4 Ways to Prepare Leaders for Communicating Change

As the number of M&As and reorganizations increase, get ready to lead

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Raise your hand if your organization is changing. According to Dealogic, M&A activity in the first half of 2015 hit an eight-year high, second only to the all-time record set in 2007.

And even if your company isn’t buying or selling, major change — such as reorganizations, layoffs and shifts in benefits and pay — continue to be a fact of life in most organizations.

But many leaders don’t realize the critical role they play in supporting change. In the rush of trying to manage change, it’s easy for leaders to forget how important it is for you to be visible and accessible to employees.

Whether you’re the top dog (CEO or president) or another key leader (VP, function head, or business lead), here’s how you need to communicate during change:

Be clear about your role. Set clear expectations for how your and other leaders will communicate during the change. At a telecommunication company, the CEO brought VPs together to provide an overview of an upcoming organizational change, and to emphasize how important it was that they meet with employees in their areas. VPs were then provided with a leader guide that further articulated their role, and gave them essentials tools to fulfill that role, including key messages and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).

Understand the change. Leaders usually know what’s changing in their own area, but don’t get the full extent of the organization-wide implications. So make sure everyone has the opportunity to learn what’s changing, where and when. The best way to create that understanding? A face-to-face session with senior management. When a pharmaceutical company was undergoing a reorganization, HR organized a half-day session for the company’s top 100 leaders. After the CEO gave a presentation on the change, we created breakout sessions of about 15 people and gave leaders the opportunity to generate questions they thought employees would have. A member of the senior team then answered key questions. By going through this exercise, participants were given a way to express their questions and concerns (by channeling employees).

Learn how employees experience change. After a financial institution announced it was merging with another bank, the communication team heard that VPs and directors were hiding out — not communicating at all with their employees. Why? Interviews revealed that leaders didn’t know what they should be communicating, especially since key decisions had not yet been announced.

The response was a two-hour workshop for leaders that helped them understand why employees needed contact, even if definitive information wasn’t available, and that helped leaders communicate in a time of ambiguity. As a result, 95% of leaders agreed that the session gave them what they needed to facilitate dialogue, address anxiety and gain buy-in for the merger.

Be prepared to answer questions. How do leaders most frequently communicate? Not by presenting, but by answering questions. That’s why it’s critical to focus on questions. The first step is to create FAQs that provide answers to the toughest questions leaders are most likely to receive.

Just as importantly, be prepared with a strategy for responding to questions that can’t be answered — because the answer isn’t known or can’t be shared. In any case, leaders are usually uncomfortable when they can’t provide a ready answer. That’s why the pharmaceutical company I mentioned above made sure leaders were ready. How? The head of HR met with leaders to provide advice about sample responses, including what to say about rumors or when someone expresses anxiety about change.

Leading change is never easy, but by getting out there and talking to your employees, the organization will be set up for success.

How can leaders best communicate change?

A quick guide to don’ts and dos:

Communication coaching for leaders

Now that you know the tools to use, you might be asking, “How can I get through to my leader? He’s not a great communicator, but I don’t know how to help him be more effective.”

It’s a common challenge — and it’s a tough one. The answer is different for every leader, but here are some suggestions to consider:

Use a burning platform to get the leader’s attention. Whether your company is undergoing a major reorganization, layoff or global program, disruptive change is a good catalyst to coach on new ways for your executives to lead change.

Let data make your case. Most leaders are focused on numbers — sales, profits, stock price, etc. — so use quantitative research, such as employee survey data, to provide tangible evidence. Then supplement it with anonymous employee quotes gathered through focus groups or employee interviews.

Benchmark the best. No doubt your leader has other leaders he or she admires. Most well-respected executives (think Jack Welch) are also good communicators. Get as much tangible evidence as you can and use this material as part of your coaching.

Get professional help. Sometimes, despite your skills and experience, you may be too close to the leader to be an effective coach. If that’s the case, bring in an outside expert whom the leader will trust, respect and learn from.

Originally published at https://www.inc.com.

Written by

Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis and Company, the award-winning employee communication firm. Visit https://www.davisandco.com to know more.

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