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Communications can help smooth the way in a CEO transition.
Well-orchestrated transitions like GE's, however, aren't often the norm in the corporate world. This was reason enough for Dan Ciampa to pen "Right from the Start," a book that features dozens of interviews with corporate leaders who have run the gauntlet of CEO succession. Ciampa himself spent 12 years as the CEO of Rath & Strong, a Lexington, Mass.-based consulting firm. "Right from the Start" preaches commonsense ways to plan what Ciampa calls "the most important event in a company's history." Incoming CEOs must use the accomplishments of their predecessors as a springboard, instead of trampling them, Ciampa counsels. They must craft a new vision without neglecting the old. They must master the ability to learn while conveying an image of discretion and capability. "Many people [managing transitions] try to clone the outgoing CEO," he says, "when what they need to do is articulate and appreciate the new skills, attitudes, and behaviors of the person who will take the company into the future."
If there's one thing communications in a typical company is guilty of not doing, says Ciampa, it's being proactive. "Well before the board is even searching for a replacement, the communications people should be students of CEO transitions," he suggests. "If your CEO is 63 and the board says CEOs have to retire at 65, you know you'd better be putting together a transition plan." Boards, he adds, typically sidestep active roles in the transition process. Communications executives with a seat at the table, however, would do well to involve them. "I'm on seven boards," says Ciampa. "They often believe that their job [in the transition] is done as soon as someone accepts the job…It's not until this new person has been successful for 18 months. If he's not, shareholders and investors ought to hold the board accountable."