Leading People Through Times of Major Change
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Episode 31 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio, Episode 31: Leading People Through Times of Major Change.
(Music playing)… This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth. On the web at www.businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. And right here with me is my business partner and husband Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi, Pam. As usual it’s wonderful to be here with you today. If this is your first time listening to Growth Igniters Radio, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration and immediately useful ideas for leaders to take themselves and their companies to their next level of success. So Pam, what are we taking on today?
Pam Harper: Leading people through times of major change.
Scott Harper: Major change…
Pam Harper: Major change. It’s never easy − whether it’s minor change or major change − it definitely has a top and bottom line impact on everyone’s success. That’s why we’re especially happy to have Dr. Leslie Austin as our guest today. Leslie is affectionately known as “The Lion Tamer,” and she was our guest on episode four of Growth Igniters Radi,o where we spoke about dealing with difficult star performers. She’s an executive coach, organizational consultant and psychotherapist with the unique expertise of being able to help companies and individual executives live up to their full potential. She appears frequently on national and local media, including Nancy Grace and the Headlines News Network. Leslie, welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio.
Leslie Austin: Thanks Pam and Scott, it’s a real pleasure. You guys are doing a great job on your episodes; they sound really good.
Scott Harper: Why thank you.
Pam Harper: Yes. We’re glad you’re listening. Let’s talk about this whole concept of major change…
Leslie Austin: Sure.
Pam Harper: It often results in strong emotions for the people involved. What have you seen as the biggest challenges that CEOs and other leaders have in leading people through these especially difficult times?
Leslie Austin: Well, first of all, it’s not often, it’s always that intense emotions come up around times of change in companies. Most people like consistency, and they like to know what’s going to be happening, so times of change can be very threatening if you’re not one of the people making the changes and excited about it.
Pam Harper: The biggest challenge that the CEO’s and these other leaders have is communicating consistently with people?
Leslie Austin: Yes, staying in contact with people, not hiding, but also managing the information that you give out properly. You want to have a good balance between how much disclosure you give about what’s going on with the changes and keeping confidentiality for things that are too premature to be announced to everybody in your company. If you manage the information properly and you keep a good balance and you’re consistent and you’re not hiding, but you’re not giving too much information to throw people, what you find is that you can manage the mood in the company much better as the company goes through a process of change.
Scott Harper: Can you give an example of a situation that you observed, or even worked with?
Leslie Austin: Yeah, I’m thinking of as you ask me that, I’m thinking of a situation a long time ago where I was coaching at an investment bank. The head of the area was a very introverted guy. He was quite brilliant, but he was extremely introverted and he didn’t like speaking up at meetings. He was making a lot of changes in the area and the people who worked for him were the kind of − it was operation controls for a global investment bank − the back office, the computer systems, all of that. He was not communicating his plans or what he was doing. These guys were very smart and very aggressive and very brilliant and creative. They were computer programmers. They’re kind of like rocket scientists of operations. He had a mess on his hands because everybody was telling stories. Everybody was gossiping. Everybody was making conclusions.
I eventually worked with him to start having meetings and just make some notes on note cards and stay on message, but talk to people and say, “It’s too early to tell you this, but I can tell you this, and I promise I’ll keep you informed when I have something clear to tell you − when I have something productive and useful to tell you − but please don’t pay any attention to gossip and rumors. If you want to know something, come to me.” It turned it around, but it was hard for him to do that, because, he was so introverted and he wasn’t used to communicating regularly.
Scott Harper: Yeah, and so what we hear is that in the absence of information, people will make up information. That can have a really adverse effect upon business performance. The thing is, we see a lot of uncertainty from leaders about whether they should even acknowledge, let alone get involved with distress in the company as things change.
Pam Harper: There are plenty of leaders who do focus on communicating. They’ll say something like, “Well, it’s important for us all right now to focus on what we can do, not what we can’t do.”
Scott Harper: You say “focus on what you can do,” but you’re not necessarily acknowledging the distress.
Leslie Austin: Exactly.
Scott Harper: What’s the risk?
Leslie Austin: I think that it’s a mistake not to acknowledge the distress. I think underlying all consistent communications for CEOs and leaders needs to be a certain level of authenticity and honesty. Now, I’m not saying that means you blab everything you know and you make yourself appear and you share the entire process with everybody. That would be a disaster. You want to be appropriate. There’s a balance between being authentic, and it’s very important to acknowledge “I know you’re all in distress. We’re all feeling tense. I’m feeling tense. It’s too soon in this process to know exactly how it’s going to pan out, but I promise you I will keep you informed as soon as I have anything to say that is clear and useful. I’m not going to pop a big surprise on you without talking to you about it.” That’s a way of being a steady leader. You’re not disclosing negotiations, or your plans for downsizing, merging or changing or growing or whatever the change issue is.
You’re not going through the details, but you are giving out a message and a mood, and you’re being a leader. You are shaping the mood of the people who work for you in your company. What you want to do then is empower your executives and your managers to stay on message with you. You want to have meetings with them to let them know what the company line is right now. Again, it needs to be something honest and authentic and appropriate. Not too much information and not too little. Acknowledging distress is the fastest way to reassure people, because, at least you’re being truthful. It’s like all of our politicians right now, we hardly believe anything they say, because, we know they’re all posturing. They’re all trying to get good press and get the right sound bite on social media, but nobody really believes much of anything our politicians are saying, because, very little of it is authentic. Most of it is posturing. You want to be a real person talking to real people, but hierarchically appropriate.
Pam Harper: The more authentic people can be, leaders can be, the more they can acknowledge that this is a tough time. The more they can say, I’ll keep you posted as things are happening.” − that that’s a beginning part.
Leslie Austin: “I know we’re all under stress. I’m under stress. As soon as there’s anything that I can tell you that makes things clearer, I will be happy to let you know.”
Pam Harper: Okay, that makes sense. We’re going to take a quick break right now, and when we come back, we’ll be speaking more with Dr. Leslie Austin about how CEOs can lead through times of major change. Stay with us. (Music playing).
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio and Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. On the web at www.businessadvance.com. We enable successful companies to accelerate to their next level of innovation and growth. If you like what you’re hearing, spread the good word. Go to www.growthignitersradio.com, select Episode 31, and use the share links for Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter at the top right of the page to tell your social media communities all about us. Use #growthigniters. This will help extend our reach to all of the people who can benefit from this series. (Music playing).
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Dr. Leslie Austin about when and how leaders can help people in their organizations cope with the emotional distress that can be triggered by major changes in the company. Leslie, how can people find out more about you?
Leslie Austin: Oh, they can go to my website www.leslieaustin.com.
Pam Harper: You can also see Leslie’s full bio by going to Episode 31 of Growth Igniters Radio. That’s www.growthignitersradio.com.
We’ve been talking about the organization as a whole, and how leaders can step in and deal with some of the mass anxiety that comes up during these times of major change. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the individual situations that can come up, because, emotional distress − stress comes in different ways for different people. Some people are very good at keeping it to themselves. I don’t know if that’s good or not particularly, but they don’t necessarily display the signs. Other times there are people who are clearly not doing well.
Scott Harper: And sometimes there are people who actually thrive on stress.
Pam Harper: Yes. The thing that I really wanted to ask you is when should a leader step in? What are some of the signs and signals that can alert leaders that someone may be in distress?
Leslie Austin: Right. I made a comment before the break about the CEO acting in a hierarchically appropriate way. What I mean by that is, unless it’s a very small company, it’s not really that appropriate for the CEO to be talking to individual employees about their personal emotional upsets − unless it’s a company where the CEO actually has very personal relationships with a number of the employees. If it’s a little bigger than that, or it’s set up in a slightly more business like setting, you want to coach your managers and your executives to be the ones to be in contact with all of the other employees in the company. They’re the ones who should be reassuring people and talking to them. They should have the same message you’re giving out, so your job as the CEO at the top of the pyramid is to take your next level of managers and executives and work with them consistently and empower them to stay in touch with and work with the rest of your employees. That way you’re giving the message, you’re the leader, but you’re not getting down into the weed with individual people.
Pam Harper: Individual people in this sense could be individual members of the executive team. They’re all impacted by the major changes too.
One of the things that we’ve also experienced − I know I have − is leading people and the performance is impacted.
Leslie Austin: Yes.
Pam Harper: People will come to me and say, “How do I deal with Joe? Joe’s performance is impacted. I think he is emotionally depressed and what do I do about this?”
Leslie Austin: Right. If the person who’s having problems is one of the senior executives, of course the CEO is going to talk with them and work with them directly, but if it’s somebody further down the hierarchy you want to empower your executives to deal with them. It’s important for the CEO and the executives to notice the mood in the company. Are people depressed? Is the mood down? What’s going on around the water cooler?
Scott Harper: How can they tell?
Leslie Austin: You can tell those things, just literally by walking around. You can tell if there’s a productive buzz or it seems subdued or if you know people in the company and you know what they’re normally like. Is their mood about the same? Do they seem down? If you or a manager comes across someone who seems really depressed, you can’t fix them, but what you can do again is be honest and authentic and say, “I see you’re struggling. Is there anything I can do or suggest to you to support you to go back to your usual good performance during this time of transition?” You don’t have to have the answer, but by acknowledging the employee’s stress or the executive’s stress, without telling them how to be or telling them how to fix it, but being supportive and yet appropriately honest. Not trying to leak information to them or falsely reassure them, saying “everything is going to be all right,” when you don’t know that it will is a really bad idea.
People think you’re lying. Even if you’re well intentioned and you want to reassure people and you’re nervous yourself, don’t go overboard and say, I’ll take care of you.” I had an executive who did this. “Don’t worry, you’ll all be fine. I’ll take care of you all.” In his mind he meant he’d give extra great severance packages when they downsized. That’s not what his employees wanted to hear. When he began firing people, even though the packages were very generous, people who he knew from the factory floor said, “You said you’d take care of me. This is not taking care of me. How am I going to get another job? I’m not skilled.” He meant well, but in the end they thought he was lying to them or disrespecting them.
Pam Harper: In this case, taking care of was too vague . . .
Scott Harper: Yeah.
Leslie Austin: Yes.
Pam Harper: He really needed to be very specific about what we was going to do.
Leslie Austin: Well intentioned, but an empty promise. It falsely led people to believe that things would be better than he knew they could be.
Scott Harper: I think it’s important that you talk about how it has to cascade down through executive leadership to managers and so on. That means there has to be a consistent message, a consistent communication throughout that chain of command.
Leslie Austin: Absolutely.
Scott Harper: People know what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, and you don’t have a patchwork of firefighting all over the company that could really cause even more distress.
Leslie Austin: Right. Now the other half of that is you want to be able to empower yourself as the leader or the CEO and your executives and managers to listen. You want to be able to have people complain. Have them disagree with what the plans are. Have them give you blow back and Facebook without a negative consequence. You don’t want to punish or retaliate somebody who’s angry and protesting. You really want to listen as neutrally as you can, because you’d be surprised how much useful information they can give you − but you can’t have a negative consequence. You have to create a two way flow of information, so that people discharge their upset. You’re not promising to fix it, but you are acknowledging that they are a human being and they may have feelings and you can respect that they have feelings, even if you’re not going to give them what they want.
As an executive you want to give out a consistent message, and part of the message is “If my door isn’t always open, your manager’s door is always open. To whom you report, your team leader’s door is always open.” You as the executive need to make sure that that flow of communications is open and you want to be aware of the feedback you get. You have to be aware about how you’re coming across. What kind of a mood are you communicating? What kind of a pose? It’s almost like you are a politician. What’s the image that you’re conveying? Is it consistent? Is it honest? Is it authentic and is it appropriate?
Pam Harper: That’s a lot to deal with. And of course the CEOs and the senior executives are people too, and they’re going through this major change. How can they take care of themselves emotionally during this time? Sometimes there’s a double standard, you know? “I have to keep that stiff upper lip” and everybody else is dealing.
Leslie Austin: No, no, no. Part of being authentic is you don’t keep the stiff upper lip. You can tell people, “This is stressful for all of us. I’m dealing with it too. We’re all in this together.”
Pam Harper: How do they deal with it though?
Leslie Austin: Well, obviously you have to keep a balance in your life. You’ve got to remember that work is not everything, and no matter how challenging or dire a situation may be in your company, you’re still a human-being separate from the company. If the company, heaven forbid, disappeared tomorrow, you’d still be here. Who are you? How do you take care of your life? You can’t neglect your family or your home life. You can’t neglect the inner life that you have. You can’t neglect eating properly and exercising, and if you meditate, meditate and do whatever habits you have that stabilize you. If you’re a runner, you have to make sure you make time to run. No change in a company is more important than you taking care of yourself, because, you are the leader and you have to set the mood and the tone for everyone else. You’re not going to be able to manage the emotional upsets or the blowback if you’re not centered and balanced yourself.
You are number one, and then you are the model for your executives and managers and you are the model for everybody else on your team and in your company for staying centered and riding through this together, and we’ll get through is as best we can. In the meantime, let’s keep talking.
I just want to make one more quick point. As a leader or CEO, do not imagine that anything − even in a privately held company − do not imagine that anything is private anymore. People can record conversations in audio on SmartPhones. They record videos all the time − We see in the news people are videoing every event on the street. People gossip. People talk. People talk to other people in the neighborhood whose cousin works in the beauty salon where your wife goes and makes a comment.
With social media and the way people talk, you cannot assume that anything is private, so be very careful what you say out loud − and that’s the other reason to be authentic. It’s actually much easier to be an authentic leader. It’s not about working hard and it’s not about posing, it’s being your best self.
Pam Harper: That’s true.
Leslie Austin: It’s much less work. Our culture thinks you have to work hard to be authentic. That’s the lie. That’s really the lie.
Pam Harper: The more authentic that CEOs and senior executives can be in terms of what they are experiencing and just acknowledging that they’re going through a tough time. That gives people permission to acknowledge that it’s not easy. It sounds like that way people can begin to get through this tough time together.
Leslie Austin: Yes, and you want to create a mood of respect and dignity.
Pam Harper: That’s the most important thing.
Leslie Austin: This is not crying on your sleeve. It’s very respectful and very dignified. Everybody’s a human being, and everybody’s working on the issue.
Pam Harper: That’s right. We’re going to take another quick break, and when we come back we’ll continue our conversation with Dr. Leslie Austin about immediately actionable steps that CEOs can take to help their people get through those major times of change. Stay with us. (Music playing).
Scott Harper: Are you thinking that it’s about time for you and your company to accelerate to your next level of growth and profitability? Well if so, contact us today to find out how we can partner with you and your team to create a highly customized powerful Growth Igniters Executive Retreat as a first step. Client results have included gaining new insights, inspiration, commitment and alignment on issues of leadership, strategy, collaboration, and much more. Go to www.growthignitersradio.com, click “contact us” at the bottom of the page, and we’ll get back to you to discuss options for helping your achieve your most important goals. (Music playing).
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments Scott and I have been talking with Dr. Leslie Austin about when and how leaders can help people in their organizations cope with the emotional distress that can be triggered by major changes in the company. Leslie, can you tell people again how they can find out more about you.
Leslie Austin: Sure, you can just go to my website − www.leslieaustin.com.
Pam Harper: Let’s get over to our area that we talk about immediately actionable advice that CEOs and senior executives can use to help people get through times of major change. Let’s take this one at a time.
Leslie Austin: Sure. Let me give you a couple of things for CEOs and senior executives to do, and some thing to not do as well. The first thing is you want to manage your communications with others in your company as a regular part of your job. It’s not catch as catch can. It’s not when you happen to remember it. Don’t ignore communicating two ways, back and forth with everybody in your company. Again, you want to be appropriate, but truthful. You want to be as authenticate as you can in a respectful and dignified way. And you don’t ever want to use telling the truth about what’s going on as a weapon to scare or intimidate people in a mistaken effort to control what people say.
Pam Harper: Is there a particular way to communicate that you think that works best, is it meetings? Is it newsletters? Is it all of the above?
Leslie Austin: Any or all, that really depends on the best communication style of the CEO or leader. Are you better at meetings? Are you better − you can have a weekly newsletter that goes out, or even a daily two line bulletin or something. If you can communicate in writing, send out notices to everybody. Put up notices on the walls where employees meet. If there’s a lunch room put notices up. If you have a Facebook page or an internal social media, communicate there. Walk around, talk to people if you are that kind of a person. If you’re comfortable doing that. Whatever suits you best and more than one way is always fine. Stay in the loop with your people. The thing is we’re all in this boat together. The ocean is rocky, but we’re all going to steer together and we’re fine.
Pam Harper: Uh-huh. Then also of course it’s making sure that it’s a channel of communication that people would actually use, I would think.
Leslie Austin: Yes.
Pam Harper: Okay. What’s the second piece of advice?
Leslie Austin: Well, this is a little bit controversial I think − but I do not advocate turning over the actual implementation process of change to consultants. I think consultants need to support you as the CEO or leader and your executives, but you have to do the implementing, because, there’s nothing people resent more than − as a consultant I know this − some consultant coming in and saying, “well we’re going to fix you and you’ll do this and you’ll do that.” It doesn’t work. They don’t have the relationships built with the people in the company.
Pam Harper: Absolutely.
Leslie Austin: Be careful of giving away too much of your power. You want to be the one in charge. You want to give a certain image. You want to have consistency and accuracy and an even tone in how you communicate and how you appear with your people and you want to do it regularly. Always pay attention to the messages you’re communicating both intentionally and unintentionally. If you walk around or if you pay attention to the feedback you’ll see if you have to fine tune the way you’re coming across. If people are snarky at you or cynical or you hear cynical things, something about the way you’re communicating is probably not authentic.
Pam Harper: Uh-huh. I agree with you. Just for the record, we agree with you that you cannot delegate these kinds of issues. You have to take ownership − so we definitely see eye-to-eye on this.
Scott Harper: Yeah − you can seek advice on how to do it, but in the end, you’re the one who’s doing it.
Leslie Austin: Absolutely. And most importantly of all, because, it’s your company and you have the relationships with your people.
Pam Harper: That’s true, because, it’s about trust. Leslie, tell us about the third thing they can do.
Leslie Austin: I’ll just remind you that you really want to make sure that there are no negative consequences for people responding and speaking up. You might want to occasionally, even − very carefully, I say this − even have something like what they used to call a “good and welfare,” where you occasionally have a meeting where you and your executives, maybe once a month, listen to the concerns and the complaints of the people in the company. Remember that you are not there to answer their concerns in detail or to say things that are not true, but to listen and take in their feedback so that you can include their concerns as well as you can in the change process. That’s the stated purpose in the meeting. You can even say, “I can’t promise that I’ll be able to address all of your concerns here today, but I need to hear them so that we put them into the process of the change as well as we can.” That is very respectful to people, and it tells you what’s really going on in your company.
Pam Harper: I think the other thing that I would like to bring up here is there are some companies − there are people who are listening who are with companies that have contracts with employee assistance programs. When should leaders refer people for that kind of thing?
Leslie Austin: That’s a great question. Clearly, if an employee is showing the signs of stress − they’re coming in late, they’re not working, they smell of alcohol or something, they’re dysfunctional, or their job performance really plummets and they are not responsive to their manager saying, “I’m concerned about your performance, how can I help you?” Not, “What the heck is wrong with you, or what’s going on?” You don’t want to probe inappropriately, but “I’m concerned and how can I support you to go back to your good performance during this time.” If somebody’s showing signs of stress and they’re not functioning properly, you can always suggest that perhaps they could avail themselves of extra support through employee assistance, but it’s not your job as a manager to be their therapist.
Pam Harper: Well put. Any final thoughts as far as how leaders can help their people get through these times of major change as well as possible?
Leslie Austin: Yes. Again, I want to emphasize − just be real and be appropriate to your position and your mood and your company and to the process of change that’s going on. You know that not all changes are bad. Sometimes when companies are expanding that can be as terrifying to employees. A really great change can be as terrifying as a negative one where it’s downsizing or going out of business or merging. There are a lot of issues. The more you can talk about what the issues are without making false promises, acknowledge that these are concerns that people have, the more people will trust you and the more they’ll go along with you and do their best for you during that process.
Pam Harper: Leslie, thanks so much for being our guest on Growth Igniters Radio.
Leslie Austin: It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much.
Scott Harper: Thanks Leslie, and thanks to who are listening out there to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, find out about upcoming episodes or open a conversation with us, go to growthignitersradio.com and select episode 31.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper . . .
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to think about.
Scott Harper: How can we make our change processes work best for all of us? (Music playing).