If there’s anything that’s more difficult than transformative change, it’s communicating about transformative change. And let’s face it, the past two years have been defined by change.
As leaders of organizations living through a profound period of global change, we’ve learned some powerful lessons:
- The future will not be more stable or more certain.
- Black swans feel much different when we live through them (sometimes multiple times), than when we read about them in economics textbooks.
- Disruption or large scale change cannot be contained to one aspect of life.
In short, societal shifts spill over into personal and business life, business upheaval impacts personal and societal security, and uncertainty about personal health throws a wrench into every aspect of life. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, transformative change comes for all of us.
With the hindsight of the last few years, now is the time to review our approach to change and ask ourselves how we can better prepare for and communicate about the next wave of transformative change. Let’s take a closer look at the core aspects of strong communication here.
The Pulse of the Organization
Exhausted organizations do not handle change, let alone transformation, well. Think about how well you operate after a series of all-nighters. Even the thought of having to eat — to survive! — feels like a monumental task. Similarly, exhausted organizations can barely perform key functions, which doesn’t bode well for facing changes with grace.
When leaders continually keep their fingers on the pulse of their organizations, however, they are less likely to lead exhausted organizations and much better positioned to handle transformation. Keeping your finger on the pulse means recognizing when your people are being pushed to their breaking point and making the necessary adjustments needed.
How do you take the pulse of your organization?
- Get to know your employees and customers: Use pulse surveys (Voice of the Employee (VoE), Voice of the Customer (VoC) surveys), “ask me anything” sessions (AMAs), virtual and IRL coffee chats, town halls, skip level meetings, “walking the halls” (for those back in the office).
- Get to know your leaders: Keep tabs on your people leaders and customer leaders too. Managers can often be the linchpins of culture and influencers of others.
- Ban the “just deal with it” mentality: Of course, decisions need to be made and transformative change must go on, but if your strategy is to tell your people to “just deal with it,” then you have a failed strategy on your hands. Instead, build a plan with the tools, support, resources, and aircover they need…and be ready to adjust.
Transformative Change and Culture
Taking the pulse of your organization is only the beginning of figuring out how to communicate about transformative change. To really pull this off, you also need to consider the culture on a deeper level.
Having a change playbook is important, to a point (and lord knows you can find a consultant who will sell you one), but remember that a guide is just that — a guide. There may be times when what your team really needs is for you to set that playbook on fire (maybe even literally).
Here are some areas to consider when it comes to culture:
- Consider what is authentic to your organization. What is the general tone of communication? And if there was ever a time to be more transparent, more honest, more plain spoken…transformative change is that time.
- Consider who is trusted in your organization. Perhaps the Board of Directors is more trusted than management (I’ve worked there). Or perhaps long-tenured middle management is trusted more than the new or newer executives? Understanding these relationships and building that into your strategy is crucial.
- Consider why you’re doing what you’re doing and have a good answer. Just because “all the other $1B organizations” use top-down communications for layoffs, doesn’t mean that you have to. Keep in mind, “because I said so” is not a successful strategy for successful change.
- Consider what you are asking of your team and customers. Transformative change, or any change (hello, Atomic Habits), requires commitment. It’s about the larger purpose and that’s generally an emotional ask. You are asking your team and your customers not just to help you make a business change, but to take a journey with you toward achieving your organizational purpose — which will solve more customer problems, make the world a better place, make the organization a better place to work, or any combination thereof.
A Few More Do’s and Don’ts
Once you have thought through the lay of the land and have the big picture in front of you, here are a few more do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.
1. Don’t sand down the edges on the executive team.
Whether it’s a layoff, a major acquisition, or an IPO, your people are your biggest asset — yes, even in the metaverse. And employees, customers, and the media are all looking for leaders to lead and exhibit humanity.
In a recent interview, Brian Chesky, the CEO of AirBnB, said it well,
“I think CEOs and leaders are more human than they come across. I mean most of these people are real people. They do have feelings. I think the problem with corporations is the lawyers and the HR people and the others, ‘sand the edges’ off the person in an effort to protect the person. And, that is a major disservice because they just reduce them to something that’s not even a human being anymore, they’re just this very cold person.”
Of course, you need to work with your executives to communicate in a way that complies with the law and represents the organization appropriately, but this is very different from turning them into robots who are afraid to show any glimmer of vulnerability.
2. Do acknowledge the suckiness, if it sucks.
You may be surprised at how much resistance to transformative change can be relieved with a simple acknowledgment of how difficult it is. When it feels like you’re the only one feeling the pain, change can be a really lonely place. Often your people just need you to see them doing their best through an objectively sucky situation. And if it sucks for you too, talk about it.
3. Do acknowledge the excitement of the future, as appropriate.
As hard as it can be, change also usually comes with a lot of excitement. Don’t be afraid to embrace the excitement and display appreciation for the teams that will make the change happen.
4. Don’t promise a return to the status quo.
Never offer to “stop the change.” It may be tempting to try to relieve the pain of transformative change by promising a return to the status quo on a particular date, for example. This falls into the category of promises you can’t keep, though. Sure, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, a product launch, a closing date on the merger, but even those flashpoint events aren’t likely to spell the end of change.
We’re all changing, all the time. Our environment is changing, the market is changing, society is changing. All we can do is remain in a ready stance — flexible, fluid, optimistic, and ready to roll with the next pivot or “tweak.”
Finally, I want to leave you with some more words of wisdom from Brian Chesky because these two sentences are really all you need to know when it comes to communicating about transformative change: “Just do whatever you think is the right thing at that moment. Take care of people and then they’ll root for you.”
Photo credit: Businessman Applauding With His Colleagues During A Presentation by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com