Destruction of various aspects of people’s lives from the coronavirus catastrophe will persist for years in every society around the world. Every organization is being forced to review all aspects of their business and make dramatic, fundamental changes. For instance, even while the virus impact in the US was in its comparatively early stages, the New York Times observed in March 2020 that “Scary Times for U.S. Companies Spell Boom for Restructuring Advisers” – and “Corporations across a wide swath of industries and in vastly different financial straits are being forced to stretch their cash, cut costs, avoid loan defaults and prepare to potentially reorganize their businesses.” These corporations are seeking to negotiate new terms with “lenders, vendors, employees and other parties.” Massive change is underway, and you need to turn to your CEO’s key role in leading change communication, especially in tougher times.
Change is a difficult path for nearly all people. Even in normal times, a significant proportion of employees feel uncertain: “Half of American workers (50%) say they have been affected by organizational changes in the last year, are currently being affected by organizational changes or expect to be affected by organizational changes in the next year,” according to the findings of a 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey conducted for the American Psychological Association. “American adults who have been affected by change at work are more likely to report chronic work stress…Change is inevitable in organizations, and when it happens, leaders often underestimate the impact those changes have on employees.” Just imagine the huge rise in worker stress caused by the repercussions of the coronavirus! As a response to this, CEOs need to take even more care with their change-communication strategy because CEOs have a key role in leading change communication, especially in tough times.
However, the business sector and organizational leaders globally still have to convince the wider population of their worth. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer survey findings found that CEOs are not greatly trusted – only 44% of people around the world rate CEOs as ‘credible’ or ‘very credible,’ as shown in the chart below:
Image: Chart from 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer global survey.
A frequent problem is that leaders focus too much on changing policies, and not enough on changing minds. In other words, they usually don’t get onto the wavelength of the average employee – the unnoticed invisible fears and insecurities that keep people locked into behaviors, even when they know rationally these behaviors don’t serve them well. Add to that the anxiety that nearly all people experience in the face of change.
The role of the CEO is unique because they stand at the top of the organizational chart, and all other members of the organization take their cues from the chief. To successfully lead significant organizational change, your CEO needs to take several actions. Communication is a key element of these actions – and communicating change is a complex subject, so it needs to be strategically based.
It is difficult to generalize about the winning formula for change, as there is no single formula for success. The CEO’s role will be affected by the size, urgency, and nature of the transformation; the capabilities and failings of the organization, and their personal style as leader. Top management has a profound impact on how well employees grasp and support strategy…far greater than expected, researchers Galunic & Hermreck (2012) concluded after analyzing more than 60,000 confidential responses to an employee-satisfaction survey conducted by a global corporation:
“Senior leaders should have a unique understanding of their company’s strategy; there may be no equal substitutes when it comes to communicating and discussing it. And their position at the top is powerfully symbolic, giving them more credibility and authority than others have. With these considerations in mind, companies need to find ways to bring senior management closer to the workforce.”
To maximize the chances of a change program succeeding, McKinsey international management consultants advocate CEOs playing a lead role by:
For organizational messages about the change, employees want to hear from the CEO or their equivalent. These messages include why the change is happening, the risks of not changing, the customer or competitor issues causing the change, why the change is happening right now, how the economic climate played a role in the change, and the alignment of this change with the organization’s vision and direction. When it comes to the all-organizational messages, the voice for change should continue to be the CEO or their equivalent. Employees want to hear from the top person about these issues. We can’t overlook the CEO’s key role in leading change communication.
To Level Up means to fulfill the role and responsibilities of your leadership level rather than one level below, according to US business consultant Leigh Bailey (2020). Many leaders fail to fully understand the deliverables of their level of leadership, especially if they are newly promoted into the role. This is one reason why organizations are often over-managed but under-led. It is also why leaders have a hard time getting out of the weeds and thinking and acting more strategically. CEO’s have a key role in leading change communication in these uncertain times. Leveling Up for CEOs means:
McKinsey consultants say the change factors that matter most start with the right leadership style: “Organizations that excel at implementation foster a leadership style that sets bold aspirations with clear accountability— emphasizing the challenging and supportive dimensions of leadership over the authoritative and consultative qualities that may be effective in other situations.”
At the same time, CEOs need to be very aware that ‘command-and-control’ leadership rarely creates sustainable change. “It rarely generates respect for the leader; it is usually fueled by fear,” states change management consultant Dr Jennifer Frahm, who goes on to say in her 2017 book, Conversations of Change:”
“People revert to previous practices, attitudes and values until the next threat of consequence comes down from on high. Implementation of successful change and the realization of benefits will always benefit from consequence management.”
“The right buzz” is also important. Great implementers also create the right buzz around change by engaging the broader organization. They recognize that few employees have any interest in their employer’s share price, let alone its return on equity. Rather than spamming everyone with generic communication materials, leaders instead methodically cascade a compelling change story through the entire business. It’s a difficult balance, because the core message must be meaningful to as broad a range of the workforce as possible yet also be personal and relevant to the specific audience.
Business consultant, Tony Schwartz, observes in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article that business transformations are typically built around new structural elements, including policies, processes, facilities, and technology. Some companies also focus on behaviors — defining new practices, training new skills, or asking employees for new deliverable. But:
“What most organizations typically overlook is the internal shift — what people think and feel — which has to occur in order to bring the strategy to life. This is where resistance tends to arise — cognitively in the form of fixed beliefs, deeply held assumptions and blind spots; and emotionally, in the form of the fear and insecurity that change engenders. All of this rolls up into our mindset, which reflects how we see the world, what we believe and how that makes us feel.”
Shwartz believes the result is that transforming a business also depends on transforming individuals — beginning with the most senior leaders and influencers. One of the most effective tools to address this is a series of provocative questions Shwartz and his team ask leaders and their teams to build a practice around, asking themselves:
Strong strategy remains key to transformation, but successful execution also requires finding out and continuously addressing the invisible reasons that people and cultures so often resist changing, even when the way they’re working isn’t working. It is especially important for CEOs to play a key role in leading change communication as COVID-19 and its variants cause havoc around the world.
Image: Wendy Hirsch, change consultant.
Role-modeling desired mindsets and behavior
Building a strong and committed top team
Relentlessly pursuing impact
Essential to include the head of change communication in planning and implementing change
At the start of the change program, the CEO needs to start communicating at the organizational level. Proactive communication can minimize resistance and make employees feel like they are part of the process. The change communication should ensure the needs of people at the 3 levels shown in Wendy Hirsch’s diagram, above, are addressed.
Of course, the CEO should start the process by communicating about the vision and future of the organization. Too many senior leaders then fall into the trap of continuing to communicate exclusively about vision and the future of the organization, but firstly they should address the most relevant questions employees have about the change. Several of the key questions to be answered at the beginning of change include:
Communication is most effective when it starts early in the project lifecycle. Early communication is more proactive and can reduce the negative consequences that occur from failing to engage employees, such as misinformation and rumors, which can be devastating. This misinformation can breed resistance and it creates large barriers to overcome later in the change cycle. Jennifer Frahm’s Twitter message on ‘Principles of Change Management:’
“Communicate what is known, what is unknown, and when you expect to know more.”
Even if your CEO hasn’t developed all the details of the change, the known information still needs to be communicated to employees. For instance, the CEO can still share information about the need for change and the risk of not changing. Even communicating that not all the answers are known, and giving employees a date to expect answers is more effective than remaining silent. This is an important indicator of the CEO’s key role in leading change communication.
Early communication lays the foundation for engaged employees and successful change. Jennifer Frahm says that stakeholders are already listening and observing, so you need to actively keep them in the loop as early as possible. Therefore, when the project reaches the ‘go-live’ point, employees have the information they need to become involved in solutions. Conversely, when communication starts late, there is an uphill battle to share the necessary information and dispel misinformation and rumors.
Answers to these questions will enable you to understand the size and complexity of the changes so you can prepare effective communication activities for the CEO and the change process generally. Running through these basic questions is a good way to get leaders to think more widely about the people aspects of change. These questions are based on a 2014 Gatehouse/CIPR guide to communicating change to employees.
At the start of a major program of change, the CEO needs to proactively get the broad content right in their employee communication, as stated in the Gatehouse/CIPR guide quoted above:
Prosci change management consultants have developed a change communication checklist, which you can use as a guide for your change communication activities and your role in supporting your CEO. This will help to to clarify the CEO’s key role in leading change communication.
This image relates to item 8 above. It is from Prosci, based on employee surveys.
You can read more about the role of communicating effectively to employees in tough times in my article on the topic.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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