The questions come in every size and shape. “What’s the vision?” “What’s our plan?” “What are you thinking?” “What do you want us to do?” “How can we help?” Don’t be fooled. They are all variations on the only question anyone actually cares about during times of change: “How does this affect me?” Until you provide an answer to that question, no one is going to pay any attention to anything else you say.
How does this affect me?
There’s a lot of merit to “big bang” change management. When Procter & Gamble sold Crush International, they pulled us all together to tell us. At the end of that meeting, the head of marketing asked me to follow him to his office. There he told me that I was being transferred to another division within Procter & Gamble. There was less than 30 minutes between my first hearing about the change and my knowing how it affected me.
When Unilever acquired Chesebrough-Ponds they called the US Lever Brothers sales team into a mass meeting. Since Lever had a direct sales team and Chesebrough was sold through brokers, Lever’s sales leaders assumed they were going to absorb the new brands. Not so. Lever fired its entire sales force and gave its brands to Chesbrough-Ponds’ brokers. While not a happy outcome for the sales team, at least they knew.
The worst cases involve people not knowing what’s going to happen to them for extended periods of time. This can happen in mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations or new leaders onboarding onto the team. There’s a fundamental tension between the desire to listen and learn before making big decisions and letting people know how the change affects them as soon as practical.
HP and Compaq fell victim to this. Going in the leaders thought the natural synergies would trump the cultural differences. But the diametrically opposite more methodical, consensus-driving HP engineers and more rapid decision-making salespeople from Compaq descended into years of infighting and indecision making it impossible for anyone to figure out how the merger affected them personally. Thus, try as they might, the combined organization’s leadership could not get anyone to commit to anything until they understood how they fit.
Even if things work well at an organizational level, there are almost always some people that have a hard time really signing on to the change. This gets particularly ugly with people that don’t like ambiguity. They want to know. Some of them will pretend to be okay with the general changes – for a while, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Leading those that would undermine your leadership requires special actions.
Treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Let them know how the change affects them as soon as practical.
Merge principles #1 and #2 to help them find their own way forward.
How you communicate with and treat people impacts not just those directly affected, but also those watching others going through change. People watch how you treat others and think you will treat them the same way when they are in those people’s situations.
Implications for Change Management
1. Prepare in advance. Think through the change you want to drive. Prepare a change management plan. Prepare a communication plan. Make sure you address the elephant in the room appropriately by answering the question, “How does this affect me?”
2. Manage the moment of impact. Let people know how the change affects them as quickly as practical. If you know, tell them. If you don’t know, tell them when you will know. Uncertainty breeds stress. And it’s cumulative. So manage the impact on those who know and those who don’t know.
3. Follow through. You must deliver on your commitments. You must make sure others deliver on their commitments. No one is really going to believe what you say. They’ll believe what you actually do. Your credibility and your organization’s credibility are at stake. What you believe, say, and do will help define the new organizational culture after a change.
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