Communications’ Role in Positioning New Leaders

Lessons for managing leadership transitions.

May 25, 2017

At UC Davis, we have recently experienced a wave of organizational leadership changes including the chancellor, deans, athletic director and many other senior positions. As the leader of a communications group on campus, I asked several of my colleagues who had recently managed transitions to share their advice on the topic in a panel discussion. The group came up with the following recommendations to help other communicators manage their own organizational leadership changes.

Take initiative. As a communicator you must take action to help new leaders land smoothly and to establish yourself as capable and trustworthy. This includes meeting with new leaders as soon as possible, and listening carefully. What you hear will help you define your way forward and you may catch phrases that help to frame early initiatives.

Establish your expertise. Position yourself as a communications expert and adviser. You bring perspective, experience and valuable insights to help new leaders develop messages that resonate and have impact. Remember, however: the leader leads. Your role is to provide options and frank advice while being supportive and enthusiastic.

Define the context. Understand and articulate the political context for new leaders, both in terms of their personalities and the goals and the environments they are entering. Share the current messaging and storytelling so new leaders understand the starting point. Then be ready to change and try new things.

Create a plan. Create a draft transition and communications plan for new leaders to review before they arrive. Coordinate with others as needed. Elements should include:

  • Proposed community or commercial boards to sit on
  • Editorial boards (if appropriate)
  • Speaking engagements
  • Communications strategy
  • Communications schedule
  • Welcome events
  • On-site events to gather other influencers
  • Areas of focus for engagement and thought leadership

Regarding the last bullet, if new leaders are open to it, help them choose a defined set of strategic initiatives to focus on. It’s dangerous to wait too long to initiate anything but also dangerous to overextend with too many things early and dilute effectiveness.

Don’t neglect the brand. When a new leader comes on, it’s easy to get drawn into being too focused on promoting the person. But you don’t want to overexpose the new leader or begin to shift the institution’s entire brand onto the leader’s shoulders. For optimal effectiveness, ensure that you are also working on providing a strong identity to the organization.

Be strategic about social. Encourage incoming leaders to be on social media (if they aren’t already), but be sure to pick the channel(s) that makes the most sense. Twitter is generally the place for thought leaders, but isn’t always a good fit. If you have a new leader who is reluctant to maintain a social media presence, you’ll need to come up with a plan to keep the channel(s) fed. You should be ready with ideas and support in any circumstance—and be ready for a crisis situation.

Be mindful of internal audiences. Don’t neglect internal communications. New leaders are representing a community, and it’s important for there to be open dialogue and trust.

You’ll never be able to anticipate every communication need or situation of a new leader, but taking the steps above will help you establish trust—and get you both ahead of the game.

Tom Hinds is the director of marketing and branding for UC Davis. The following panelists provided these tips during an April 6 communicators meeting on the UC Davis campus: Dana Topousis, interim lead for UC Davis Strategic Communications (moderator); David Slipher, director of marketing and communications, UC Davis College of Biological Sciences; Donna Justice, director of marketing and communications, UC Davis College of Letters and Sciences; and Tim Akin, executive director of marketing and communications, UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

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