Sep 3, 2023

When Leadership Transition Becomes a Succession Crisis | Forbes

There’s no doubt that leadership transition and change management go hand-in-hand.

Sometimes the transition for new leaders into organizations goes smoothly, like a baton handoff in a relay race. Other times, new leaders struggle to find their footing.

A recent high-profile succession is Chris Licht, “the embattled chief executive and chairman of CNN, whose brief one-year tenure at the network was stained by a series of severe missteps, departed the company on Wednesday,” the news organization reported in early July 2023.

According to the network, the chief executive of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav, informed CNN employees at the start of the network’s daily editorial meeting.

My thanks to journalist Edward Segal for including my perspective in his article, “Licht’s Rocky Tenure as CNN’s CEO Provides Crisis and Leadership Lessons.”

Chris Licht’s “brief and rocky tenure at the news outlet provides several lessons for corporate leaders about avoiding and responding to a crisis,” said contributor, Edward Segal. “CNN, which usually reports the news about crises, is going through a crisis itself.”

There are valuable lessons in this piece for leaders struggling with change, regardless of whether you’re new in the role or well-tenured.

Here were my thoughts:

  1. When everything is changing, you can’t change everything.
    Chris Licht entered the company with a mandate for change. In his first six months, he conducted a company-wide business review that led to a series of sweeping changes. Many changes were met with skepticism and challenges such as shuttering the CNN+ streaming service (originally hailed as a future growth platform for the company). He also fired key CNN journalists including Brian Stelter, the network’s chief media correspondent and anchor of “Reliable Sources.”
  2. Followership is necessary for leadership.
    Perhaps Licht did not do enough to build internal followers and supporters. Unlike former CNN President, Jeffrey Zucker, who held an office on a CNN newsroom floor, Licht separated himself from the network’s journalists. Perhaps this was foreshadowing for the figurative separation Licht would experience with key journalists, including anchor Christiane Amanpour, surrounding his programming decisions. It is common practice for new CEOs to hire executives with whom they have worked previously. These are trusted, tested relationships. The challenge is if you don’t invest enough in the troops who you need to follow you into battle.
  3. Handle missteps authentically.
    Licht did not address missteps – whether his own or the network’s – authentically and swiftly. The biggest example is the CNN Town Hall with Former President Trump, widely viewed as a mistake.

When it comes to succession, there’s no question that unplanned exits can put an organization in a tail-spin. We can’t always control the outcome, but need to be prepared for contingencies– a theme well covered on my podcast, Succession Stories, and also in my book, The Business Transition Handbook. It will be interesting to see how the media giant’s succession story unfolds.

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