, customers and analysts. These stakeholders will be looking to the company for an explanation and clues as to what lies ahead. A major change in leadership will undoubtedly attract attention. But how that attention is leveraged can have a lasting impact on the company and its leaders for years to come.

Leadership Transitions: Situations and Implications for New CEOs

The incoming CEO is faced with myriad opportunities and challenges as he/she must quickly articulate a point of view, establish an agenda, prioritize initiatives, craft a vision and strategy, and steady expectations from Wall Street to Main Street. Of course, the playing field will chart the course needed but, whatever path taken, the most important tenet is to be authentic and transparent. In reviewing CEO transitions over the last decade, the following components reign supreme:

  • Discover vs. sell – Don’t overpromise and never sell your agenda. Rather, allow stakeholders to configure your moves through actions.
  • Never compete with the past – Acknowledge your predecessor and his/her accomplishments but always point ahead.
  • Convey the future – Paint a picture of what’s ahead: good; bad; ugly.
  • Focus. Focus. – Core themes, imperatives, metrics.
  • Always point outside – Bring the marketplace and customer/patient inside.

Communications Guideposts for Announcing a Change in Leadership

Organizations should consider the following when announcing a change in leadership:

Leverage the opportunity to clarify the company’s business priorities, direction and value proposition. The departure of one leader and the arrival of a new one attracts the attention of various constituents, including employees, media, investors and analysts. Even if the incoming leader does not plan to make major changes to the company’s business strategy, he/she can use the opportunity of people listening to reiterate where the company is headed and how it will get there.

Link the new leader’s skills to the current needs of the company. When introducing a new leader, the company should highlight the types of experience that are relevant to the company’s current situation. It should also stress the aspects of his/her personality that make him/her particularly appropriate. The outgoing leader must also articulate and praise the skills and qualities of the new leader that are different from his/her own style.

During the seamless transition phase, it will be business as usual. The outgoing and incoming leaders must share a consistent understanding of the organization’s current situation and the appropriate strategy moving forward. This shared understanding signals to others that there will be minimal noticeable impact on the business. The company should also stress consistency in the overall leadership team.

Listen to the landscape. Social and digital channels/platforms for comments, misinformation, opinions, etc. Be ready to address where appropriate.

Set realistic goals and time frames for the transition to occur. A leadership transition must be perceived as smooth and deliberate. The company must clarify how long the departing leader will continue working with the organization to provide guidance and counsel and predict when internal and external audiences will begin to see the results of the new leader’s efforts.

The company must stress that the new leader has the ability and commitment to continue the efforts made by the outgoing leader. The outgoing leader must send a message to employees, customers, investors and the media that  “I’m leaving the company in good hands.” The board members should reiterate that message.

The transition is taking place at a time when the business is stable or growing. The company should clarify that the change in leadership does not signal a problem. Instead, it’s coming at a highly appropriate time when the organization has begun heading in the right direction under the departing leader’s guidance and will continue to move forward with the momentum of a new leader.

Pick an appropriate forum to introduce the new leader. Companies must think strategically about when and where to formally introduce a new leader – whether an industry forum, product roadshow, employee town hall meeting, or luncheon with media and analysts.

Regardless of the specific situation, a handful of critical, penetrating questions can enable the professional communicator to map out the most effective strategy to support the new CEO – and even give them some previously unconsidered food-for-thought.

In theory, there is no end to the logical questions to ask a new CEO. But, with time likely being of the essence, following are 12 key questions that will help you counsel the new CEO through the first 100 days…and beyond.

“How did you get here? or “Why the change?”

Given the short tenure of CEO’s today, the first question on people’s minds is the reason for the change. Was it a mandatory retirement? Board initiated based on performance or a clash over strategy? Was it a personal decision? The basis for the move is important to establish the foundation of your communications.

“What are your short- and long-term priorities?”

You can’t support what you don’t understand – so first, find out what the CEO has in mind for the near term and down the road.

“Why did you take the job?”

It’s easy to assume that all CEOs have always wanted to be a CEO. CEOs have numerous reasons for taking the top spot. Maybe it was a lifelong dream. Maybe they have a burning vision and passion that can only be acted on from a senior platform. Or, maybe they simply felt obligated to say yes. Knowing the answer to this question will help you much better understand the psyche of the CEO.

“How will you define success?” or “What’s your agenda?”

 A critical component to a new CEO achieving initial credibility and being heard is the ability to convey a common understanding and definition of what success looks like. You can’t draw a roadmap without knowing the end destination. To that end, the new CEO needs to have an agenda that guides not only what he/she does but how people should follow progress.

“What employee behavior do you expect?”

A new CEO’s prescription for the future is going to ultimately rest in the hands of the company’s employees. They need to know what behavior is expected of them to carry out the organization’s agenda.

“How is that behavior different from how they act today?”

Transforming employee behavior isn’t like turning on and off a light switch. To get employees to where you need them to be, you need to better understand where they are today.

“What do employees, customers and other key constituencies think and believe right now? When is the last time you asked them?”

It’s a common mistake: companies and their CEOs “know” what key audiences are thinking, only to find out later that they didn’t. Assumptions can be lethal, derailing the new CEO’s strategy before it’s even initiated. The lesson learned: if you haven’t asked key audiences what they think since the new CEO appointment was announced, your information might be woefully out of date. This is where analytics is a must to properly frame the new CEO’s reality on Day 1.

“What is the biggest market opportunity you see right now?”

One of the best ways to gain concrete insight into a new CEO’s vision and market perspective is to ask for clarification on the most significant market opportunity as of this moment. It will also help you frame your most immediate recommendations.

“What will be the biggest obstacle to success?”

This question can be interpreted two intertwined ways: the biggest obstacle to the company, or the biggest obstacle to the CEO. You should find out the answer to both. Understanding the obstacle (or obstacles) in your way will help you make preemptive recommendations.

“What keeps you up at night?”

All CEOs – especially new ones – have the proverbial challenges that keep them up at night. Sometimes they’re not even the most pressing issues; they’re simply the ones that get under the CEO’s skin. Successfully tackle one of these issues and you have immediately endeared yourself to the new CEO – and done a tremendous favor for him/ her.

“What do you picture your first day looking like?”

When you have the good fortune of counseling new CEOs before they take office, it’s worth asking what they envision their first day looking like. By encouraging the CEO to talk anecdotally – really, by asking them to tell a story – you’ll gain an even better sense of how they will really act and talk once the planning documents are put away and the real job begins.

“How would you describe your style?”

There are a couple of reasons to ask this question. For one, you’ll want to structure your communications differently for a cerebral type than for a vocal leader. Secondly, as you talk to employees and other important groups over time, you’ll find out if the CEO’s take on his/her style matches what the rest of the world thinks.

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