by Amy McGahan

July 14, 2022

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “change is the only constant in life.” That has proven to be true in organizations of all sizes and with changes driven by the pandemic, social justice issues, supply chain shortages, inflation, the “Great Resignation,” and more.

Recently, my colleague Lisa Rose and I had the pleasure of speaking at the Public Relations Society of America’s Corporate Communications Conference in Nashville. Our audience was engaged and asked great questions on some of the more challenging sides of change, so we thought we’d share a few with you:

What do you do when senior executives who have been at the company the longest are resistant to change?  

Resistance to change – at all levels – is normal. To remove or minimize resistance, open a dialogue to understand the reason or reasons for it. You may learn that the individual wasn’t included in the decision making process and feels the change is forced upon them, the change competes against as existing goal or other influencing factors. Once you identify the reason(s), you are better prepared to develop the specific action items to help individuals move beyond resistance. For example, something we have seen work well is to partner with another senior leader in the organization who understands and can help coach them through the process. Other times, just enabling two-way communications to give them voice into the process can significantly improve acceptance of change.

There are times when senior leadership isn’t aligned with the required change. Reasons are often varied, but the result is that employees can sense it and are then not supportive of the change. We often recommend an outside strategic partner conduct an alignment exercise, which is a series of sessions focused on bringing the senior leadership team together, which is critical for others within the organization to embrace the change.

It’s important to remember that influencers can be found throughout an organization at all levels. These are employees who are trusted sources within an organization and well respected by many. If influencers adapt to the change and encourage others to do so, sometimes senior folks will eventually follow along or the change happens anyway.

How do you see young generations adapting to change versus older generation?

There are interesting nuances among generations within the workplace. We wouldn’t necessarily say that one adapts better to change than another. It all depends on the change and the organization’s specific situation.

Younger generations may be more open to trying a new strategy or process or program. Older generations who have seen all kinds of strategies, processes and programs come and go may have reservations about trying something they know hasn’t worked in the past. At the same time, older generations can bring great perspective to significant changes because they’ve been through them before (e.g., a merger, acquisition or divestiture). They are able to focus and take the change in stride whereas the change can cause great uncertainty to a younger professional.

How can I convince my leadership that a cross-functional team for communications around strategic initiatives, specifically acquisitions, can be more efficient? 

Acquisitions can bring significant changes that require consistent messaging across internal and external stakeholders. A cross-functional team can help anticipate how each audience will be impacted, where confusion may exist and which communications channels will be most effective.

There are a few ways to tackle this. First, consider creating a stakeholder analysis framework that requires input from a multi-functional team. The framework lists all the key audiences – both internal and external – and maps out their current perceptions, desired perceptions and desired behaviors.  As a result, the framework will help determine the communications strategy, messaging, tactics and timing.   With this approach, a need for cross-functional knowledge can become more apparent.

Second, consider an M&A playbook that outlines a general approach for M&A communications at the start of the project and includes a review at the end of the project.  The playbook typically lists key audiences, key messages, timelines and responsibilities. The final assessment includes an evaluation of individual performance, team performance and overall success of the project. The feedback offered during the final assessment may help to highlight areas of opportunity going forward and highlight how to get stronger as a team and as individuals.

Lastly, if there is an organization senior leaders admire which seems to do M&A well, gain an understanding of how they tackle communications and what drives their success. Perhaps it will help to provide evidence for the cross-functional team approach and help to support your strategy.

If you would like to find out more about change communications and/or have a copy of our presentation, please email or call me at 216-241-3027.