Here are some interesting statistics from the outplacement industry and an interview I did with the Wall Street Journal about a year ago: If you’re a senior executive in a global company, there’s a one-in-four chance you will report to a new CEO within a year. That number drops to a still-significant 15% chance of reporting to a new CEO this year if you are part of one of the global 2,500 public companies.
A significant percentage of C-level executives face the possibility of a top leadership change every year.
New CEOs usually arrive as part of a planned transition due to retirement or voluntary resignation, situations which accounts for two-thirds of CEO changes. Furthermore, outsider CEO hiring has increased since 2007 from 14% to 22%, and your chances of remaining under an outsider CEO are lower than if your CEO is promoted from inside. And surviving an insider hire is itself challenging, with termination rates increasing by 65% compared to rates with keeping the same CEO. But when an outsider is hired, it’s often because the company isn’t faring well, and in this case, all bets are off.
Questions I Hear Most Often from Senior Executives
Around three-quarters of my executive coaching assignments involve coaching C-level executives to successfully navigate CEO transitions. Two questions I hear most often from these senior executives (and their answers) are as follows:
• Q: Should I be worried?
• A: Yes.
• Q: What will happen to me if I’m pushed out?
• A. About 28% will move laterally, 68% will assume a smaller role, move to a smaller company, or disappear from the ranks. Only 4% will end up in a better position.
The senior executives I coach want to know how to not only survive, but thrive during a CEO change.
Surviving and Thriving After Changes at the Top
I have identified 6 “Must Dos” to optimize your position after a CEO change.
1. You must understand the new CEO’s mindset. Obviously your new CEO wants to succeed and needs to have a strong senior executive team in order to do this. It won’t take long for the new chief to distinguish between allies and rivals, and as you may expect, they want allies in key roles. One thing you might not realize is that new CEOs sometimes experience profound isolation, coupled with new levels of pressure to succeed.
2. You must have the “3 Cs” in sufficient quantities. Your new CEO wants three things from you:
• Capability – or a “can do” attitude
• Commitment – which can be seen as a “will do” attitude
• Connection – or the “must do” attitude that aligns you with their vision of the organization
Bear in mind that your reputation will precede you, via peers, board members, and even social media. When I coach executives, I tell them, “You make a lot of money, you have an impressive title, and a beautiful home, but ultimately you have nothing if you don’t have a positive ‘brand.'” Forgetting this is tantamount to career suicide in some instances. Ask yourself every day if you were more capable than yesterday, more committed, and more connected. If so, your new CEO probably has already figured this out, which is terrific.
Your reputation as an executive will precede you as your new CEO takes charge.
There’s nothing wrong with straight up telling your new CEO you want to be on their team, because you shouldn’t assume that he or she knows it. Congratulate your new CEO by phone, and not email to start off on a positive note.
3. You must ensure your new CEO’s opinion of your 3 Cs is accurate. For one thing, you can assume they already have an opinion of your 3 Cs, and for another, you can assume their opinion is at least incomplete and at best incorrect. By taking initiative and setting up a meeting early on to share more about who you are, what you do, and how you think, you have the opportunity to show the new CEO the strength of your 3 Cs. But you must avoid making recommendations and stating your own agenda, because it’s the CEO’s agenda that counts right now.
Your job is to demonstrate your character – your courage, gratitude, diligence, loyalty, honesty, and modesty. You must show you are a leader of strong character from the very first time you meet your new CEO. Your new CEO must know that you are as capable, committed, and connected as they are and that you can help with their success. You are also wise to keep negativity and “noise” out of the meeting. Bringing up topics like compensation, conflicts, or gripes about the past CEO can severely tarnish your reputation.
4. Learn your new CEO’s style and agenda. Assumptions can only harm you, so you need to ask your CEO about their working style and philosophy. Don’t worry: most CEOs are happy to answer questions like these:
• “What has shaped you and your leadership style?”
• “What advice or theme do you live your life by?”
• “What is your greatest professional accomplishment?”
• “What do you consider your greatest leadership gift?”
• “What are you working on?”
• “How can I work with you in a positive, productive way to help you achieve your objectives?”
The Golden Rule (treat others as you would want to be treated) isn’t enough here. You should go by the “Platinum Rule” of “Treat the CEO the way they want to be treated.”
5. Learn your new CEO’s mission and vision. What is their general plan for the next 30, 60, and 90 days? How can you help them accomplish this? Only after you have clear knowledge of who your new CEO is and their vision can you start moving in a more “prescriptive” direction. When you do, you can offer objective, honest, realistic plans in light of the new mission and vision. Also, admit that some previous decisions should probably be re-evaluated in light of the new CEO’s mission and vision. This shows that you’re willing to correct course as needed.
6. Periodically reassess and reflect upon your 3 Cs. If you believe that the new vision and mission are causing you to drift away from your core character and values, work up the courage to bring it up. Most CEOs will welcome your concern and openness. You don’t want to dump this on their desk on day one, but be sure you have developed a level of mutual respect and trust with the new CEO first.
I have extensive experience working with C-level executives who are experiencing a CEO change, and I invite you to find out more about my leadership coaching services. You have profound ability to make a CEO change into a positive career opportunity with the right attitude and the right tools.