Making Big Changes? Talk About It. A Lot.

Leaders who are changing their organizations can fall short when it comes to selling the change to employees. CEOs who've done it say there's no such thing as overcommunication.

Editor’s note: An earlier edition of this post incorrectly stated that a new travel policy was implemented at DECA. We apologize for the error.

Short of an announcement of layoffs, there are few CEO statements that can strike fear in the hearts of employees quite like “We’re going to change the way things are done around here.”

Culture change is an intimidating prospect for employees, who might immediately wonder if they’ll need to justify their existence, or if they’ve already failed to. But an executive ought to feel some pressure too: It’s one thing to say that you’re going to apply a new vision to an association, quite another to clarify what that new vision will look like.

That’s one reason why the word “overcommunicate” kept coming up as I was interviewing leaders and experts for my Associations Now feature on change management. Employees and other stakeholders might be alert to how an association is going in a different direction, but they may overly focus on how it affects them or their department directly, which can lead to a lot of misinterpretations.

Rhea M. Steele, COO of DECA, says that much of her effort in her new role was intended to forestall confusion. “They’ve never had a chief operating officer, and they’ve never had centralized services, so one of the things that I’m constantly paying attention to is overcommunicating,” she says.

When Steele implemented a new travel policy at another association, for instance, “not only did we roll it out to staff, we had a staff meeting to talk about it. And then during the staff meeting we actually talked about what we thought through about the policy. We’re trying to help staff recognize that leadership is not just making arbitrary decisions and that we’re actually looking at all of the policies through multiple lenses.”

Steele says she ensures that policy changes are restated multiple times, through multiple venues—staff meetings, emails, intranet, HR, and so on. But a culture-change conversation is also a two-way street, she adds; much of this communication is intended to solicit feedback on changes. “Culture is built from the staff,” she says. “You can’t create an organizational culture that’s completely out of alignment with the values of all of the staff at the organization.”

It’s important to not make any promises that you are absolutely certain you can’t keep.

That commitment to two-way communication needs to be more robust than a suggestion box, says Jim McNeil, executive vice president and chief executive of business and trade industry practice at SmithBucklin.

“It’s absolutely critical that it’s not platitudes,” he says. “In being more visible and communicating more consistently and frequently, everybody should find that it’s from a place of authenticity. Probably the worst thing that could happen is that the leader is speaking to a cultural change where all the listeners actually don’t think that’s the culture that they live in.”

One area where leaders slip on this point is perhaps working too hard to reassure people that “nothing” will change, when in fact a restructuring can mean substantial changes to the budget and staffing of an organization. Vicki Loise, CAE, CEO of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening, says that leaders should enter a change process knowing that there’s going to be some disruption and think about how they’ll communicate in light of that.

“When you’re coming in as a new CEO, especially in an organization that had a previous one for a long period of time, there’s going to be turnover, there are going to be people who are going to leave, and there are probably going to be people you’ll have to terminate,” she says. “I think it’s important to not make any promises that you are absolutely certain you can’t keep. You can’t walk in the door and say, ‘Nobody’s going to get fired and nobody’s going to quit,’ because you just don’t know that that’s true.”

How that conversation gets framed will differ from leader to leader. When Peter J. O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, became CEO of ASIS International, he preferred a no-nonsense approach.

“I told everybody in my first meeting that I’m a guy who wants to be a part of a mobile, global, digital, agile organization that embraces all aspects of inclusivity, transparency, and diversity, and that how we get this work done collaboratively and in a way that we all have fun and we learn something matters a lot to me,” he says. “Sometimes that means we’ll have tough conversations. Sometimes that means we’ll disagree. But as long as you do the best you can do, when you’re as honest and forthright as you can be, I can’t ask you for more than that.”

(ampols/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!