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Setting new leaders up for success

| September 14, 2023

Jennifer Hellman

Jen Hellman

CEO / President

Over the past 18 months, I’ve served on the presidential transition team at St. Olaf College – helping to celebrate outgoing President David R. Anderson’s retirement, search for his successor and welcome Susan Rundell Singer as the college’s 12th president. This process came on the heels of our transition at Goff Public, where I became president and CEO. And these important moments are happening all over the Minnesota business community, including for a few of our clients recently.

I can share firsthand that even though these are exciting milestones, they come with a lot of anxiety. This is understandable. Transitions in leadership impact the entire organization and its reputation. The risk of impacting the organization’s culture, performance and trust is real. On the other hand, there’s great opportunity to put your organization top of mind with stakeholders and media if you’re prepared to seize the moment.

So how can you minimize risk to your reputation, eliminate anxiety and capture this unique moment in time to your advantage? Thoughtful communications and transition planning.

Take your time

In the case of St. Olaf, we had ample time to plan for and communicate the presidential transition. If an organization has been succession planning, the communications can start more than a year in advance to give audiences time to process and engage.

Not all organizations have the luxury of time. Abrupt transitions are often unavoidable and can be unsettling to donors, clients and employees. Consider the potential for controversial or sudden changes in leadership in your organization’s crisis communications plan.

Follow the leader

Early communications about your new leaders should emphasize their reputation and individual strengths and how they can bolster the strength and reputation of the organization. Lean into your shared values and their leadership style to communicate in a way that is most authentic to them. There’s no one-size-fits-all template for these communications. Your plan must be customized to your industry, organizational culture and the leaders’ past experience.

Connect with audiences

Introducing new leaders to your key audiences should be carefully planned. Consider who needs to know and in what order. We almost always recommend sharing information first with your closest internal audiences, like board members and staff, before sharing broadly. Find opportunities for new leaders to have early wins and hand off relationships in authentic ways.

One creative approach to this was our long-time client Catholic Charities and its President and CEO Michael Goar’s 100×100 campaign. After joining the organization in 2021 in the height of the pandemic, Goar took the opportunity to better introduce himself in 2022 by spending 100 days talking with 100 people. Goar met with 100 people including those the nonprofit organization serves, staff, donors, volunteers and community leaders.

Make a splash

Earned media is a go-to tactic for many organizations planning a leadership transition. It’s noteworthy and one of the few times where hiring and staffing practices regularly make headlines. It creates an opportunity to go to reporters with other updates about your business or organization that aren’t typically covered. Prepare new leaders with the high points of ongoing initiatives and important topics you’d like to see in the story.

When a new leader is announced, reporters will want to understand their vision for the organization. But it’s often too early for leaders to have set their vision and a game plan for getting there. You’ll have a second opportunity a few months into the role to do more in-depth stories on strategic direction and their impact.

It might look like these announcements are commonplace, but there’s plenty happening behind the scenes to make leaders feel celebrated, welcomed and ready for the future.

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Contributing Team Members

Jennifer Hellman

Jen Hellman

CEO / President
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