Succession planning is a pretty standard part of most organizations’ internal practices, and for good reason. No matter how stable and successful a company is, a certain amount of attrition, whether through retirement or unforeseen crises or simply moving on to a new opportunity, is bound to happen, and well-run businesses are keenly aware of this. Where even the smartest companies sometimes fail to plan for this same attrition, however, is in their public facing image. No matter how effectively an organization has established a succession plan to cover the specific job functions of individual employees, far too often businesses fail to take into account how closely public perception is tied into individual, public facing members of their team. Even extremely successful, extremely intelligent organizations like Apple can find themselves at loose ends when they lose their public face. At the time of Steve Jobs’ death, Apple had an existing executive structure, especially in the product development and design segments, that was more than prepared to go on without him. In fact Jobs had taken extended medical leave previously, leaving most if not all of the day to day operations and decision making to other executives, and the company had been able to chug along like the well-oiled machine that it was. But when Jobs sadly passed away, the fact that he had remained the public face of the company became painfully clear. There was no obvious successor to take over his iconic presentations announcing new products, there was no one stepping up who could exemplify the brand the way Jobs had for so long, and the market responded. Now, because Apple was and continues to be an incredibly stable, incredibly successful company, they weathered the storm of losing Jobs just fine once some time had passed. However many, if not most, companies may not be able to handle that type of shake up as easily and, more importantly, planning ahead for the inevitable loss of a major public face of your company can save much of the headache and stress.
A few relatively simple and tips implemented before a business loses an employee with a high public profile can make all the difference in how easy it is to come back from that shake up.
Diversify your public image
If the public face of your business is tied up in a single person, that person no longer being available to the company for whatever reason is bound to create chaos. By letting different people speak on different topics, or at different events, or handle different types of public relations issues, the brand as a whole will be far less inextricably tied to one person. Having a figurehead can be great, and that sense of someone who people know and like overseeing the entire organization is appealing to customers and sometimes even investors, but you don’t want to have a situation where if that person leaves the company or retires or unexpectedly passes away there are questions about the stability of the organization or panic over who will take over. It doesn’t mean that one person can’t ultimately be in charge or be the face of the company, but having clear subject matter experts or proteges who the public begins to feel familiar with and know can make that eventual transition go much more smoothly.
Identify and train an ongoing team
Those subject matter experts or proteges I just mentioned have to come from somewhere, right? There are. right now, people already within your organization who have expertise in specific subjects or have especially good public relations and customer service skills and those people need to be identified and receive training to develop those skills. Remember that this isn’t planning for five minutes from now, so it’s not necessary to find people who are ready to step in front of a national TV camera to talk about your company tomorrow. Look for the core of the skills and style you would want a potential public face of your brand to have and then set about nurturing and developing those skills and beginning to give those people opportunities to put those skills to use.
Pick the right person for the right circumstances
Different audiences will respond most favorably to different people, different situations will be best handled by different types of people, and different people have expertise in certain subjects or handling certain types of situations. It’s not necessary to find someone who can be the public face in any situation and to any audience, and picking the right person for the right job improves your public image as well as helping to build that succession plan. While it’s obviously fantastic if a business is lucky enough to have one person who can handle all their public facing needs and can exemplify what they want people to see as their brand, it’s not necessary if you have a team of people who can handle everything between them.
Present a united front
One of the big risks that companies often fear when having multiple people make public statements or act as public faces for the organization is that people will contradict each other or disagree with each other, leading to confusion and a sense of the organization as fractured or inconsistent. Regardless of who is the public face for a particular situation or audience, it’s critical to make sure that there is a consistent message and that everyone involved works together. A united front presented by a team with complimentary skills can be just as effective as a single person, and gives you more options and flexibility in the long term.
If your organization is lucky enough to have a Steve Jobs, then it makes sense to not want to address succession planning for that public face and take away his chances to interact with the public and grow his own and the company’s legend, but most organizations, quite frankly, don’t have that kind of iconic leadership. For most of us, the best way to avoid any single public face of the company being irreplaceable is to simply build a team that is prepared to take over and that the public and investors begin to be comfortable with before they may need to take over entirely. Have an example of a time when a customer or client being attached to a specific public facing part of your team caused you pain? Have you ever been that customer? Share with us in the comments, and come back soon for more!