Financial Leadership

Tips on how leaders should communicate during major change initiatives

March 17, 2020 4:52 pm
  • During times of organizational change, leaders should recognize the importance of communication in ensuring the change gets implemented smoothly.
  • An all-staff meeting about a change initiative also should include specific types of meetings before and after the main meeting.
  • Mastering the art of storytelling can help leaders craft a narrative that effectively sells the change initiative.
  • Leaders should err on the side of overcommunicating about change.

I teach managers that information is currency, especially in times of change. Too many leaders hoard that wealth, intentionally or inadvertently. They underestimate their team’s hunger for news, deliver too little or share it ineffectively.

When staff feel they’re not getting a clear picture of the what, when and why of a change initiative, rumors take over, in-house critics may become the loudest voices and morale can suffer.

The more important the change initiative is, the more you need to understand the role of communication in accelerating change or impeding it. It’s best to assume you owe your team maximum transparency and to build a communication strategy around that principle.

What a good strategy should include

A good communication strategy starts with an understanding that memos alone are insufficient. The written word can be misread and misinterpreted. It can seem like cold corporate-speak.

I often advise managers that when they’re about to send their staff an email about a challenging subject, they should first read it out loud in a sarcastic voice. It gives them a chance to hear it the way their most skeptical employees might receive it. It provides them one more chance to edit.

Even assuming the memo is well-written, there’s more communication to be done. You may want to hold an all-hands meeting. These are largely symbolic. They say: “I stand before you ready to share what I know and respond to your questions.” That’s good — if you deliver with authenticity and clarity. But it’s not sufficient.

When you face your staff, you should assume that everyone has a thought balloon above his or her head. It reads: “What does this mean to me?” Most people don’t ask that highly personal question. It just churns inside them.

That’s why, if you are holding an all-hands meeting, I advise you to add two parts:

  • The meeting before the meeting
  • The meeting after the meeting

In the meeting before the meeting, you touch base with a few employees who are trusted and respected by their peers. Tell these influencers about the upcoming meeting and what you hope to accomplish. Invite them to ask you whatever questions they think are important to the group.

Feel free to tell them that you know they are highly regarded, that colleagues often seek their perspective, so you want them to be able to provide good information. These people become your translators, often helping others understand your intentions and goals. The key is to be open to whatever tough questions they ask you. Never set them up to give bad information, or you will forever lose their trust — and your credibility.

Then there’s the meeting after the meeting. That’s when you and your deputies walk the room, talking with staff one-on-one. It’s your opportunity to hear the questions people weren’t comfortable asking in a big group. You can clear up any misunderstandings, allay fears and reinforce your most important points.

Employees remember when their managers see them as people and not just as producers, as humans and not just as a head count.

Storytelling as part of effective communication

We are hard-wired from a young age to value stories. As a colleague of mine likes to teach: No child being tucked in for bed ever said, “Mommy, Daddy, read me a report.”

Stories grow from a master narrative. A master narrative is not a slogan but rather an overarching understanding of your organization’s identity and mission, told in concise and accurate terms. It can be something as simple as, “As we launch this new initiative, our work is guided by data and values.”

You then find individual stories that bring that message to life. You tell the story of a project that succeeded because of wise use of data (metrics, analytics and feedback) and a clear dedication to values (customer service, safety and security). 

For an example of one approach to storytelling, see the sidebar below on the “Pixar Pitch.”

What leaders should remember during change

Keep in mind that what you’ve been thinking about and processing for a while is new information to others. You may be tired of talking about it at the very time other people want and need to discuss it.

Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton say it so well in their book, “Hard Facts”: “Relentlessly communicate what the change is, why it is necessary, and what people ought to be doing right now with as much clarity as possible. If you’re not saying, writing and modeling the same message over and over again, it probably isn’t going to stick.”

The bottom line: In times of change, overcommunicate.

The ‘Pixar Pitch’ as a tool for communicating during change management

The “Pixar Pitch” can serve as a framework for people who want to craft a story but need a little help. It’s based on the structure of most Pixar movies for kids:

  • Once upon a time, there was ___________
  • Every day _______
  • One day _________
  • Because of that ______
  • Because of that _______
  • Until finally ______

Back when healthcare providers were implementing digital record-keeping, for example, leaders could have used this pitch to prepare their organizations for the transition. They wouldn’t have said the lines verbatim, but these would have been the main talking points.

Once upon a time, there was only one way to keep medical records. Every day, people made hand-written notes — hard copies that they put into their own files.

“One day, digital record-keeping was introduced. Because of that, people could enter records via computers. Because of that, people had to leave old habits behind and learn new skills, which took time and effort. Until finally, they became so good at it that centralized record-keeping and sharing became the norm.”

If you’d like to learn more, Daniel Pink wrote about the pitch in his book, “To Sell is Human” and demonstrates it in this video.



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