Strategies For Leading Through Change

I need to make a change in my company…How do I do it, and how do I manage it? This is a question I hear from business leaders every day… yet the question often comes to me after the fact… when people are up in arms and ready to bolt. A change can be something as simple as new stationery or as tumultuous as a merger or acquisition, and while the change is often seen by top leadership as necessary to move ahead of aggressive competitors, this is not always the case for employees. Why? I believe the answer is this – Your employees are not angry about the change itself… they are angry because they are often the last to hear, you did not get their buy-in, their vote didn’t count , and bam… Trust is shattered!”

Imagine this: During a strategic planning meeting, the executive team of a large technology company makes the decision to launch a new product line and ditch an existing one. Ditching the existing product line means that a few talented employees will become obsolete, and the new product line will require a new pool of talent. The executive team chooses to “keep this quiet” until they are ready to launch (yeah right!) They begin to meet after hours in a locked room to discuss their plans. As human behavior often teaches us, it is very hard to keep a secret when you know you have one inside you.

So . . . Sally Smith, CIO, makes the decision to tell one person outside the executive team: “I have something to tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone” (yeah right . . . again.) In addition, the janitor knows something’s up . . . he cleans after hours and sees the big dogs locked in a room every night for three weeks, and he begins to whisper in the halls to his comrades. Suspicion builds and the grapevine begins to circulate rumors: “I hear the company is closing,” or “I heard we are merging” or “I heard that we are headed for a 20% lay off” or “I heard that the company is in big trouble” and so on. The fear, doubt, worry and anxiety begin to build. People are not sure what is going on, but all they know is that it must be big, and they are nervous . . . very, very nervous!

Change efforts are delicate, and they require finesse . . . they can’t be taken lightly, and they must be communicated from the top to the bottom of the organization. I believe that the key to success during any change initiative includes three very important aspects:

1) Communication- Communication needs to be clear, consistent and repeated again and again. Repeat the communication until you hear yourself and others saying “Okay, okay . . . we got it . . . we are tired of hearing about it . . . we are on it!” Communicating a change takes time for people to really hear it. The have to roll it over in their minds, talk about it with others and get clear about what’s what. The first time employees hear about a change, they are usually hearing it through filters of fear, doubt, worry, and confusion. So . . . don’t expect them to get it the first time, and by all means . . . don’t send it in a memo! Use verbal communication . . . talk to them, talk to your managers, talk to your team, and keep repeating the message again and again.

2) Gain Commitment – During a change initiative, it is critical for a company to gain buy-in from everyone in the organization. You want each person in the company to support the change and to feel as if they have been a part of planning the change initiative. Empower your employees by inviting them to collaborate during the change. The “town meeting” format is perfect for this purpose and coupled with smaller management meetings. This approach can provide an open forum for people to be able to clear (a form of venting which is highly constructive . . . allow for 10 minutes of clearing in the beginning of each town meeting,) ask questions and above all to allow their ideas to be heard and implemented.

3) Coaching – Emotions will be running high during a period of transition, and I believe that coaching for the entire organization during this time is not a luxury…it is a requirement. Managing people during change is one thing but managing their emotions is an entirely different animal. It requires listening, empathy and the giving of time. Coaching during change can support an organization in building teamwork and can foster a sense of support and trust. As thought leader Phil Harkins, President of Linkage, Inc and author of Powerful Conversations: How High Impact Leaders Communicate says “The organizational change coach operates like a free safety-a term for the player who can move freely around the field as the play requires. In other words, the coach must be able to work when and where the need arises, in order to facilitate the shift that is taking place.” From The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching by Howard Morgan, Phil Harkins, and Marshall Goldsmith.