Want to Keep Your C-Suite Fresh? Start Conversations Early

Late last year, I had the privilege of participating in several meetings with Chief Human Resources Officers, senior HR and C-Suite leaders from dozens of diverse organizations – from Hyatt to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to Western Union to Northwestern University. The topic? How to prepare for and navigate senior leadership transitions. The learning? Start early.

Worth Talking About

For the past ten years, I’ve had a front-row seat to the trends driving C-Suite transitions.

As a senior Communications executive at General Motors, I developed multiple communication strategies for leadership changes at the top. I now work for a global workforce transformation firm, helping top leaders transition from one meaningful role to the next. Our research, backed by experience, has identified five trends that are driving disruption in senior leadership teams across virtually every industry:

  • M&A activity
  • Shareholder activism
  • Boards hiring outside CEOs
  • The need to open spots for next-level-down top talent
  • Changing expectations for experience, expertise and leadership

We discussed these trends in multiple senior executive meetings. No matter the market – Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Madison, Milwaukee or Minneapolis – participants agreed at least one of the issues is impacting their firm.  Or they could see the changes coming.

The discussions were lively and rich, with executives sharing their experience and learning from leadership transition experts – and each other. One of the key learnings was the importance of planting seeds and preparing for change.  Many are reluctant to initiate conversations with senior leaders about optimal time in positions, retirement considerations and options outside of corporate roles.  But ongoing discussion – ahead of the need for a specific change – makes it easier for everyone.

Three Proactive Approaches to Plant Seeds of Change

Want to make leadership change conversations more comfortable in your company? Learn from these best practices:

  • Don’t Wait to Have the Conversation – One global transportation company keeps track of senior leaders’ retirement eligibility. At least three years before that time, they reach out to those individuals to schedule a private discussion, reviewing eligibility, services available and to encourage them to explore what they might do, post-current role. Conducting these conversations early, with every eligible senior leader, helps them begin preparing for a career transition – and paves the way for the company to continue conversations if they want to initiate a change.
  • Make the Process Systemic – AmeriPride, one of largest uniform rental and linen supply companies in North America, uses an annual process founded on trust to document and plan for C-Suite transitions. Curt Gray, former AmeriPride Administrative Officer and CHRO, said the process started with 1:1 discussions with each person who reported to the CEO. He asked them when they planned to retire, who would replace them and if they would be willing to share that information in their yearly officer planning session. That simple practice started in 2013 has now become “part of their annual business rhythm,” Gray explained. The systemic approach “enables smooth leadership succession because we could proactively build or buy talent,” Gray said.  And for each senior leader, “the trust within the team and the planning process gave them peace of mind.”
  • Be Creative – Some progressive companies are offering transition programs to help executives prepare for career changes – and even as short-term retention solutions. For example, a global technology firm was concerned they might lose a critical C-Suite leader before they were ready to replace him. They partnered with our firm to offer the executive a customized program to explore his next phase of life, even while he was working. That incentivized the leader to stay an extra year – a win for the firm, and for the executive, who will be prepared to move gracefully into his next chapter. 

 Preparing for and navigating senior leadership transitions is easier said than done.  But if you start early, make your process systemic and get creative, the payoffs are big – for your company, and your senior leaders.

Katie McBride

Katie McBrideVerified account

Katie McBride is a senior advisor for Lee Hecht Harrison’s International Center for Executive Options, helping senior leaders transition from one meaningful role to the next.She also is principal of R3 Communications LLC, a strategic communications firm. Katie’s background includes consulting and partnering with CEOs and C-suite executives from diverse industries; expertise and broad experience in global internal/external communications, employee engagement; crisis and reputation management.
Katie McBride

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