Business Transformers: Conquering Change with Communications

Business Transformers: Conquering Change with Communications

It’s a familiar tale — one of good versus evil.

The “Transformers” series follows the battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, two factions of alien robots who disguise themselves by transforming into common machinery such as automobiles. The Autobots aim to use AllSpark, the object that created their robotic race, to rebuild their home planet Cybertron and end the war. Meanwhile, the antagonistic Decepticons intend to use it to build an army by giving life to the machines on Earth.

The triumph of good over evil is a fundamental theme that makes the “Transformers” franchise so appealing. However, it’s the plot device that draws us in — the characters’ ability to effortlessly transform from everyday machines into protectors of the world. The ease and speed with which these superheroes change form is nothing less than awe-inspiring, sparking envy among today’s Chief Transformation Officers who struggle to transform their organizations for survival.

21st Century Superheroes

Chief Transformation Officer. Chief Innovation Officer. Change Management Officer. No matter the title, the role is the same: to fundamentally change the systems, processes, people and technology across a business to enhance agility, efficiency, effectiveness and stakeholder value. The task is no less aspirational than a superhero battling to save the world.

Business transformation is not new, but the pace of change has never been faster as companies struggle to adapt to the multitude of threats to their existence, including increased economic volatility, changing consumer preferences and heightened geopolitical forces.

Often, the battle tactics manifest themselves in the form of mergers, acquisitions and divestitures as companies seek to increase manufacturing prowess, expand into emerging markets, raise capital for new investments and identify the right talent. PwC Deals, in a global study, reported 2018 manufacturing sector deal value at $97.4 billion, an 11% increase over 2017. Predictions are higher for activity in 2019.

One Shall Stand. One Shall Fall.

As in the words of Optimus Prime, the stakes have never been higher in today’s fast-paced and competitive global market. Failure to transform can lead to death or annihilation, leaving only one to stand when the dust settles.

Take Sears, Roebuck & Co., for example. Widely viewed as a case study in failed business transformation, Sears, which was once an innovator and a global name in retailing, filed for bankruptcy following its 125th anniversary in 2017. Management had ignored the changing retail landscape, thinking it could cost-cut its way out of trouble. Ultimately, competitors such as Walmart won on price; Lowe’s grew with appliances; and Amazon dominated on technology and convenience.

Sears isn’t alone, however. Each year, companies spend billions of dollars on business transformation initiatives, and very few succeed in meeting their goals. According to a 2018 Bain Consulting survey of more than 420 senior executives who have led large-scale business transformation initiatives, only 12% successfully achieved their KPIs. A majority, 68%, settled for value dilution or mediocre results, and 20% failed to meet even half of their desired outcomes.

Why? People. They neglected the human element. One of the biggest obstacles to successful organizational change involves a sustained shift in employee behavior. And for that to occur, employees must perceive that it is in their best interest to change with the business. Leadership must create a sense of urgency among the workforce and elicit commitment to the new direction.

Bain research shows that executive leadership teams who address such internal risks are nearly two times more likely to achieve their goals, and three times more likely to sustain change, after the initial enthusiasm subsides.

Influencing the Change Journey

Addressing the human side of change is complicated, but it doesn’t require a PhD in psychology. Rather, success necessitates an understanding of the emotional steps people take throughout the change journey and the barriers to commitment.

In any significant transformation, in which leaders are asked to take on new roles, jobs are changed or eliminated, and new skills and capabilities are demanded, employees will be resistant. Anxiety is a natural feeling as employees figure out how the change impacts them personally. With the proper steps and investment, leaders can guide employees from anxiety to curiosity, excitement and, finally, engagement and commitment to their change initiatives.

Step 1: Communicate

Change initiatives cannot be solely delegated to the Corporate Communications or Human Resources departments. Message development and program management may reside there, but business transformation initiatives require a leader-led organizational model of communication for success.

Start at the top and then cascade the message throughout each level of the organization using all available channels of communication. Clear, concise and purpose-driven communication is needed to inform employees of the change and help them understand its importance for their future. The creation of formal mission and vision statements are valuable tools to help employees understand and appreciate future direction.

Additionally, because individuals comprehend messages differently, telling the story in diverse forms – verbal, written and with visuals – increases comprehension. Don’t just rely on the presentation skills of the CEO; use video, audio and other forms of communication to deliver the message.

While effective communication starts with the CEO, it is the responsibility of all organizational leaders to model. Ensuring leaders speak with one voice is key, not just in public settings, but behind closed doors as well. Every communication a leader delivers and action he or she takes either supports or undermines the effort, and most often, it’s the actions or messages delivered outside of formal town halls or meetings that carry the most weight. Creating communications playbooks and role-play scenarios help eliminate ambiguity and ensure managers are communicating effectively.

Step 2: Educate

Humans are intrinsically rational beings and will question the extent to which change is needed, whether the company is headed in the right direction, and whether they should invest their energy to personally make change happen. Education is required to pique employees’ curiosity and excite them to get involved in the change.

Provide a road map to guide behavior and decision making. Develop visual models of what the organization will look like in the future and paint a path toward a better life. Physical, emotional and psychological rewards should be outlined as well as worst-case scenarios if the company fails to change.

Step 3: Involve

Change efforts must include plans for identifying new leaders charged with responsibility for driving implementation throughout the organization. When individuals become involved and invest their own blood, sweat and tears in the successful outcome of an initiative, ownership is created.

Ownership is often best achieved through problem-solving. From the fork lift operator and production manager to the Chief Operating Officer, creating opportunities for employees to share problems and offer solutions moves them more quickly along the path to engagement. Ambassador programs are an effective means for modeling desired behaviors and involving individuals throughout the journey.

Step 4: Promote

One big mistake business transformation leaders make is easing off the throttle once employees get involved. To sustain enthusiasm and commitment, achievement must be celebrated and promoted along the way, showcasing the progress being made towards the mission and vision.

Effective business transformation programs – like every great tale of good vs. evil – use robust storytelling techniques to highlight the superheroes battling for change. Case studies of team success stories, the development of agile systems and new products, and customer wins should be used to tell the stories of the people doing the work and transforming the organization. Progress needs to be recognized and made to feel achievable by each person in the organization.

Step 5: Reward

The final step to influencing the change journey is reward. Progress must be reinforced through incentives and rewards to maintain commitment and ensure employees are living the new practices every day. These rewards can be tangible, such as financial compensation and promotions, or psychological, in terms of peer recognition and kudos. Regardless, they should be highly visible to everyone in the organization. Removing people who stand in the way of change will reinforce management’s commitment to success.

Like superheroes celebrated for their power to change physical form, true superheroes of business transformation are lauded for their ability to lead from the front, demonstrating a commitment to change and infusing their teams with this same energy and determination. Effective communications not only drive corporate change but also incentivize employees to have a personal stake in making the change permanent, leading the heroic charge that just might save the day – and the business.

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    Audra Hession is an agency principal and managing director. To build and strengthen corporate reputations, Audra uncompromisingly balances business fundamentals with creative strategy. Audra manages the growth of the agency’s business related to corporate reputation communications, which encompasses business transformation, crisis and issues management, and reputation management. Serving as a strategic advisor and expert media trainer to the C-suite, she helps clients navigate mergers and acquisitions, IPOs and spin-offs, as well as a broad range of crisis scenarios. Audra has 25 years of B2C and B2B communications experience counseling Fortune 500 firms, non-profits and other organizations in the building and construction, home and lifestyle, and professional services sectors. Prior to her current role, she served as managing director of the G&S New York office for eight years. Earlier in her career, Audra held communications positions at Revlon Corporation and Exxon Company International. Audra also represents the agency on the regional crisis communications team of its partner network, PROI Worldwide. She is a member of the International Association of Business Communicators and a board member of the Stamford Family YMCA in Connecticut. Audra holds a B.A. in advertising from the University of Bridgeport and an M.S. in corporate public relations from Boston University. A competitive equestrian in her youth, Audra appreciates the rewards of focus, collaboration and confident risk-taking.

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