A burning platform for change gives senior executives the chance to explain a situation in simple terms: either the organisation adapts or it pays the ultimate price. The harder story to sell comes when the upside of taking a completely new direction is not so clear cut for employees; all they can see is a direct threat to their own futures.
Criticaleye spoke to a range of business leaders to find out the different contexts for change and the approaches that can be taken.
1) Build a narrative
Identifying the reason for transformation and the narrative you’re going to wrap around it is essential. Gary Kildare, Chief HR Officer at IBM Europe, comments: “The biggest support to change is recognising the need to do it. If you have a burning platform, it means something is fundamentally wrong and you are compelled as a leader to address that urgently – you’ve simply got to make a shift.”
David Johnson, Chief Operating Officer at engineering concern Meggitt, agrees: “A significant event, such as a major economic downturn or loss of key customers, are obvious reasons for change.”
In theory, it should be easier to gain alignment when there is a systemic shift in the marketplace. By contrast, it can be harder to do “when there’s a slow decline in market share or competitors are slowly building up stronger technology,” says David.
“That’s when leaders need to create and communicate that compelling reason, that vision, for people to do something different,” he continues. “To do this they need to ask themselves: why, what, how and when do we need to change?”
2) Link back to customers
One of the strongest reasons for transformation is that customers expect more and want a different kind of service. It presents an either/or scenario which is linked irrevocably with the future of the business.
Naomi Gillies, Head of Future Planning and Sustainable Development for retail group the John Lewis Partnership, comments: “If you take Jessops or HMV as examples, their customers were telling them something very different about what they wanted. You constantly have to listen to your customers.”
According to Charlie Wagstaff, Managing Director of Executive Membership for Criticaleye, companies need better mechanisms for customer feedback: “The simple reality is: without customers, there is no business. Some leaders get so wrapped up in the day-to-day, they forget the customer should be at the heart of any dialogue or change agenda, whether it’s about the service or indeed the brand.”
A similar point is made by Ruth Euling, Sales Director for Currency at De La Rue, a supplier of identity and product authentication services to governments and multinationals: “Everything we do should be around making the customer experience better. How will this make customers want to buy or use our services more?”
Drawing on customer opinion will also make the changes more palpable. David says: “I would articulate the vision in terms of customer service, so I want us to be delivering at a particular level to customers and I want us to be doing it routinely. This would make the vision something tangible, rather than abstract.”
3) Build alignment
Before changes can be introduced, the leadership team must be united. Ruth says: “It’s critical to get the leadership team standing shoulder-to-shoulder... Then you need to think about influencers throughout the organisation because, irrespective of hierarchy… it’s important to recognise who they are and use them.”
If you don’t identify and use the influencers, Ruth says the danger is that the new vision will get “frozen in middle management” and won’t be bought into by the rest of the organisation.
Steve Allen, Managing Director for TfL (Transport for London), comments: “Leadership, in the sense of setting out a vision and communicating that clearly, is vital to any change, but it’s also important to note that ambassadors at every level of the organisation can be equally important to the ultimate success of any change programme.”
Once you have that alignment, the communications that go across the organisation need to be regular and consistent. David comments: “Many organisations launch with a lot of impact and then don’t communicate again for six months. You’ve got to have a proper communication plan in place.
“Get the message right, repeat it and communicate progress – it gives people the chance to hear the vision again, then leaders need to listen to feedback.”
4) Deal with resistance
It’s inevitable that there will be individuals who push back on the changes. Mike Cutt, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Non-executive Director for Russian mobile phone retailer Svyaznoy, comments: “Blockers are simply people who have different beliefs. They may be loyal to the organisation and they may be committed to doing a good job, but they haven’t bought into the change programme yet.”
To go forward it’s essential to understand why this might be the case. Steve says: “Do they not understand the rationale? Do they think the response is wrong? Do they not buy into the vision or is there some other reason? The factors behind the resistance would require different responses.”
If the transformation in question will lead to job losses, David from Meggitt says you have to be transparent: “There’s no point of denying it. Be honest and give people reassurance where you can. And if there are any opportunities, communicate them.”
Travers Clarke-Walker, Managing Director – EMEA International Division at Fiserv, says leaders need to think about how to deal with redundancies in advance. By way of example, he mentions the banking industry and the ongoing reduction of branches, and says one way to deal with ensuing job losses is to teach branch teams new skills.
“If you go to branch staff and say: ‘We’d like you to go on the shop floor with digital devices and help customers,’ then some of those staff will become skilled in a new way,” he says. “You can then consolidate them into a smaller branch network, move them to different parts of the company or perhaps they’ll move elsewhere in the industry.”
Ultimately, effective change comes down to good communication and knowing how to both dispel fears and manage expectations. Naomi says: “Leadership is one of the most important aspects of change. You need strong leaders who can set a really clear plan of where you’re trying to get to.”
Ruth comments: “As leaders we need to paint a picture of where we’re going…. Think about that high level vision because it’s going to be very hard for people to go with you, if you don’t know where you’re going or why.”
Within this, it’s also crucial to have realistic goals. Travers says: “Sometimes failure is interpreted because you didn’t get to the place you wanted to, or you didn’t get there as fast as you set out.
“If you set the targets too quickly, you will fail. If you set the targets over an appropriate timeframe, you’ll succeed. The real question to ask is whether the appropriate timeframe is fast enough relative to your market and what’s going on around you?”
Whether it’s evolution or revolution, managing change will be an ongoing leadership challenge in the majority of organisations. Success or failure will depend on your ability to get people to believe in what you’re saying, so they genuinely buy-in to your blueprint for the future.
I hope to see you soon.