Coaching Employees Through Strategic Changes

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When a company needs to change, managers should remember that employees respond best to emotional engagement. They want to see managers empathizing with them, understanding their concerns and taking the first step to show them it’s OK to embrace change.

By Jim Haudan

Strategic change is inevitable for most businesses, but how that change is executed determines its success or failure. The key ingredient to properly executing a new company strategy is management. Unfortunately, right now most managers are approaching strategic change all wrong. 

Often, when a company decides to make a strategic shift, the leaders gather in a
boardroom, record their thoughts in a slide presentation and pat each other on the back. But then what? How does what’s in those slides get communicated across the business? How do the people who will be responsible for bringing the strategy to life find out what that strategy is and get behind it with commitment?

As leaders, we can get so caught up in the analysis behind a business strategy that we forget the most basic, crucial fact: The people who work for us must behave differently to bring a new strategy to life.

Though most employees want to succeed, too often we perpetuate things that suck the spirit out of their willingness and ability to give their best. Before you realize that the three F’s (facts, fear and force) don’t work, you’ve already strewn about clichés about boats leaving docks, trains leaving stations and buses being filled with the right people in the right seats. Instead of motivating your people with these images, you’ve driven them away from boats, trains and buses.

As leaders, we should not just declare where the workforce is going and demand greater accountability to achieve it. We need to make a fundamental shift: We need to become the inspirational coaches our teams look up to and take action for.

A change in business strategy means that people, processes and culture have to change. Thinking and behaviors have to change. Most people don’t take change lightly … and no one ever wants to go first.

We, as mangers, need to go first. It’s our role to lead by example and show others it’s okay to take a chance, even if it means possible failure—which is also an opportunity to learn. Here’s how.

1.    Be the pacesetter. Managers have to change their own behavior first so that employees will want to follow suit.

2.    Build trust. Create a sense that we are all in this together and can move forward together, one step at a time. This builds trust between employees and management, which enables us to begin holding people and teams accountable.

3.    Show vulnerability and be empathetic. We have to show that we are vulnerable and become empathetic to our employees’ needs before we can expect them to change. Change is emotional, and by appealing to what makes people tick, we can achieve better results.

For example, Petco recently decided to refocus its energies to become the leader in the pet specialty space. This meant the company had to improve customer focus and engage customers. Petco knew that frontline employees were pivotal to achieving this goal, and managers were the key to engaging those employees.

The company worked with Root to launch a training program that started with the leadership team working with managers. Managers then trained employees to get everyone engaged in the new strategy. The key to success was for Petco managers to go first, demonstrate that it was okay to change and then bring their people with them.

Building Coalitions for Change

Once managers have demonstrated that they are empathetic and willing to take the plunge into new strategic change, trust is established. Then the challenge is to build coalitions of followers who believe in the change and will help make it happen. Managers must be sure to build these coalitions based on the new standards and goals to ensure that everyone is working toward the same outcome.

Using behavioral ground rules and contracts between leaders and followers, companies can hold themselves accountable for the change that needs to take place. We call this “Shared-Vulnerability-Based Trust,” and it’s a key ingredient to making change occur. There are many ways to build such trust, including:

1.    Start With a Reality Wall. Everyone has angst about something, but people rarely feel comfortable talking about it to their managers. Building a “reality wall” helps create a safe place of trust and comfort where it’s OK to talk about the realities without fear of repercussions.

For example, teams can discuss the main inhibitors to the company’s success. When posting notes on a wall, teams can start to see how the various inhibitors interact to become a system that blocks the way forward. A story begins to form, and people can pick the three or four inhibitors to the business that need to be addressed. By visualizing the realities as a connected system, teams can identify the challenges and form a plan to work through them.

2.    Create a Shared Picture of the Future. To be able to move forward together, people need to know what they are moving toward. When creating a shared vision of the future, managers must remember that the job is not what feeds the soul—the purpose or cause feeds the soul.

To motivate people and drive action, there has to be a great purpose to work toward. Ask people to share what that cause looks like to them and to describe why it’s compelling. This gives teams great visuals to help everyone see the goal, even if it is down the road.

3.    Capture Reality With a “Water Cooler Culture Assessment.” Strategic engagement of people and the delivery of better results requires authenticity, truth-telling and relevance. Truth-telling is typically possible only in discussions around the water cooler, in the hallways or in the restroom.

What we call the water cooler leverages a visual approach that documents the challenges and obstacles organizations face in order to create a candid and sometimes humorous mirror of reality and “the way we work around here.” It uses cartoons to elicit opinions, attitudes and beliefs that need to be put out on the table and challenged.

The Water Cooler Culture Assessment works because it captures reality, challenges denial, helps the team not take itself too seriously and allows dialogue to focus on the sketch—not on each other. It gives people permission to openly “discuss the undiscussables,” thereby enabling organizations and leaders to step into a conflict that is critical for authentic engagement and performance. It allows individuals and teams to make strong truth statements they have been slow to address previously—or have denied.

When a company needs to change, managers should remember that employees respond best to emotional engagement. They want to see managers empathizing with them, understanding their concerns and taking the first step to show them it’s OK to move forward and embrace change.

When we do it right, we will see people go from cynicism to having a willingness to explore … to sharing in the vulnerability … to taking co-responsibility … and, ultimately, to co-creating right before our eyes.

Jim Haudan is CEO and chairman of Root (rootinc.com), which helps businesses make transformative changes. His job is to lead the overall company strategy and execution, as well as customer relations. Jim is author of The Art of Engagement: Bridging the Gap Between People and Possibilities (McGraw-Hill, 2008). You can reach him at jhaudan@rootinc.com.

This article was originally published on 2012-08-15
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