Suppose your organization had to name a CEO on two occasions within one year. The challenge would be to transition to the new leadership quickly and successfully. Such a transition would be important to keeping continuity, which reassures employees, customers or clients and investors that the organization will continue on as before.
Would your company be plunged into operational chaos if one of its leaders left because of a career opportunity elsewhere or a "no confidence" board vote? What if an executive suffered a personal or family crisis, a debilitating injury or illness — or even death? Although a key employee departure is challenging, your organization can mitigate the outcome with a well-conceived and properly executed emergency succession plan.
Answer the Tough Questions
Emergency succession plans are a hybrid of traditional, long-term succession plans and disaster recovery plans. They account for the employees who fill the top spots on your executive roster and build in contingencies should any of these key staff members abruptly disappear.
From a staffing perspective, an emergency succession plan needs to answer the most pressing questions that typically arise in the wake of a top executive's sudden departure, including:
How will the duties of the departing executive be handled immediately? Your plan should detail the duties of all key leadership positions and determine how those duties will be handled in the short term. For instance, it needs to address whether the deputy of the departing executive will assume the role temporarily or whether duties will be divided among several leaders. Don't forget about the departing executive's clients, sales activities, and outside board or philanthropic responsibilities. Also, consider whether you should place any restrictions on what the temporary executive can do or whether you need to suspend some duties — or have additional checks and balances for them — until the full-time replacement is selected.
How will other roles be filled? Don't forget to add procedures to fill other roles that become vacant when the emergency succession plan is implemented. For instance, if you lose your CEO and your COO takes over, how will you handle the COO's normal responsibilities?
What support, training or assistance will the temporary executive need? How will it be supplied? Think through the scenario of how, in the absence of each of your top executives, you would need to alter reporting relationships. Would the board of directors play a more active role? Where would critical business information come from for the new executive filling the vacated role? You won't be able to determine the exact framework of support, but the plan should at least outline the possibilities.
What is the process for placing a full-time successor? Your emergency succession plan should include the elements of your "normal" succession plan that deal with job descriptions, key skills and experience levels. It should also address ways to accelerate the search for a successor, such as listing prescreened executive search agencies, and defining targeted Web sites and publications for advertising the position.
Devise a Communication Strategy
Outlining how you'll communicate with key audiences during an emergency succession situation is just as important as outlining the process for filling the vacated role. Sudden change can wreak havoc on customer confidence and employee morale, so you must communicate quickly and effectively.
The communication portion of an emergency succession plan should focus on:
Key audiences. Determine whom you need to talk with. This will probably include the board of directors, shareholders, customers, the media and employees. Unless your company is very small, segment your internal audiences. Although everyone needs to know the basic message, your sales force may need specific information to answer customer questions, or managers may require additional background to help their employees digest the change.
A spokesperson. Name a spokesperson and have all communication come from that employee. Or you might have more than one, such as one to deliver messages to internal audiences and another to handle the press and customers.
Message development. The plan should outline the process for developing and delivering messages about the succession. Details should include who will take the lead on creating the messages, who needs to review and approve the messages and what communication vehicles you'll use to reach both your internal and external audiences.
Be as Ready as Possible
Because you can't envision every possible scenario, even the most carefully crafted emergency succession plan will have its limitations. So keep your plan focused on the most likely scenarios that could strike your company.
Knowing your plan of attack before you need it ensures that you'll spend your time managing the succession, not scrambling to figure out where to start.
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