Our CEO died, now what?

CEO-ChairOne of the most dreaded impacts on a company is to experience the death of its leader.  The loss creates a complex situation, has tremendous bearing on the employees, clients and stakeholders and will ultimately alter the rhythm of the company.

While leaders come and go in companies due to performance or illness – untimely deaths send shock waves throughout the ranks.  Unlike a prolonged illness where succession planning can take place, a CEO’s sudden death undoubtedly leads to uncertainty in the short- and medium-term.  And given today’s 24-hour news cycles,  a sudden passing away will be in the public airwaves before the company can reach out to both employees and stakeholders directly.

The shocking news generates an array of emotions that require immediate attention from an interim leader.  In some cases, choosing the appropriate interim leader is complicated, yet crucial.  Once leadership is re-established, a statement of the situation should be presented in a timely manner confirming the death and whom employees, stakeholders and media can speak to for questions and leadership in the immediate future.

The best approach in supporting the workplace after the significant loss is to “stop the rumor mill” before it has a chance to grow and fester.  Speculation and judgment are detrimental; hence, timely and relevant information is needed for employees and stakeholders to forge ahead.  People respond differently to significant losses and so it’s imperative to provide guidance, compassion and order in a timely matter.

The interim leader, executives and human resources should rely on support provided by outside professional resources to address how to respond to the difficulties and uncertainty caused by the death.  A crisis management team should be assembled to assess the current needs of the company and the well-being of the employees.  For some individuals it may take up to 48 hours to comprehend the impact of the loss; therefore they may need more time to adjust and be responsive to support. Often companies spend too much time to find just the right words to share with the community causing a delay in the announcement of an official statement.  While the death is tragic and untimely, the response time must be immediate, accurate and compassionate.

Here is a checklist that provides a response framework:

  • Establish immediate leadership and communications team.
  • Prepare and deliver an official statement via media, social media, email, and telephone.
  • Provide easy access, two-way communication with employees and stakeholders.
  • Provide communication often in order to stifle the rumor mill.
  • Encourage employees to ask questions.
  • Provide professional support to employees past the first week of loss.
  • Create as normal a work environment as possible.
  • Address the elephant in the room by not avoiding the uncomfortable conversations and helping employees move forward.

Be prepared for the potential fall-out down the road as the shock wears off and the expectations for “business as usual” from clients and investors are not in sync with the emotions and uncertainty the company is facing.  Employees’ future, their jobs and their livelihood and how they interact with each other have been disrupted by the trauma of the death — healing is vital in order for the company to get back on track.  And in most cases, companies do become stronger after a crisis when the organization can heal properly.


GIW cover linedAs a motivational speaker, grief consultant, trainer and facilitator, Rachel Blythe Kodanaz provides encouragement to those who are suffering a loss.  Her experience in management at Fortune 100 companies and the death of her young husband provides insight into challenges and solutions supporting grief in the workplace.. Rachel is the author of Grief in the Workplace: A comprehensive guide for being prepared, Living with Loss, One Day at a Time, and has appeared on Good Morning America.

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