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Change happens in every organization. And I’m not talking about the ‘disruptive,’ buzzword kind of change. I mean change as your industry evolves, your team evolves, and your leadership evolves. When any of those (and many, many other) things happen, your organization needs to be ready and you need to be. I have firsthand experience with managing broad organizational change; namely my move to President & CEO of Blakely being the catalyst for one of the largest changes our organization has undergone.

In a relatively short period of time, Blakely experienced a change of ownership, a change of leadership, and a change in direction. Our vision was to transform Blakely from a smaller, direct mail-focused agency to a larger, multi-channel powerhouse prepared to deliver more value to not-for-profit organizations. These changes were not small, and at times they were daunting. But now, nearly six years later, I know we were (and continue to be) successful.

Our team has grown but is not new. We have picked up new talent that reflects the broadened scope of Blakely, but also dedicated ourselves to the time and care required to guide our existing team through this process. In fact, we recently had a team member celebrate 25 years at Blakely; a team member whose knowledge and experience are invaluable, and who — as a person — is a piece of the heart and soul of Blakely.

This is important because the idea of ‘change’ is often associated with that of hard-but-necessary sacrifice or the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new approach as organizations make change that results in losing employees — and sometimes clients (read: donors) along the way.

When it comes to change, change that comes to even the most established organizations, the question is:

How can we weather change while building our team?

A common mistake that organizations make is believing that new ideas and new directions mean new people. But I don’t see it that way. I think the challenge is figuring out how to keep the right people.

Good news! I’ve learned people are incredibly adaptable.

At the end of the day, for any organization that deals in brainpower, employees need to understand the change and know the direction they’re going in. Where many organizations run into trouble in implementing change is that they fail to communicate the ‘why,’ the vision, and the drive behind the change, and help employees understand where they fit into that process.

Here, from my experience, are three key steps to successful change management.

Step 1: Communicate Your Vision

In my last blog post, How to love your team more than your donors, I talked about vision as well; vision, understanding vision, and communicating vision is so critical to your success as an organization and, personally, as a leader. Implementing any change, whether planned and proactive or reactive, should start with and then be guided by vision. But just as important as the existence of that vision is the communication of that vision to your team. A vision means nothing if you’re the only one who sees it and you leave the rest of your team blind.

Now, when it comes to how you communicate your vision and its implications… that’s where things get a little complicated. The mistake many organizations make is simply saying that, “A change is happening but it’ll be super great and won’t really affect anyone and people should be excited but shouldn’t worry about it and just kind of carry on as usual.” That never works. It’s also almost never true. Change is difficult, change is time consuming, change doesn’t happen overnight, and change often affects everyone at every level of an organization.

Worse still is when organizations implement change but don’t actually tell their employees anything about it and almost pretend, internally, that it isn’t happening. In both cases, when the change at hand inevitably affects your employees, they won’t be ready to meet it, they won’t understand it, and that state of confusion will be at best, detrimental, and at worst, fatal — especially on a relationship-management level.

What you want to do is communicate:

  1. What your vision for change is
  2. Why that change is happening
  3. What that change means for the organization
  4. How that change will affect them, individually

That last point, communicating how a change will affect the employee on an individual level, is crucial. Because the ‘what does it mean for me?’ question lies at the heart of how an employee will react to a given change (even the ones already on the bus). When you can place change into the context of how it will affect, protect, or (better yet) enhance an employee’s personal or professional goals, that is where you will earn their buy-in and that is priceless in the successful implementation of change.

Step 2: Open Your Door to Confrontation

Not all change will be met with excitement. There will be doubt, there will be concern, and that’s a good thing. The first mistake many leaders make here is assuming that every employee will be as excited for change as they are. The second mistake leaders make is getting personally offended by questions, doubt, or perceived ‘nay-sayers’ in their organization. When that happens, the trust that exists between employees and their leaders begins to fray.

The employment relationship is a delicate one. For the most successful organizations, it’s a relationship that goes beyond the “it’s just my job” to be one of mutual understanding and benefit, where the employee, their leaders, and their organization are all moving in the same direction.

When something changes the direction of movement — and so potentially changes the alignment of goals — it’s only natural that there are questions and concerns. It’s important that during this time, leaders keep their doors open to employees and their questions. This ensures that the lines of communication are clear and the trust that they have earned from their employees is maintained.

A key point here is that when I say ‘leaders,’ I’m not just referring to myself, i.e. the President and/or CEO. I mean every member of your leadership team. Alignment should start with that team and then make its way down. A direct report should be able to connect with their supervisor and have a frank, honest conversation about their questions or concerns regarding a change and have those questions answered with equal honesty — or at least with an honest kept promise to find the answers to their questions.

One other key thing here that many unfortunately miss is the real value that comes from confrontation. Every employee who questions a decision to change, or the process of change, is a spot check for the change itself. Is it happening the right way? Does it need to happen at all? Can we do something better? Every question is an opportunity to check your answer against the vision and goal and, if something doesn’t quite match up, change even your approach to change.

Step 3: Build a Bridge, Don’t be an Island

The decision to change may start with one person or a small group of people, but it never stops there. Whether the change is in leadership, the introduction of a new service, or a reaction to something happening in your industry, a change that may seem small always has far reaching consequences.

It’s important to acknowledge that those changes are happening and who they affect, and then get in touch with every member of your organization to build the bridges you need in order to make the change a success. This doesn’t need to be in one massive town hall style meeting. In fact, depending on the size and scale of your organization, such a meeting may not even be possible. It may be through a series of conversations that you begin and that are then facilitated down by way of your leadership team. Recognize that conversations will be had about the change, what it means, and how it is affecting each individual — and many of those conversations will happen without you, many of those conversations you’ll never hear about, and not all of them will be positive.

That’s ok. Breathe. This is part of the process.

The important thing is that you’re available to answer questions as they come up, to be part of the conversations you create, and the conversations you have the privilege to be invited to.

At the end of the day, every one of your employees wants to feel a part of a story that’s bigger than their own. Every person wants to not only have a voice, but to be heard. As a leader, you have the opportunity to give this to them. To implement change successfully, build bridges to your employees at every level of your organization so that, when change comes, you’re able to cross that bridge and weather the storm together — building a stronger team along the way.