Winds of Change

13 years, 11 months ago


Change management programmes can hit trouble very quickly if objectives and implications are poorly communicated. By Sara Render.

Effective communications are as critical as strong leadership in successful change management. Communicating change externally is largely a matter of process and proof. For business leaders and the professional communicator, the hardest task of all is getting employee buy in, particularly from those people within the organization for whom delivery will mean perceived or real difficulties, or, commonly, for those who do not understand what, or why, things need to be done differently.

Effective internal communications is always a time consuming, long term and frequently frustrating set of activities. It means engaging employees in how change will be achieved; effective translation of what is required to deliver successful change into ‘grass roots’ actions; continuous identification, celebration and promotion of desirable behaviour and prioritizing and use of the right communications vehicles for different messages. Last, but not least, continuous reinforcement.

Engaging Employees

People may be proud to work for a particular organization, particularly if its external profile is strong and the company is well regarded by media, analysts and the wider public. However, their loyalties usually lie with their immediate work group or team, rather than the body corporate. And the concerns they have about proposed changes nearly always come down to what the effect will be on their own jobs and working conditions and those of their immediate colleagues. It is important to recognize this through customization of messages to individual work groups, as well as through the people and media you use to communicate.

Boards usually want to focus on vision, values and quality messages. Employees, however, are more interested in what changes there will be to their local work area and jobs. The key to successful communication is to translate the board messages into tangible facts about what change will mean to each local work area and into easily understood local and individual performance measures.

Key messages and related calls to action need customising to different staff groups and local work forces. The emphasis should be on ensuring that people understand the relevance of any change to their own local workgroup, what they as individuals need to do differently, why the change is necessary and what the impact will be on their own work group if they don’t change.

Say, for example, that you have a relatively soft change, such as becoming more customer facing, the professional communicator needs to work with leads across the organization to translate what that means for individual teams. Support messaging with hard evidence and research to demonstrate why becoming more customer facing will improve market share – and their own opportunities. Share with the staff what the definite and possible impacts of improvements – or failure to improve – will mean to both the company and their local team.

Local Managers

Prior to rolling out the communications plan at local level, you must engage with local managers to ensure they understand, and hopefully buy into, the need to change. Support them in defining what their teams can do to better understand and serve customers – or support the process if they are not customer facing. Just providing a team briefing pack is never enough: many local managers will need professional communicators to work with them on customising presentation and communications materials for their teams. Failure to do so may result in hitting cultural barriers or the absence of clear performance goals relevant to the individuals in their work area.

There will always be a requirement for clearly communicated and different performance measures for each group. For customer facing staff these could range, for example, from how quickly telephones get answered to achieving customer feedback that the service was excellent and they felt their custom was important.

For IT that could mean making systems more user friendly, supporting customer relationship management and enabling customers to do business with the company using their medium of choice – face to face, telephone or internet. For marketing, improving their understanding of the customer through increased investment in market research. For HR, it could be refining recruitment and training practices to improve staff customer relations skills.

Celebrating Behavioural Change

Getting people to change is helped by appraisal and reward systems. Communications also plays an important part through sharing and promoting success stories. Corporate communications should tell people how they are doing – preferably in the context of the contributions being made by individual work groups and in comparison with other teams and external competitors. Performance only takes on meaning by comparison, you never know if you are a fast runner until you run with other people – communicate and celebrate the performance of different teams and team loyalty and pride does much of the work for you.

But don’t forget to communicate the contributions made by different work group functions to the success of another group – so when communicating the increased number of positive face to face meetings carried out by the sales force, reference that this was made possible by the improved customer contact and history information generated by administration and IT colleagues. Teams doing the same job may benefit from some healthy benchmarking, but every part of the organization needs to recognize that you are all ultimately on the same team with common end goals.

Using The Right Communications Vehicles

Just as loyalty is usually to the immediate workgroup, people trust information coming from their Line Managers over that coming from the Board and the communications team. This is particularly the case when the board sits in a parent company in another country.

People’s views of their organization, morale and behaviour are most affected by immediate work area and behaviour and communication skills of Line Managers. The problem is that the most effective communications are always face to face. Some Line Managers will be better at this than others, and the time consuming nature of face to face briefings mean that many will quickly resort to less effective media such as emails. Identify who your Champions need to be and then work with them to help them to communicate, recognizing that some will need a lot more support than others.

Reinforcing Change Externally

If you don’t get the Line Managers on board, alongside good, regular face to face briefings you are likely to fail. A good team briefing system is critical – including the opportunity for staff to get involved in designing the best way of achieving the desired results. Other communications media – and the language used – are also important, but should be thought of primarily in the context of ensuring clarity of vision, continuous reinforcement and celebration of achievements.

One of our clients was moving from delivering construction services direct to outsourcing to other organizations. The Board was concerned that managers were spending too much time on site or on re-doing the work of suppliers, instead of at their desks focused on project and supplier performance management.

A quick guided tour around their own offices by the Communications Lead partially explained Manager confusion. Large posters in reception and along the corridors combined with photographs in corporate literature of their personnel on construction sites around the world wearing hard hats. You cannot afford mixed or contradictory messages, even on something as seemingly innocuous as a photograph. Within a couple of days images showed staff at their desks, poring over project plans and, suited, giving directions to men in hard hats with supplier branding.

Our experience is that only senior staff and high flyers read corporate publications unless they contain information on their own work area or individuals they know fairly well. Never be tempted to use the company intranet or newsletter as your primary media for communicating change.

They are, however, important for reinforcing messaging and illustrating to staff what good performance looks like and its positive impact on rewards for the company and local workgroups. So, case studies, news on wins and public recognition of achievements that support the desired changes in behaviour and performance should all feature in other materials.

Seeing change recognized as positive externally also helps. Coverage in trade, national and local media communicating that the organization is successfully achieving change, and the results it is delivering for employees, shareholders and customers, all help company morale. A well timed news story or feature on how an organization is facing up to and meeting challenges can also support the growing sense of urgency an organization needs if delivering change is to happen at the pace it generally needs to if it is to deliver results.

No Choice But Change

We live in a fast moving, competitive world where change is one of the few certainties. Increasing competition from emerging economies demands cost reductions and continuous innovation.

Workers in first world economies are moving from ‘doing’ to project management of outsourced operations abroad or smaller specialist companies in domestic economies. And pretty well every organization, private and public, is still struggling to adapt to the seismic changes created by the success of the internet, new technologies, mobile working and a move towards partnership working – with partners often traditional or current competitors.

The public relations profession can play an important role in helping organizations to achieve new and better ways of working, but plain sailing in the winds of change is all about hard work, and an absence of hot air.

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The Author

Sara Render

Sara Render is Chairman of ECCO, one of the world’s largest independent PR networks with member agencies from 32 different countries across the globe. Sara is also Chief Executive of ECCO’s UK arm, Kinross + Render Ltd and has led global and EMEA programmes for companies ranging from Regus to Xeros.

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