Communication and Change Management

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COMMUNICATION & CHANGE MANAGEMENT
By Ralph Masengill

 

Ralph Masengill Jr, author of “Conquer Change & Win: An Easy-to-Read Fun Book on the Serious Subject of Change,” shares advice and strategies on how to improve communication during a time of change, on Big Blend Radio.

 

Change Management and communication go hand in glove. Without excellent communications little will be or can be learned about this fascinating subject of change.  Most of the people in charge are the people who know little or, as most often is the case, they do not know enough about change or how to management it. 

The Harvard Business Review says in working with leaders, and in my research asking followers what they need during times of strategic change, there are three main ways in which leaders too often send confusing signals to their organizations. Get them right, and you can signal clearly and effectively; fail to pay attention to how and what you are signaling in these three modes, and you will have confusion at best — and at worst, the opposite of the strategic changes you’ve asked for.

Step one is telling your organization what you want.  You’d think this would be the easy bit, but the evidence suggests that this is where leaders most shortchange their organizations. Too many followers tasked with delivering strategic change report that their leaders weren’t clear enough about what they wanted the change to achieve or about what it would entail.

It seems the reasons for this are twofold:  Leaders too often express what they want in terms not of outcomes, but not of tasks, and they rarely, if ever, make clear the full extent of the change they are asking for.

One client I worked with recently was trying to make its business more customer-centric. Its leaders had expressed what they wanted as a list of activities that their middle managers would be asked to work on. There were nine projects. The list gave middle managers clarity about what to do, certainly, but it told them nothing about why they were doing it, or how their myriad activities might fit together to create a cohesive program. So we worked with them to re-express what they wanted as outcome-level targets. “Conduct exit interviews with all departing customers” became “reduce the customer attrition rate,” for example. A target to improve cross-selling rates through more outbound calls per month became, simply, “improve profit per customer.”  And because the middle managers now knew the targets outcomes leaders wanted, within months they were able to identify better, smarter, and cheaper ways to deliver them. Instead of nine projects, they settled on just two, which drove alignment across activities as well as accountability for them.  And because the two were chosen by people close to the business, who understood the interactions of customer data and processes far better than the senior management team could (or should); the projects had a far better chance of delivering their outcomes. When asked why they knew it was these particular two projects they should work on, the middle managers said, “Well, we knew what the outcomes had to be. And we know how the business works, so it’s not that hard.” The importance of specifying outcomes for followers, rather than choosing activities for them was clear.

Why is this signal so hard to get right? Leadership teams I’ve worked with have an almost primal urge to give their middle managers a list of activities. It makes them feel like action is being taken and that they are helping their hard-pressed middle managers by telling them exactly what to do. It’s also much easier to jump from “We need to change” to “Here’s what to do” than it is to thrash out the difficult trade-offs involved.

Left to their own devices, many leadership teams shortchange the questions of what they want the change to achieve, and why. When we work with leaders, we often have to push them to continue thinking about these questions and to answer them with sufficient clarity. But even as we do, we regularly have someone in the leadership team come up to us in a coffee break and say something along the lines of, “So, all this is great, but when are we going to get down to it? You know, talk about what we’re actually going to do.” It usually takes several conversations, and stubbornness, to help them see that this is what they as leaders needed to “get down to” — and, conversely, that until this is done, any scoping out of activities is premature.


In particular, there are four questions that senior teams often skate through too quickly:

 

  1. Why do we need to change, and why now? What are the imperatives driving this change? Why is  the previous strategy no longer good enough? Where on the P&L are we feeling, or anticipating? Pain?  Are you sure you want X to change, even if it means you can’t have Y anymore?

 

  1. What is the full extent of the change we need? Don’t underestimate the extent of the change you need, either privately or publicly. However tempting it is to tell people that this is just an incremental change — when it is nothing of the sort — or however politically expedient it seems to underplay the extent of the change required, a lack of clarity about the extent of the change required will make subsequent conversations about resources and priorities much harder.

 

  1. If we figure out 1 and 2, what should improve as a result? How will we measure the improvement? We’ve been targeting? And now perhaps most overlooked of all:

 

  1. How does this new strategy or change link to previous strategies? Answering this question is critical if leaders are to reduce the confusion that a cumulative overload of strategic or change initiatives — another year, another “strategy” — and their potentially conflicting targets can cause. If leaders can’t explain these links clearly, then you need to revisit the need for this change (Questions 1–3) or phase out some of the existing initiatives.


Once you have sufficiently clear answers to these four questions, you have the first ingredient for successful signaling. It is my opinion that if you do not go through these steps, your chance for real success is small, small indeed.

The leader must understand the change being planned—in all probability, that by now, it should be clear that change management is a people business.  At the beginning, it might seem that the re- sisters have the upper hand. To counteract that, you must be an excellent communicator. All change agents must be quality leaders, and all good leaders know how to communicate well to one or a group of people.


Here are some common mistakes that communicators and change agents make in the communication process. All are from Chapter 12 in my latest book “Conquer Change and Win”:

  1. They are not good listeners.
  2. They are not fully prepared.
  3. They do not communicate face-to-face with groups or individuals. Instead, they deliver good (and especially bad) news by email or post to a bulletin board. 
  4. They beat around the bush when problems arise and do not face issues head-on or in the open. 
  5. They do not participate in plan-related celebrations and by that communicate that they are not team players in some eyes. 
  6. They are not enthusiastic about the project, or they give that appearance.
  7. They use a cookie-cutter approach. They believe everyone will act the same way to the same stimuli.
  8. They have a “my way or the highway” approach and do not listen to or take suggestions from the group or individuals.
  9. They do not ask questions to find out where the group is on the learning and buying-in process.

There are many other common errors in communication. This list should give you a general idea of the things not to do.  One of the main pillars of the change process is good communication practices. A change agent or anyone in a leadership role should  have good communication skills in abundance.


What other attributes should good change agents and leaders possess? In addition to being good communicators, they should be likeable. They should be able to make friends easily and enjoy being with people from all segments of the company’s staff—from management to the hourly worker. You will not find these qualities listed on a person’s résumé. No matter how knowledgeable someone is, if he or she cannot pass the likability test, that person should not be the leader of the change process.

Here are six more must-haves of solid communicators to round out the package:

  1. They are always clear and concise. To good communicators, this is second nature. Here are two true examples from paraphrased conversations between Lady Astor and Winston Churchill. As you may remember, they had a great dislike for each other. They both demonstrate being clear and concise.

At a cocktail party: “Winston, you are drunk.” “Yes, I am drunk, and you are ugly. Tomorrow I will be sober, and you will still be ugly.”

Later at the same party: “Winston, if you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee.” “And, madam, if I were your wife, I would drink it.”

  1. Good communicators are great listeners.
  2. Excellent communicators need a teacher persona and the patience of Job.
  3. Communicators you want to listen to have a great attitude.
  4. They genuinely enjoy being with and among people.
  5. They have a lot of enthusiasm and are full of energy.

By now I will bet you see the full picture.  Without excellent communication skills there will be no successful change management.  It is just that simple.  Don’t let the simplicity fool you.  It takes superior leadership and a solid foundation in the study of change to get the job done right the first time.  In many cases there will not be a second chance.  As that great Tennessee hero Davy Crockett said on more than one occasion while in Congress, “Always be sure you are right and only then go ahead.”

You can never lead successfully until you have a clear and solid understanding of how to communicate to the people in your audience.   Davy Crockett had it right.  Knowledge that cannot be communicated correctly is nothing more than arrogance and he or she is of little value to the team concept.  All good and great leaders are good and great communicators.

Ralph Masengill Jr. is a best-selling author and award-winning advisor, coach, marketing expert, business consultant and public relations strategist. His latest, and ‘must-read’ book is “Conquer Change and Win: An Easy-to-Read Fun Book on the Serious Subject of Change.” www.ConquerChangeandWin.com

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About the Author:

Ralph Masengill Jr. is a best-selling author and award-winning advisor, coach, marketing expert, business consultant and public relations strategist. His latest, and ‘must-read’ book is “Conquer Change and Win: An Easy-to-Read Fun Book on the Serious Subject of Change.”

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