Successfully Lead Through Major Organizational Change
By Gary Bradt
companies get bought and sold at a dizzying rate, and
reorganizations happen like clockwork. These changes are usually
made with the best of intentions but unfortunately don’t always end
up with the intended results. That’s because leaders pay attention
to the logical aspects of the process, i.e. the business case, but
not nearly enough attention to the psychological aspects, i.e. just
how do we get people to enthusiastically embrace this new entity
and/or new way of doing business? Following are five keys to meeting
Accept that in the eyes of employees, a merger of equals rarely
occurs. The standard line from senior management is that “there
are no winners and losers” when two organizations come together.
Employees, however, usually see it differently. They notice things
like which name the new company adopts, and how many “legacy”
executives from each company end up in similar roles on the new
executive team. Like it or not, employees keep score, and their
initial feelings toward all the changes going on often depend on
their final tally.
leader, rather than arguing this point, you are much better off
accepting it, and then developing strategies and tactics to offset
any negative perceptions. For example, as much as possible balance
the new team with executives from both legacy
companies/divisions/etc. Certainly the best-person-for-the-job
should always be your primary criteria, but in the special case of a
merger or reorg, a perception that both sides get representation is
important to consider too.
meeting with employee groups, acknowledge your desire to make
it a merger of equals, but that you understand some may be
skeptical, and that’s okay. Ask them to judge you and the process on
what they see, not what they may pick up via the rumor mill. Let
them know you will promote and support employees based on skill set
and attitude going forward, regardless of which group they were
affiliated with originally. By doing this, you will begin setting
the expectations and reaching those who are willing to give this
change a shot if properly led.
out of your way to get to know new people. It’s easy to stick
with the people you know, but the best executives make a point of
getting to know the talents, skill sets and personalities of those
coming in from the new organization. You never know where hidden
talent may lie, and it’s up to you to find it. Don’t rely on rumor,
individual reputations, or even HR. As much as possible, spend time
face to face inside and outside the office with potentially key
people. Find out what makes them tick; their values, their work
ethic; how they think and make decisions. Make your assessments
based on direct experience as much as possible.
Post merger especially, pay attention to the psychological, not just
the logical aspects of change. Pre-merger activity is filled
with logical analysis. Everything from geographies, facilities,
technical expertise, market share, and supply chain logistics are
gone over with a fine toothcomb, as indeed they should. Often, the
‘soft’ side of the deal, i.e. culture and people, gets short shrift.
After all, it’s hard to get stuff like that on a spreadsheet; if you
can’t graph it, you can’t analyze it, the thinking seems to go. So
what’s the point? The point, of course, is that all of your finely
honed analysis will come to naught if you don’t get people to act in
accordance with your logical assumptions once the deal goes through.
Ignore the soft side of the deal and you run the risk of watching
your logical plans sink into a psychological swamp, swallowed up by
employee fear and resistance.
this outcome, actively involve people in making the change happen as
much as possible. Get them so busy in meaningful activity around
executing the change they don’t have time to worry or complain about
it. Getting them involved on teams and focus groups will not only
help you make better decisions (after all, they know their
day-to-day business better than you do) but employee buy-in and
commitment to decisions will increase.
honest: Share what’s in it for them, both the good and the bad.
This point is so basic it’s often overlooked. Leaders assume people
will naturally see the inherent benefits of change, or they
emphasize aspects employees care little about. For example, to tout
the benefits of the change to stockholders is all well and good, but
will do little to calm the fears of employees who may feel
threatened by what the change portends for their personal welfare.
sure you can clearly and easily articulate how benefits will accrue
to those employees who embrace the change. At the same time, be
honest about the potential downside: if the change will result in
some pain and sacrifice (loss of jobs, positions, or a change in
geography, for example) be up front about that too. Early on in any
change process the same question is paramount on people’s minds:
‘What is this change all about and how will it impact me?’
Until you adequately answer those questions, anything else you share
will be tuned out, or worse, misinterpreted as fulfilling employees’
worst fears and expectations.
Passion plus patience equals long-term success: It’s normal for
senior executives in the power seats, those actively involved in
making decisions up and down the line, to feel more passionate about
change. After all, they have been actively involved from the get
go, can see the benefits and how it can work long-term, and feel
personally invested. For many of the rest, they can feel as if they
are just along for the ride, sometimes on a journey they did not ask
for, nor necessarily agree with. They may have heard the rumors but
have felt powerless up till now to do anything about it.
patience be your guide. If you follow some of the steps outlined
above, i.e. get people involved in the change, tell the truth about
where you are headed, why you are going there and ask for their help
along the way, most will get on board.
Final Word: For many executives analyzing the business case,
putting the strategic and tactical pieces together, and getting the
deal done constitutes the easiest and most fun aspect of leading
major organizational change. Such ‘left-brain’ activities define
their comfort zone. Less comfortable perhaps is the people part -
addressing the emotions and the needs of employees whose buy-in you
need to succeed. However, it must be done. Being a leader of change
means sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone to help employees
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