At #ASAE18, leaders spoke openly about the numerous challenges of leading through change. Communication, candor, and a party or two can help.
Making big changes at an organization starts at the top. But leaders need to spend more time considering how change plays out at the middle and lower levels as well.
That was one of the takeaways of one of the strongest and most challenging Learning Labs I attended at last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition. At “Walk the Talk of Change Leadership,” three executives spoke candidly about the kind of care and attention an association-wide structural change requires, and how even slight miscommunications can throw your best-laid plans off track.
However much communication executives think they’re doing during a change process, they likely need to do more of it.
That concern is particularly acute for middle managers, said Carol Hamilton, principal of Grace Social Sector Consulting, who moderated the discussion. Those managers have to not only convey the decision makers’ plans to the people they lead, but also absorb the concerns, questions, and pushback that they’ll get from those staffers. “You’re trying to keep everyone happy, and it can really become a situation that creates burnout,” she said.
Rhea Steele, CAE, COO of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, described how this dynamic played out a previous organization where she was charged with supervising its meetings department to get it in better sync with the rest of the organization. Skepticism abounded, both within the department about what the change meant and with the larger organization about whether relationships could improve.
They did, Steele said, but not without some challenging conversations, one staff demotion, and a lot of candor about what new expectations would look like. Facing those challenges head-on created an environment where she could have more open conversations and begin streamlining processes. “I was able to start coaching one-on-one to start understanding their pain points,” she said.
The common theme that emerged from the discussion at the session is that regardless of how much communication that executives think they’re doing during a change process, they likely need to do more. Kenneth Doyle, FASAE, CAE, COO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance, said many organizations get into the habit of instituting a five-year strategic plan but don’t work with stakeholders to communicate the goals and importance of that plan throughout its lifespan.
That need for communication was particularly acute, Doyle said, when SEPA was going through two mergers in two years, which led to some difficult discussions about staffing. At an early retreat to hash out the restructuring, he said, “at least we agreed we didn’t trust each other.” But out of that candor came a new working arrangement. “I know how they want me to work with them,” he said. “Sometimes you need to have really painful conversations to get to a point where the relationship is healthy.”
Avoiding those conversations is tempting, especially if you feel as a leader that you don’t have all the answers to what the change process will look like. Matthew Ott, CAE, COO of the National Grocers Association, said this was the concern when his association took on an equity partner for its tradeshow—a decision that affected multiple departments that weren’t fully included in the conversations about it. “We thought we had to be secretive about the process,” Ott said.
But since that experience, he’s stressed the importance of discussions to help smooth implementation of a change. “The buy-in you can get from staff and members is one of the most important things you can do,” he said.
And during that process, the participants agreed, there are plenty of opportunities to say the wrong thing—or for statements to be misinterpreted. So when it comes to leading staff through change, be mindful that it can be a scary time for staffers, who might assume the worst for their future at the organization. Building trust can be as simple as supporting colleagues during those conversations.
“People will ask themselves, ‘Did somebody have my back in that meeting?’” Hamilton said. “Those small pieces help rebuild relationships.”
Steele recommended that leaders ease their staffers through a change process not only by keeping the lines of communication open, but also by celebrating milestones. Have a party, go on a group outing, do what it takes to ease the sense of burnout. “Celebrating each other helps build camaraderie and resilience for the change process,” she said.
What did your organization do during a major change to handle communication and ease frayed nerves? Share your experiences in the comments.