In my view, change is one of the key disciplines that all managers must master. It is a craft to be able to lead your organization, large as well as small, from A to B, through a transformation and ensure that employees join the journey. The goal is important, but the journey itself is also extremely important – and extremely difficult.
As a manager you can press too hard on the change accelerator with the result that you stand alone in your desire to change. Or you can get caught up in not having accelerated early or fast enough, and then the organization either decays or stagnates. Both can be devastating and lead to huge losses for the company. Especially in today’s business, where digitalization and disruption speed up the pace and the demand for change tremendously.
The time when an idea is transferred from Shanghai to Slagelse is reduced from two to three years to just a few days. Just remember how fast the Pokémon wave spread around the world. It was at a speed that makes a California forest fire look like a quiet campfire in the local scout camp. I believe that change is fundamentally all about winning employees’ attention and holding on to it! As leaders, we mistakenly believe that employees listen to us. They do not! And the higher up in the hierarchy the manager is placed, the less the employees listen. It is a paradox, since it is often the chief executive who sets the agenda in a company.
Here, the smart observer will postulate that this is what we have mid-level managers for – to help top executives execute the company’s strategy. However, here the same struggle applies: How do you win the mid-level managers’ attention – and keep it.
Employees and mid-level management are neither stupid, disloyal, disobedient or have it all wrong. On the contrary. They do their job and do what they are good at and paid for. It can be to manage, sell, plan, order process, manufacture, transport or keep track of the economy. Important tasks that keep the business going. Therefore, it is almost naive when a manager believes that these employees are super interested in where the organization is heading tomorrow or the day after. The employees have confidently outsourced this responsibility to the leader. Of course, there are exceptions, but in my experience the employees listen to their immediate supervisor, at best. Because, it is the immediate supervisor who can both sweeten and ruin the workday of the employee.
Therefore, the trick in change management lies in making the change relevant to employees and making sure that the message is given via as many channels as possible. Some employees get the message via email, SMS or social media, others need to receive the message verbally from their immediate supervisor, while others never pick up the message. The more channels the managers use, the more chances that someone is listening.
Then, it’s all about repetition and consistency. The manager must repeat the message and the reason for the change so many times that the manager himself gets tired of hearing it. When you have repeated the message many times over the years it begins to anchor in the organization. Again, it’s not because the employees do not understand the message or do not want to comply, it is simply not important enough for the employees’ work and success to gain attention.
When you as a manager realize and understand this correlation, you become more humble and realistic about the changing potential and the speed of change. But it does not mean that you should not drive change. On the contrary. You just need to realize that it takes longer and requires more effort than initially expected. Therefore, if you want to achieve your goal you should start the change today rather than tomorrow.
Thomas Honoré is Chief Executive officer and President of Columbus.