If there's one thing we've learned in 2020, it's that change is here to stay. Our world has transformed, and our workplaces have had to adapt. How can we best handle these ongoing changes and their impacts on our organizational culture and our employees?
Several years ago I when I held a corporate position in retail, change was already a part of our industry and our culture. It was constant. However, I don't think anyone could have foreseen the level of change we would see as we approached a sale of the company. In the course of six months, we announced our intent to sell and then sold the 125+-year-old family-owned and operated company to a private equity firm; we restructured the company; our CEO retired and we hired a new leader - the first non-family member to run the company; and then we had a second complete restructuring. Every single one of our 24,000 associates was impacted in some way during those six months.
From a communication and cultural standpoint, we learned a lot. Six replicable strategies enabled us to maintain associate engagement scores and to meet our communications goals:
Scenario Planning: As we planned our communications around the changes, we planned for several different potential outcomes. Going through the exercise of anticipating possible impacts prepared us for surprises that popped up along the way.
Transparency: We strived to be open in all communications - before, during and after our changes. We tried to help employees understand why changes were happening as well as the (potential) impacts of those changes. We were as careful to be transparent as we shared feedback upstream as we were when we pushed out communications to the front line.
Frequent Communications: We regularly communicated to employees throughout the changes. In some cases, it was just to let them know things were progressing, and that we didn't have much of an update. Without frequent communication, employees will speculate about what is going on, and that's when the rumors start.
Leader Preparation: We spent a lot time developing information packets for every level of leaders throughout our organization. We wanted to prepare them to answer questions from their teams and to reinforce our message points. We armed them with FAQ documents, timelines and scripts.
Media Management: We wrote every memo, filmed every video and sent every email as though it were going directly to the media. We assumed that the media would learn of our changes (they did, by the way), and were prepared to respond.
Culture Alignment: We took great care to ensure our process of communication and our messaging points reinforced and aligned with your organization's culture and our brand. We explained the changes in the context of our business priorities and values. That effort gave our messaging more authenticity.
These strategies served us well during the roller coaster of those six months. However, I discovered that to be most effective in times of change, there are things that really needed to happen before these changes were even on anyone's radar. Here are the three steps every leader should take, starting today.
Establish relationships and create a network. We talk endlessly about the importance of networking, but we rarely speak to the importance of internal networking. Of course you want to establish deep relationships with your boss and employees, but remember to reach out to other internal influencers in your organization. Take colleagues to lunch or set informal meetings to learn more about what they do. Cultivate those relationships so your internal networks include employees from all different areas and levels of your organization. Your internal network can be a great source of information and insight as your organization evolves, and they can also help share and reinforce your messaging through less formal channels.
Build your reputation for trust and transparency. It's imperative that you establish your reputation before a change occurs. Take every opportunity to demonstrate to your organization that you are trustworthy and authentic. Your approach will - and should - be highly personal, but developing genuine relationships and actively listening are good places to start.
Provide feedback. Remember that the most effective communication is two-way. Share feedback trends that you hear with leadership teams on an ongoing basis, so they know you have insight into the pulse of the organization. As a leader, actively address concerns that are being brought to your attention, and celebrate successes. If you are viewed by the organization as one to whom employees can trust with feedback and as one who will provide candid feedback to leadership, you will play an important role in times of change.
Our experiences over those six months taught me many things. Above all, I learned that it is possible for an organization - and individuals - to successfully navigate change if we lay the foundational groundwork in advance, and approach change with a measured, strategic approach.