Communicating the Founder to new CEO transition

Introducing a new CEO to your business is a major undertaking. Handle the change management well and you’ll reassure your people, help them understand why change is happening and calm any fears. Tenzing’s Catrin Lewis, Subject Specialist for Employee Engagement and Internal Communications shares what she has learned.

#1 – Secrecy is paramount

Keeping your change in leadership quiet is a big part of getting your communications right. Because if you’re not in control of your story then your competition could be. You need to be in charge of the message, not your employees and definitely not your competitors.

Only the executive team usually knows about the change in leadership in advance. And they need to keep it locked down until you’re ready to tell everyone else.

To do this, you need to avoid any of the following giveaways:

  • Displaying slides about the change in leadership on display in glass walled meeting rooms
  • Diary meetings which disclose the secret
  • A lack of visibility from your current CEO as they become busy with tasks ahead of leaving

I think it’s helpful to name the leadership change project so only those in the know can identify associated meetings or documents. 

#2 – Setting the scene 

One of the best things we did when our CEO at Reward Gateway, Glenn Elliott, was about to step down, was to publish our financial update before making the announcement. 

This was good timing because it showed that Glenn wasn’t leaving because we were in financial trouble. In fact, we were actually doing really well. This prevented people from coming to their own conclusions about the reasons for Glenn’s departure. 

Something I wished I’d known more about at this time is the company life cycle. 

Companies tend to progress through a predictable series of phases. Beginning with the startup phase they then move into the rapid growth phase followed by the maturity phase and then sometimes a subsequent decline.

This context makes it easy to explain how different business life cycle phases lend themselves to different types of CEO. Glenn’s high energy, entrepreneurial traits are perfectly suited to rapid iterations, failing fast and learning quickly to deliver early growth. Whereas Doug Butler – who became CEO – provides the steady hand the business needs to steer it through its maturity phase.

Know where your company is in its life cycle and it will be easier to explain why you need a new CEO. And it will help your employees see this change as a perfectly normal part of your business’ development. 

#3 – Manage the message

In the absence of information, people will fill the silence with their own beliefs. So it’s really important to:

  1. Create an honest narrative and align your messaging to it.
  2. Understand your employees’ concerns and respond to them.

A common belief that often comes up in relation to private equity sales is that the Founder was only ever involved with the business for the money. 

In Reward Gateway’s case, setting up and growing the business was Glenn’s passion and life’s work. And he’d chosen a new CEO who he really trusted with our employees in mind. These were the core messages at the heart of our narrative. 

#4 – Get your timing right

Who should you tell first? After the executive team it should always be your employees. 

How far in advance of going public you do this depends on your company’s culture. Some firms are more cautious than others and tell employees shortly before telling people outside the company. Others, like Reward Gateway, invest great trust in their highly engaged workforces. In our case we trusted our people with this secret for two days.

I believe it’s always best to communicate big changes to all your employees at the same time first thing in the morning. This gives everyone a chance to ask questions so no-one’s worried or anxious overnight. 

#5 – Avoid email 

It might be the easiest way to make an all-employee announcement. But I recommend using alternative channels to email to help you drive engagement.  

We used our internal communications platform to make the announcement via a blog called ‘Change at the top’. It included a photo of Doug and we wrote it like a newspaper feature article with the most important news at the top. Glenn and Doug both provided quotes and employees could use a comments box underneath to ask questions or provide feedback. Email and Slack notifications made sure everyone saw the post.  

Compare this to sending an all-hands email which only provides open rate data and you’ll see why we prefer this approach for our comms.

Looking back, the only thing I’d do differently is to include comments from the other executive team members. As trusted leaders, their positivity could have made quite an impact on employees’ perspectives of the change in leadership.

#6 – A picture paints a thousand words

It can be tempting to focus on the words but I always think that the visuals are just as important. We made sure Doug’s photo was taken by the same photographer as Glenn’s so the images aligned. Doug looked like part of the company. 

In addition to the blog, we also pre-recorded two films of Glenn and Doug. These interviews gave employees more insight into the reasons for the change and helped everyone get to know Doug a bit more. And they covered the issues we thought would be at the top of everyone’s minds, from where the business was heading next to leadership style and its impact on culture. 

This content was pushed out onto our live channels and employee Facebook page again giving employees the chance for two-way communication. 

#7 – Culture is key

When your Founder’s personality has been integral to building your business and its culture, some employees will think that the business can’t possibly survive in the same format with someone new in charge. The continuation of our company culture was the key concern among our employees. And so calming fears around this was a major focus of our communications. 

#8 – Tell the rest of the world

This stage of the communications plan is all about making sure your customers aren’t spooked. 

As Glenn has a large following on LinkedIn, we decided to reveal his departure, externally, in a LinkedIn post. Retaining control of the story was still a concern as we didn’t want our competitors to imply that the company couldn’t possibly be the same without Glenn. This makes the departing CEO’s announcement an important opportunity to set out the reasons why their successor is the right leader for the business.

#9 – Keep communicating post-announcement

After the big internal announcement came our five days of Facebook ‘Lives’ – a feature of Facebook that allows you to broadcast real-time video to Facebook. This was new tech for us, so it was perhaps slightly risky to use it for such a big communication. But we felt it was the best way to make the message most accessible to everyone and to ensure everyone in our global business had the same experience.

However you choose to communicate, make sure you: 

  • Cover all geographical locations and time zones if your business is multi-country.
  • Follow up on any questions asked by employees earlier in the communication plan.
  • Be honest and open in your responses to build trust, even when you don’t have the answer to a question. 

It’s ok to say that your new CEO doesn’t have every detail mapped out just yet. Instead, emphasise that they’ll spend time talking and listening to help them build their strategic plans. Commit to communicating these plans when the time is right.

#10 – Fulfil your communication commitment

First impressions count. How you begin is going to set the tone and energy for the years ahead. Like many great leaders, I believe that spending the first 100 days listening, learning and being interested is the best way to begin. During this time, your new CEO should also make sure they’re visible. Doug travelled to all of our offices – even one with two employees – to come up with his strategy.

We communicated this to employees as a one-page plan for the business. And we also set up ‘Mission Mondays’ on our internal communications platform where we publish Doug’s strategy-related blogs that keep employees in the loop. It took a while to put this together and if I’d like to have done this sooner. But these things take time.

The ideal outcome

So what is it that you’re aiming for with your Founder to CEO communications plan? I believe that you want employees to understand why the transition is necessary and that what’s happening is a normal part of business. 

It’s also important that your employees aren’t fatigued by too much change and they’re not anxious or worried about what the future holds for them. Keeping them focused, productive and engaged as your business transitions.

After all, although the CEO’s role is very important, one person can never achieve as much as all your employees can. So, keep your people calm, collected and engaged to deliver business as usual. Whatever that looks like under your new CEO.  


Catrin Lewis

Catrin Lewis

Catrin Lewis is Tenzing’s Employee Engagement and Internal Comms Specialist. She runs our network and monthly meet-up for portfolio HR leaders and has advised many of our businesses on internal communications strategy, workplace design and employee engagement. She is a published author, regular conference speaker, and Head of Global Engagement & Comms at the HR Tech business, Reward Gateway, which she has seen through three periods of PE ownership.
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