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Crisis Management: Communicating a Sudden Leadership Change

[by Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications]

Sexual misconduct allegations cause a company to fire its president. The board of a major nonprofit decides its well-entrenched executive director has been “phoning it in” for the past year and shows her the door. A CEO is dismissed after sowing a pervasive culture of fear that touched off an alarming number of key staff resignations.

When your organization is faced with a sudden leadership change and you’re the one driving that change, you need to make strategic communication decisions quickly. You’re thrown into the middle of an awkward situation that can seem overwhelming. You also have to juggle your day-to-day responsibilities. And somehow, you have to communicate this news to all of your key audiences. Where should you start?

Prepare a blunt Q & A and rehearse it

You’re going to face tough questions, particularly if the person was a long-time employee held in high regard in your organization and/or in the community. Your staff, your board, customers, community leaders and news media will all have different questions about the change.

Put yourself in their shoes and draft a list of the ugliest questions you think people might ask. Then write a brief answer for each of them. You won’t be able to answer every question because of privacy laws, but you can always answer in general terms “…we appreciate their contributions to our company, and we will of course honor the terms of their contract, but it’s time for our organization to move on.”

Hand a colleague the list of questions you compile and practice them out loud before making the announcement. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is for you to deal with hostile questions when they start flying at you.

Script “the meeting”

This is going to be one of the toughest workdays of your career. And imagine what it will be like for the person on the receiving end. So keep the meeting short and to the point. Draft just a few talking points and stick to them. Deliver the bad news up front. Have your HR person in the room to review nuts and bolts severance issues. Have all the logistics set up in advance and explain how it’s going to work: what office equipment needs to be turned in, what’s happening with the personal belongings on the desk and in the office, etc. Share your final, approved news release or employee communication – not for input or sign-off but as a professional courtesy and to be clear about how you’re communicating this development. Make sure you’re consistently, professionally and firmly sending the message that this decision has been made and there is no appeals process. Move events forward by placing an emphasis on next steps, particularly by sharing the severance agreement. And end the meeting.

Communicate with internal audiences first

The last thing you want is for staff to first hear about a leadership change from the rumor mill – or worse – see it on Twitter or in the news media. As soon as you’ve wrapped up the exit meeting, call an all-hands meeting and tell your staff the news face-to-face. When staffers hear drastic news directly from you, they’re far more likely to understand and accept the change. If you need to communicate across multiple shifts, be sure to send an email announcing the change to everyone in the company. Meet with other shift employees. Answer their questions. That’ll be easier since you’ve anticipated all their questions and rehearsed the answers, right?

Once you’ve met with employees and sent an all-staff email, you’ll want to quickly inform your other key audiences. You can do that in an email, but pick up the phone and personally inform your biggest customers and important community leaders. Once all your audiences have a head’s up, if a news release is warranted, send it to your media list.

Finally, it goes without saying that any communications on this issue should be vetted by your attorney or general counsel. While you don’t want lawyers copy editing your communications and making them sound like legal jargon, you do want to be certain your “t’s” are crossed and “i’s” dotted so you’re not running afoul of employment law.

Delivering news like this is one of the toughest communication challenges for any leader. It’s never easy. And there’s never a good time to do it. Lean on core values – yours and your organization’s. We’ll bet they include honesty, transparency and empathy.

Need help navigating leadership change at your organization?  Give us a call at 216-321-7774.  You have a situation.  We have a solution.

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