Few words instill immediate fear or at least strong concern than the word “change,” especially if that change is a large-scale organizational transformation that could impact job status, workload or reporting structure.
A common tendency, leaders focus primarily on business processes and metrics during a large-scale change initiative. Strong leaders, however, will place equal emphasis on both sides of the transformation “coin”: the emotional impact and the business considerations.
Emotional Considerations During Transformation
Fear. Unfortunately, a large-scale transformation often evokes fear of the unknown even in highly engaged teammates. They listen to the rumor mill, run to assumptions and imagine the worst outcome. Even leaders who are part of the planning possess a partial fear about how much the transformation will impact them, their team and others they care about.
That fear is a natural reaction, so HR leaders need to give their teams opportunity to express those concerns throughout the lifecycle of the transformation implementation. In response, leaders must leverage transparent and consistent communication to target those concerns directly without dismissing them as illogical or unimportant.
Leaders also should use a variety of communication tools based on the team’s preference: in-person meetings, town halls, being visible in the employee work areas, videos and virtual Q&A. The focus must be on the communication the team needs in the ways that resonate with them.
Respect. I have been part of organizational transformations at every company where I have worked. Many of the companies lived their values by showing respect to the team, yet some downgraded the team’s past work or leaders in a derogatory way that caused resentment, attrition and behind-the-scenes sabotage.
The value of integrity emphasizes uprightness, decency and recognition for work well done. That sense of integrity will lead effective leaders to focus on the positive purpose and direction of the change without downgrading previous, well-intentioned efforts. Teammates are often proud of past work even if it does not measure up to the future expectations from new leaders. Therefore, respectful leadership will acknowledge that pride, while identifying the gap between current state and the future state needed to position the organization as world class.
Additionally, leaders should highlight the role the teammates can play in building the future state. That focus on teammate involvement shows respect and openness to their ideas, which will often be important because they are on the front line and will implement the expected changes. Of course, this inclusion does not mean that all current teammates will be part of the new structure, yet all teammates need to be treated with respect even if severance is part of the plan.
Hope. One emotion that both leaders and teammates can agree on is hope—hope that the new direction and post-transformation results will be more beneficial for everyone involved. Leaders can instill that hope by adding more clarity about the result and how each step of the transformation plays a key part in building that final structure with improved results.
This sense of hope is also key for the other executives, CEO and board. After all, the transformation must align with the broader organization’s strategy as well as the CEO’s vision. Those other executives are providing initial support for the transformation based on the hope that the promised end results will actually occur. Risks to those results need to be addressed quickly to ensure that cross-functional support and sponsorship remain constant. The difference between being a leader and a manager is that leader’s ability to clarify the vision, set the direction and instill hope for all stakeholders at all levels.
Empowerment. Not all leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence or emotional awareness. In that case, they must elevate the impact from their direct reports who have that balance and can play a key role in leading the team’s emotional resilience. This is not an option because a complete void of emotional focus during transformation will result in decreased results, a hindered culture and a skepticism by other executives.
The team needs to exit the transformation with a sense of purpose, focus, clarity and dedication. Otherwise, all the work and impact on productivity could be for naught. Empowering the right leaders to help with the emotional connection makes great business sense.
Business Considerations During Implementation
Day One. After all the planning and initial executive-stakeholder meetings to garner cross-functional support, Day One is one of the most important parts of the transformation because it explains to the team the purpose, the process to be followed throughout the transformation, the expected results and the direct impact to them as a team or individual.
Three organizations where I helped lead transformation had very different approaches to Day One. Two companies talked with each impacted person individually. After the first few people had their meetings, everyone was terrified to have a 1:1 talk. They heard the rumors and entered the meetings either with fear (or tears) in their eyes or with a wall up.
Then the teammates who were not losing their position or who were not part of a significant role change were called into a larger meeting and heard the overall plan. They had a mix of relief, sorrow for those impacted and concern about a potential second wave although none was planned.
In that meeting we emphasized the why behind the change and the plans for moving forward. We also discussed at a high level the plans implemented to take care of those impacted. In reality, everyone was impacted emotionally even if their specific job or business process was intact.
In the third company, we gathered the full team together to start with the transformation announcement, the why/purpose, the expected results and the list of impacted teams. Then we met with each team individually to break down the details of what this meant for them and the support services (including employee assistance program counseling) we were providing.
Both formats have strengths and potential pitfalls, so leaders need to analyze their organizational culture, team size and best strategy for conducting that initial conversation with utmost confidentiality and respect. Day One is never a fun day because lives are being affected, so having visible support and detailed pre-planning remain essential to success.
Role Clarity. On Day One and continuously afterwards, we provided role clarity for everyone so they understood exactly what their roles would be in the new structure. For some it was to continue their jobs and work initiatives as already planned. For others it was a redesign of the team and even the re-prioritization of the work.
In an earlier article, I mentioned that one reason for transformation might be to move the team’s focus from predominantly administrative work to a more strategic focus. Clarifying how that shift impacts teammates’ roles will assist them in the speed through the change curve both emotionally and procedurally.
Another aspect of role clarity is to explain decision-making authority. In one full-company transformation, a key reason for the change was to empower decision making lower in the organization by removing layers of leadership and enabling the frontline leaders to make faster, informed decisions, based on solid data, instead of waiting for senior executives. This was a definite, but welcomed, culture shift at all levels.
At any time, a teammate could ask for further clarification on her or his role, and it was the leader’s responsibility to provide that through transparent communication, updated performance goals and consistent 1:1 meetings to discuss project updates as well as how the teammate was handling the change. This new expectation for leaders was delivered in an all-leader meeting with senior executives present so that leaders truly believed that they were now empowered and expected to make decisions and to keep their teammates informed and engaged.
Status Updates. Unfortunately, many transformations start off with clear communication and then let that part slip as they move deeper into implementation. That is a tremendous miss in the change management model for sustainability. Often, pushback and risks surface a month or two after Day One, so a strong communication plan is essential to foster two-way collaboration.
That communication with the team needs to be concise and focused on specific milestone updates, new leader/teammate/structure announcements and work prioritization. It also needs to include an avenue for teammates to surface questions requiring further communication from leaders: how they are measuring up to the new expectations; shifts in milestone deliverables/dates; budget implications; and success stories that highlight positive behaviors and results.
In addition to interactions with teammates, transformational leaders need to provide consistent status updates with other functional areas and with those executive leaders. At the onset of the transformation, significant results were likely promised, so those cross-functional teams want a consistent update on the progress toward those results and the way their teams will interact differently with the transformed department.
Leaders will safeguard their early cross-functional support if they highlight successes, risks, mitigation plans and future direction. Those touchpoints also give other leaders the opportunity to provide feedback on the progress from their perspective. A poor communication plan will thwart sustainability and buy-in, often resulting in decreased trust and complaints that the expected future state will be unattainable.
Putting It All Together
All the best planning in the world is wasted time if the actual implementation does not occur with intentionality, focus and transparent communication that targets both the emotional and the business process sides of the implementation.
Transformational leaders play a key role in their organization’s success and, therefore, must lead in a transformational way that clarifies instead of confuses, that engages instead of dismisses and that instills solid processes with results instead of just repackaging old ways under a new label. By following these best practices, leaders will truly guide their teams into world-class impact – not only for that team, but as a role model for the entire organization.