June 5, 2019

Signs of Change

This morning on my way to the office, I saw a sign edited to say “Mario Cuomo Bridge” and I thought “Does anyone really call it that?” – I mean I don’t even think Waze refers to it that way (I haven’t verified this and could be wrong). It’s been the Tappan Zee Bridge since construction began in 1952. Actually, to be more precise, it was the Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge – but most people just call it “the Tap.” It was renamed for NY’s former governor Mario Cuomo in 2017, and Wikipedia even breaks up the entry for the bridge; 1952-2017, and 2017-present (the latter entry refers to the bridge by its new name in the facts box, but the overall content remains under the headline Tappan Zee Bridge).

Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve been renaming lots of familiar landmarks, including many bridges. The Queensboro Bridge, referred to by most New Yorkers as the 59th Street Bridge (based on its location in Manhattan), was renamed the Ed Koch Bridge in 2010 for the city’s outspoken former mayor; the Triborough Bridge was renamed for Robert F Kennedy in 2008. New Yorkers (myself included) continue to call the bridges by their former names. 

#Change is hard. And if it’s so hard to adjust to a new name, imagine how hard it is for employees or customers to adjust to a new process, new leadership or new direction. 

#ChangeManagement isn’t just about making the decision to make a change, and then telling your teams: here’s the new strategy. Effective change management has to include communication. Lots of it. You need to help your teams understand not just the “what” but the “why.” If we don’t understand why something is changing, we are more likely to resist it.

When thinking about messaging for any kind of change, the hardest part is shifting your perspective away from what you want your audience to hear, and toward what your audience needs to hear. That may seem like semantics, but it’s not.

When working with JVComms clients on internal and external plans to communicate upcoming changes, we first ask leaders what they want their organizations to know. Almost always, they respond that the key message should be around all the benefits of the change being rolled out. I agree that is important, but I think it skips several steps. What the organization needs to hear and understand is why the decision was made and how it will make things better in the long run, even if there are some growing pains along the way.

The next issue we tackle is timing. Yes, often complex changes involve new partnerships, M&A, even outgoing/incoming leaders, so there must be a layer of #confidentiality while details are negotiated and confirmed -- material announcements obviously can’t be communicated internally until disclosed. But before they are announced, a significant portion of time and consideration should be given to how and how often the changes will be explained internally. An email suggesting employees should read an attached press release that was just issued is not sufficient.

The most critical success factor in a sweeping company change is empowering and encouraging employees and other audience members to play an active role; and that means being available and forthcoming with information, and being consistent in what various audiences hear. Access to leadership is equally important. Already have a robust internal communications platform? Double the frequency of face-to-face meetings. Add executive Q+A forums. There is no such thing as overcommunicating when the information delivered is relevant.

Most importantly, leaders must acknowledge the #painpoints – that is as critical as highlighting the benefit of the endgame. Too often leaders are so enthusiastic about the change and it’s expected outcome that they don’t focus enough with internal audiences on the path to get there. Employees don’t want a varnished key message, they want the truth and understanding of the impact the change will have on their area in the immediate term. That’s not just change management, that’s authentic leadership. In the end, #authenticity trumps all.

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