Nothing is permanent except change.” Mr. Hawkins, my fourth-grade teacher, is the first person I remember using this phrase – and now I use it too. While this statement may be true, change is still difficult, sometimes confusing, and often frustrating for those experiencing it. For organizations, changes that are not implemented well frequently cause stress and increased conflict, which often results in decreased employee engagement and productivity. Given that change is inevitable in any context, it’s important to do it well.
One of our most significant changes at ACHIEVE in the last number of years has been a leadership transition. In the summer of 2020, we announced that I would be stepping into my new role of Chief Vision Officer after nearly 15 years as CEO, and our Managing Director, Eric Stutzman, would take my place. This meant that Eric would start providing regular support to the rest of our leadership team and actively managing our day-to-day operations. I would also transition to a less hands-on role where I could dedicate my energies more broadly to projects that support our vision of creating workplaces where people like to work, particularly through keynote speaking and overseeing the book projects of our division, ACHIEVE Publishing.
When we made this announcement public, it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in our organization. This was because the time leading up to it and the communication around the transition had been thoughtfully planned and well-executed. The public announcement was more of a statement of what had already happened, and less about what was to come.
About three years before this formal transition, I had started to think more seriously about these changes and knew that it would be critical to our success to do so with intentionality. So, together with our leadership team, we thoughtfully and deliberately put together a plan. From our experience with other changes, both internal and external to our organization, we knew that there were two critical things we needed to do for this to be a smooth transition: communicate the plan for change early and communicate it often.
Communicate the plan for change early and communicate it often.
We first introduced this plan to staff two years before the formal announcement. The great benefit of the longer timeframe between the announcement and the actual change was that it gave employees time to settle in to the idea and get comfortable with it before it happened. Following this internal announcement, we slowly started making the changes to our roles. We took our time and frequently communicated with staff about when and why things were happening as they were.
In spite of our best intentions, the transition was not always without challenges or confusion. But when these challenges occurred, we were quick to acknowledge that there would be some bumps along the way and that we were always open to questions from staff. We assured everyone we would do our best to work through and address issues as they arose.
While we had planned the communication part of the transition well, the biggest thing we had failed to consider was that the most important question on people’s minds during a change is “What does this change mean for me?” When transitions are announced, people are most nervous about the direct effect on them – how they will be personally impacted by the change. As a leadership team, it became clear that this was the question we needed to pay closer attention to as our transition continued. Digging deeper into this concern, we learned that the main cause of stress was related to the future change in reporting structures. Many of both mine and Eric’s direct reports would now be reporting to other managers. With this came a lot of unknowns for them.
Once we clued in to this stress, we made sure to provide opportunities for teams and their upcoming new manager to get to know each other. For one team that I had historically led, this included sending them to a two-day conference in order to intentionally get to know each other without me. As a result of this type of intentionality, employees and leaders had already settled into their new reality over the months leading up to our formalized leadership transition. Thus, the question of “What does this change mean for me?” had already been answered before the formalization of the transition.
The takeaway from our experience with leadership transitions is equally applicable to most changes. For those of you who are considering a significant transition that will impact a lot of people, I encourage you to consider your approach – don’t let it be haphazard. If you are planning for a change, plan early, be methodical, and communicate often. And be mindful of the question on everyone’s mind: “What does this change mean for me?”
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