Empowering leaders to lead during change and transition

Managing change is more art than science because change deals fundamentally with peoples’ emotions.  Often, companies are reticent to engage in change management activities until all of the details about the change are known.  Leaders may do this for a variety of different reasons, but most commonly it’s because there is a level of comfort that comes with having most of the answers.  What’s harder is leading through change and transition when things are still a bit nebulous.

Take as an example a publicly traded company that was acquired.  Given the publicity around the deal, all employees were aware of the possibility and started formulating scenarios about what it would be like, feel like, etc.  However, it wasn’t until the deal went through that emotions kicked into high gear.  The questions that employees raised to their leaders were typical for this type of change, e.g. Will I still have a job? Will I need to relocate? What’s going to happen to our culture? What’s in it for me to stay?

When presented with these questions, and in the absence of detailed plans for what was going to happen next, most of the leaders shied away behind closed doors.  Employee frustration turned into employee impatience, especially for the high performers who didn’t feel the need to wait out the change process.  Employee retention became a huge problem; one which exposed the company to a high level of operational risk.  The company recognized what was happening and engaged us to create a series of workshops designed to address employee concerns by empowering their managers to be change leaders.

The workshops were kicked off while the company was largely still in the Endings phase and had three main objectives:

  1.  Share the change management approach
  2. Agree the role that each manager was going to play throughout the integration
  3. Create an action plan in response to the organizational issues resulting from the merger

We used a modified version of the William Bridges change curve (see below) to anchor everyone’s understanding of the change and where there might be a disconnect between individual contributors and managers.  We began by asking each manager to plot himself on the change curve.  We then had each manager plot their team on the change curve.  Over the course of the 15 workshops that we facilitated, it became clear that leaders were further along the change curve than their teams.  It also became clear that part of the challenge was that leaders were communicating from their vantage point, with better understanding and more clarity on the future direction of the company, while their teams were still in the “endings” phase, mourning the “loss” of their culture, ways of working and in many cases their colleagues.

We coached the leaders on the different roles that they would need to play as they and their teams moved along the change curve.  In the Endings phase, leaders were told they would need to listen, show empathy, and affirm the need to move forward.  During the Exploration phase, leaders would need to first educate their teams on the change and then engage them into the process once more details were known.  Finally, in the New Beginnings phase, the leader as a coach, would bring his team up the curve through further engagement and empowerment.

While the workshops did not provide pragmatists in the room with a checklist of things to do and say in response to the transitory period in which most people found themselves in, participants found value in having discussions with fellow managers about how their groups were feeling and learning of different ways to handle the uncertainty.  People also found great comfort in knowing that others were feeling the same way and were grateful for the fact that their leadership team had taken the time to organize these workshops to provide the forum for sharing the difficult emotions that arise during the merging of two companies.

The key to the success of these workshops were as follows:

  • We started at the top and cascaded the approach and the messages to ensure consistency
  • We empowered managers to create and execute action plans to effect the changes that could be effected
  • We created a feedback loop to ensure that leaders were aware of employee concerns and questions and used the feedback to guide future communications

Precillia Redmond
PA Consulting Group

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  • Mark Lewis, PMP  On December 1, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    A good post, which illustrates the number one item on any change agenda – how do you get people to come along with you on the journey. All too often in companies in the absence of effective communication, rumour and grapevines become king. This in turn leads to uncertainty and discomfort.
    If senior management hideaway trhen employees are only left with the thought that it’s bad news and they don’t want to deliver it.
    Senior Managers are paid to be leaders and be brave enough to say all the answers aren’t known but share a vision of the objective takes courage, but engenders faith and engagement mouch more than hiding behind office doors.

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