One of the most challenging tasks for any manager, often layered on top of many daily responsibilities and activities, is activating a new corporate initiative or strategy. These plans often originate at the senior-most levels of the organization and fall on the shoulders of the managers to enact, sometimes without sufficient support or forethought, unfortunately.
Most corporate initiatives begin with the best of intentions, often compelled by external changes that confront organizations with vast challenges. To succeed, such initiatives ultimately require change at the individual employee level. In other words, each person, regardless of role and responsibilities, must reinvent the way they do their job. And that means behavior and attitude change, too.
Where most initiatives fall apart, as our experience has shown, is in the execution. They’re well planned and launched with much fanfare and attention-getting activities. The CEO and his/her executive team are suddenly highly visible to the organization, talking and writing through various means about the need for change and what is compelling it.
Sometimes, initiatives are branded with catchy names or phrases, and banners and posters hung around the organization’s facilities urging everyone to do “X” in support of the initiative.
But then, things go back to the status quo ante, and everyone returns to doing their jobs as they always had. Banners and posters become yesterday’s wallpaper, scuffed and dusty, largely ignored. The individual employee looks around, sees nothing has really changed, and proceeds accordingly.
Somewhere down the line, the senior team notices, for instance, that their market share slippage is continuing unabated. They see the same external forces threatening the company’s viability and future. They realize that everyone has resumed their old way of doing things. Why?
If they’re honest with themselves, it’s likely because they weren’t role models of change. For instance, if the initiative included severe spending cutbacks and headcount reduction but employees saw that senior executives still got curb-side limo service to and from work every day, the message sent to employees was that the changes being sought were not universal. The CEO and senior team itself were not demonstrating the kinds of behaviors and individual sacrifice and change it expected from the rest of the organization.
The most effective change initiatives are well planned ahead of their actual introduction – planning that anticipates the natural fall-off in interest that accompanies most of these types efforts. Messages are developed and tested, and managers and supervisors are brought into the effort early, fully informed of the rationale for the changes being sought, and provided the necessary background to bolster the case to the larger employee audience.
Regardless of what the initiative is, how broadly it encompasses the organization, and how thorough the pre-planning and message preparation is, the first thing any manager must do is secure as much information about it as possible, review the information, and then check his/her understanding.
- Does it make sense?
- Does it answer the “why” and “what’s in it for me” questions that employees will ask implicitly, if not explicitly?
- Is there any missing information, background, data or context?
- What questions does the manager still have?
If managers and supervisors still have questions after a well thought out introduction, it’s likely their team members will, too. The second step, then, is to fill those information gaps and get answers to the outstanding questions.
Central to this process is the Employee Communications team, whose role is to distill the essence of the initiative into words, ideas and context that are meaningful to people, and linking it clearly to the larger corporate vision and mission. Then, Employee Communications must help guide individual unit managers to make the message germane to their teams and what each individual must do – that is, relevant to their specific function within the organization and their individual responsibilities.
Only then can managers begin to prepare to present the initiative to their teams. They should proceed not in a top-down way but rather in a discussion mode, where employees have the opportunity to talk about it, ask questions and voice concerns. Employees may not agree with the decision (initiative), but if they understand its context and rationale, they will be more like to enact it, and more receptive to procedural changes, even if they disagree with them. For senior level executives and communicators intent on guiding a major change initiative through to success, it is critical to keep this localized context in mind.
At the same time, of equal importance are actions, the active, visible buy-in by the CEO and his/her senior team, modeling the behavior changes they expect from the rest of the organization – not just at launch time but as ongoing habits, central to their personal management style.