Building Change Management CapabilityAt Emerson, we help organizations build their own internal change management functions. We partner with them to build the skills, methods, and tools they need to drive change from within. Here’s how.
Which model is best for your business?
As the field of organizational change management evolves, so do the organizations themselves. More than ever before, our clients are waking up to the current pace of change and the stakes they face. They know they need strong change skills to survive.
In recent years, we’ve been helping organizations build their own internal change management functions. We partner with them to build the skills, methods, and tools they need to drive change from within.
Here’s how we help clients stand up their own change management team.
We encourage our clients to clearly define their Change Management Community of Excellence (CoE) strategy. In other words, how do they plan to operate their change management business? We recommend they select one of these four models.
- Self-service – Business owners become the change management practitioners and use self-service change management tools to execute the work.
- Limited service – Business owners become the change management practitioners with minimal guidance up front. In this approach, the CoE will act as advisors up front and then the business owners will use self-service change management tools to execute the work.
- Co-service – Business owners are in an equal partnership with the CoE to drive changes. In this approach, the CoE is a key member of the project team and will lead and/or support the change effort.
- Full service – The CoE leads the change effort while the business leaders act as sponsors of the work.
Their approach for delivering change management services may evolve over time but we encourage them to think about this early, so they have a starting point.
Based on the model they choose, the organization identifies individuals who will be their new change practitioners. Then we ask our client to select a current project to use as an immersive learning example for the new team.
Next, we conduct training on the basics of change management.
These sessions prepare the new change resources to articulate the need for change management, use fundamental change principles, and employ change methods and tools.
Skill-building happens during various change management working sessions specific to the chosen project. We use the real work of the project to coach the new change practitioners as they use change approaches and tools. The sessions get the team ready to tackle future change projects as they arise. In other words, everything they learn is transferable to their future change initiatives.
Some of the sessions include understanding what methods they already have.
Where we find gaps, we help the team develop methods, tools and templates to add to their toolkit. Other sessions help them to determine who the project’s stakeholders are and how they are impacted. We use other sessions to develop the overarching message for the project. Key Behaviors sessions identify the employee behaviors they need to modify or reinforce to drive the change.
Then, using all the information we gathered from those working sessions, we work with the team to develop stakeholder-specific plans they will execute. These interventions create positive momentum to engage with the change and, hopefully, achieve the project goals. As the team executes the plans, we coach them and get them comfortable in their new roles as change management practitioners.
Finally, we help them use metrics and track the success of their efforts. Seeing new practitioners realize their impact on the organization is rewarding. It’s been a lot of fun helping organizations grow in an area I love.
How To Leave a Job and Start OverPeople process experiences differently based on whether they are at the beginning, middle, or end of an event. If you recently left or lost your job, use this moment to your advantage. Here's how.
The recent wave of layoffs is dizzying. One company after another; thousands at time.
What if YOU are one of the thousands? When the dust settles, is there a way to make the most of your transition?
We think so. At Emerson Human Capital, we use brain science to help employees and organizations change. We’ve learned that moments matter. That means people process experiences differently based on whether they are at the beginning, middle, or end of an event. You can use these moments to your advantage.
If you’re leaving a job, you should know that endings leave a lasting feeling that retroactively colors the entire experience. So be intentional about how you end things.
Ends are a great opportunity to establish meaning.
If you’ve been laid off, you might feel the meaning has been decided for you: you’re unemployed and your efforts weren’t valued. But we urge you to take that power back.
Decide how you want to define this ending for you and your co-workers. What impact do you want to leave? What feelings do you want to have when you look back on this time?
Do the things that will make that happen. Maybe you want to create a transition package for your team, so they’re in good shape after you go. Maybe you decide to write goodbye emails or have lunch with colleagues. Maybe you take a printer out into a field and destroy it with a baseball bat. Note that we are NOT advocating violence against office equipment; the point is that it’s up to you.
First impressions are the bomb. They are like a bomb going off in your brain—it’s receiving a ton of new information and evaluating all of it as fast as it can. Is this situation good or bad? Safe or dangerous? Do I like it or not? First impressions set the tone for a person’s entire relationship with another person, event, or entity.
That goes for you (the new person joining an organization) and your new colleagues and leaders. The start of a new job is a chance to grab people’s brains and turn them into a fans or foes.
First, give yourself a great start.
Begin a new job well-rested and well-dressed. Maybe even treat yourself on your first day—it might sound silly, but these things actually change what happens in our brains. Second, assume good will. Many organizations are just not great at onboarding. If your new work home is one of them, recognize that onboarding is a finite process and doesn’t represent your day-to-day life on the new job. But if your organization is giving you a warm and thoughtful welcome, congrats! Your good first impression of your new company will carry you forward.
Next, give your new co-workers and leaders a great start. They’re unconsciously forming first impressions of you. Everything they notice will have an out-sized effect on their idea of you, at least until they get to know you. Don’t freak out, just be intentional about it. Speak, act, and present your best self.
So, if you’re caught in the craziness of a layoff—after you smash the printer—stop, think, and make it better.
P.S. If you are an expert in behavior change and you were recently laid off, are interested in a new career or know someone who is, take a look at Emerson Human Capital’s careers webpage. We’re hiring!
Don’t Blow Your OnboardingBad onboarding is like being invited to a party where you don’t know anyone. Don’t blow it – be a good host and nail onboarding for your new hires. Here's how.
Great onboarding, like a great party, gets one critical element right.
Remember the last boring, uncomfortable party you attended? Maybe you were invited to a party at which you didn’t really know anyone. You may have left thinking “No one seemed interested in learning about me. I spent the whole evening listening to people I don’t know talk to each other about themselves. And the host didn’t bother to introduce me to anyone.”
In many ways, onboarding is like being invited to a party where you don’t know anyone. Why does this matter? Because first impressions have an outsized impact on a person’s feelings and judgments. Humans are hard-wired to make quick judgments for evolutionary survival reasons and have a very difficult time moving off of those initial assessments, despite plenty of future evidence to the contrary. So if you blow the onboarding, it’s an uphill climb from there.
Arguably the most important outcome of a great onboarding experience is a sense of belonging.
The innate motivation to belong is deeply ingrained in our human biology. As noted by The Mayo Clinic, the sense of belonging is fundamental to the way humankind organizes itself.
At work, the impact of a sense of belonging for employees is significant. According to the Harvard Business Review, high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.
So, now that we know how important onboarding and belonging are to business, let’s get back to the party.
If you don’t know anyone at the party, you’re left to navigate on your own, and no one seems particularly interested in you, you might wonder whether you should have showed up at all. Conversely, if someone introduces you to people, you share something about yourself, discover commonalities with those people, you might feel accepted.
Acceptance is essential to belonging. The difference between feeling connected to others and feeling a sense of belonging with others is acceptance. To feel accepted, you have to share your authentic self. Sharing means opening up, and that kind of vulnerability can be a bit tricky to foster in a work environment.
But there’s a solution: build it into the process. Most onboarding is focused on the organization’s “authentic self.” There’s a one-way flow of information to the new employee about company’s identity, including history, values, and norms. But what if we made onboarding a two-way street? Including the individual’s identity creates an exchange of information — an opportunity for acceptance and a growing sense of belonging.
Here are 3 ways to make your onboarding better by promoting a sense of belonging:
- Proactively introduce the new employee to fellow employees across the organization. The sooner you can eliminate the “stranger” awkwardness – because they don’t know people’s names and roles — the sooner they will feel that sense of belonging. Find creative ways to help new employees to remember names and faces. Of course, there’s an app for that! Check out Pingboard’s Who’s Who game.
- Self-expression. Design the onboarding to encourage the new employee to express their authentic selves. Ask them questions, inviting them to share. For example, are you presenting company history, core values, and vision? Ask them about their history, core values, and vision for their future. Invite the new employee to share their strengths and how they see themselves succeeding in their new role. And check in with them regularly to ask how they are feeling. Joining a new company can be an emotional rollercoaster; having someone acknowledge this and want to know how you are doing sends a very strong signal of acceptance.
- Find a way to explore the new employee’s personal background, hobbies, and passions. Then connect them to fellow employees who share similar interests. Create a “buddy” system that pairs a new employee with a veteran that has a few things in common. And make sure your buddy system has real impact: build frequent interactions between the buddies into the process over the first 90 days.
Effective onboarding, like the best parties, creates a sense of belonging. Happy hosting!
For more thoughts on onboarding, check out 4 Secret Thoughts of New Hires – Emerson Human Capital (emersonhc.com)
What Are Change AgentsEvery change effort is difficult. Additional resources can make all the difference in the world. But who are these “additional’ resources? In this post we'll help you strengthen (or create) your change agent network.
Use In-House Experts to Expand Your Team’s Reach
Every change effort is difficult. Additional resources can make all the difference in the world. But who are these “additional” resources?
They go by many names: Business Readiness Reps, Business Transition Reps, Early Adopters, or Change Champions. Most often, they are called Change Agents.
Change Agent /CHānj/ājənt/
- hand-picked individuals from all areas of the business who act as liaisons between the business and the change effort
- resources who are coached to support employees in their part of the business through the change
- teammates who help communicate the business’ vision for the change
- people who highlight benefits and impacts of the change
- seekers of feedback from their colleagues and active listeners when in conversations about the change
- ambassadors who answer some questions and concerns from their areas of the business, given content and coaching
- liaisons who circle back to the project team to share those questions and concerns, get answers and share with their teams
- role models for the change
Obviously, Change Agents can’t do it all on their own. So, how does the project team create a strong Change Agent Network?
- Identify early adopters. Everyone reacts to change differently. At Emerson, we often begin with a working session to place people and teams on a continuum based on their natural tendencies around change. This allows us to identify “Innovators” and “Early Adopters.” If we can enlist those folks to our effort, they will help make the change feel safe to others, which accelerates adoption across the board.
- Recruit those Innovators/Early Adopters and other employees willing to embrace the business’ vision for the change and show a commitment to the goals of the change.
- They should have credibility with their peer community.
It’s important for change agents to have (or develop) excellent communication and listening skills. Coaching and facilitation skills are helpful as well.
- Facilitate a kick-off and training event (or events) to prepare the Change Agents for their role. During that initial meeting, provide project schedules, communications (briefs, bullets, key messages, etc.), coaching (on delivering communications and responding to questions), and support (their key contacts and answers to their immediate questions
- Deploy Change Agents with a schedule, plans, tools, content, and one-on-one support. Track the milestones your Change Agents are responsible for. Someone on the project team should maintain oversight of the Change Agent Network, to make sure it’s working.
- Stay in touch. Conduct regular check-ins to collect feedback, share new assets, and offer additional coaching and support. Keep in mind, this is NOT a full-time commitment. Typically Change Agents devote 1-2 hours per week to fulfil their role. So make sure your Change Agents are comfortable with their level of effort.
- Make sure it benefits them. The best Change Agent Networks are a win-win-win situation. The project team gets critical information and help, the organization gets better outcomes, and the Change Agents get development, opportunity, and rewards. So don’t forget about that third part. The agents should gain skills, influence, access to leadership, and a few kudos along the way. Make sure to recognize their critical contributions in both tangible and intangible ways. Hint: public recognition and treats are a dynamite combination.
An Emerson Case Study on Change Agents
One of the auto industry’s biggest tech providers was facing a huge change. After it spun off from its parent company, major functions like Finance needed to operate independently. At the same time, they took aim at some impressive profitability targets. And that was just the start.
There were many more waves of change scheduled to hit the same group of employees. To accomplish its vision, leadership realized they needed a consistent approach to change. They asked Emerson for help.
We quickly performed triage on their change portfolio of 230+ projects and then organized key stakeholders to develop an approach and a model for their new Change Center of Excellence (CoE). We guided the team to identify high-priority behaviors and build robust messaging. Key leaders, armed with a consistent story, deployed the new CoE. We then built a change toolkit for their new change agents.
The first test of the model: the change team applied its new approach and tools to their Oracle CPQ implementation.
4 Actions Leaders Should Take to Prevent BurnoutStressed employees are simply not strong enough to deliver on organizational goals. Here's what leaders can do to prevent burnout.
If you were to ask a friend or family member how they’re feeling right now, their answer might be, “stressed,” “burnt out,” or “overwhelmed”. That’s what vacation is for, right? Well, two to four weeks of PTO is not enough to relieve the burnout employees are facing.
Just look at the numbers. Employees who say they very often or always experience burnout at work are:
- 63% more likely to take a sick day.
- 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.
- 6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job.4
Clearly, that stress is outpacing PTO’s ability to deal with it. Leaders often recognize this, but don’t know what to do about it.
Burnout Is a Business Problem
According to Webster’s dictionary, burnout is, “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.”1 The primary driver is occupational stress, but it’s not that simple. Other factors often contribute to burnout, including unrealistic work expectations, health issues, family caregiving responsibilities, and the uncertainty of environmental and societal change.
Over time, our “energy bank” that started with a healthy balance becomes overdrawn. We might experience physical and emotional effects like fatigue, attention problems, irritability, anxiety, and depression.
In this state, we can’t show up for work as our best selves.
We become pessimistic, defensive, apathetic, disengaged, and isolated. In fact, the norms of many workplaces keep us from being nipping burnout in the bud by speaking up and seeking help. Stressed employees are simply not strong enough to deliver on organizational goals.
What Leaders Can Do
- Lead. Take an active role in preventing and addressing burnout. Feeling seen and supported by leadership goes a long way.
- Streamline. Help employees work smarter, not harder. Promote reasonable workload management, through teaming, delegation, and flexible goals and metrics.
- Empower. Set clear goals and expectations in collaboration with individual employees. Make sure work expectations consider the risk of burnout. Use an ongoing development process that acknowledges the need to avoid burnout.
- Nurture. Prioritize holistic well-being. Recognize that employees with full, healthy lives perform better. Promoting health and happiness is a great investment in your workforce.
The play is proactive reduction of stress. The goal is a culture of balance that supports sustainably strong performance.
Maintaining MotivationWhat the heck does a road trip have to do with a work project? Surprisingly, they elicit similar thoughts and reactions. Here's what I learned.
What your road trip can teach you about project success.
I recently returned from vacation. My family and I joined many of our fellow Texans in the annual summer escape from the heat and ventured to the mountains of Colorado. Sure, we could have flown, but we decided to take to the road and enjoy the freedom that comes from being in control of the journey. As we drove, the experience started to remind me of a project.
The trip started out early on a Sunday morning. We were full of energy. The SUV was packed, YETIs were filled with coffee, snacks were at the ready, and teenage sons had their phones fully charged. Things were great, until they weren’t. After five hours of driving, with five more to go, my back started to hurt. My teenagers were bickering like eight-year-olds, and everyone was starving. I even heard a few “how much longer?” comments. I started having doubts…was driving the right decision? Images of the Griswold family flashed through my head.
Fast-forward another five hours: after stops for lunch, fuel, and restroom breaks we approached our day-one Texas Panhandle destination. We made it! As we approached the highway hotel and the end of the day’s journey, I felt new energy. Sure, we weren’t in Colorado yet, our stopping point was far from glamorous, and there was more driving the next day, but we all felt a sense of accomplishment.
We hit the road after a quick, mediocre, breakfast buffet at the hotel. The good news: the day 2 trek was only six hours; the bad news: the day 2 trek was six hours. Coming off a below-average night’s sleep in a crowded double queen room filled with road noise, I felt less than spectacular. Why did we do this again?
Fast forward…Traci (my wife) offered to do much of the driving, and I dozed off while listening to music. We made it to our high-elevation destination by mid-afternoon. The mountains were spectacular, the condo was spacious with a great view, and we were walking distance from everything we needed. After a nice walk, a couple drinks, and a casual dinner with the family, all was well. It was worth it! We did it! We were ready to enjoy a week in the mountains. We even felt confident about the drive home at the end of the week.
What the heck does a road trip have to do with a project? Surprisingly, they elicit similar thoughts and reactions. Think about it. How do you feel at the beginning of a project? What about the middle? How does it feel when you hit a milestone or — even better — complete the project?
Most people are highly motivated at the beginning of a project. Sure, there is some nervous energy, but there is energy…natural energy! Leaders and team members are eager to get started and ready to take on whatever comes their way. Project leaders may even organize a kickoff event, complete with team dinner or celebration, to mark the occasion.
Change management practitioners should capitalize on the project beginning and design interventions that create even more “buzz.”
It’s a great time to seek out and engage the Innovators and Early Adopters in the organization. These people will be on board with the change and will build support from within the organization.
The middle is a slog. Middles are the time when people think, “Why did I sign up for this?” Project Managers and Change Managers must engineer wins to keep the team going. Maybe the project is organized in sprints. Sprints create natural milestones that team members rally around. Even better, they are often followed by “sprint retrospective” meetings to discuss what went well and what could be done better in the next sprint. Retrospectives give team members an opportunity to be heard and play a role in what happens next. This is essential to engagement, because people crave a sense of control.
Change Managers work with project managers to identify and create interim goals. We want team members to think “I was successful, and I can be successful again.” Interim goals feel more attainable than project completion. Team members are motivated when milestones or goals are met. They feel a boost.
Organizations should reward people when goals and milestones are met.
For example, “down days” (no meetings allowed), offsite events where the team completes a non-work activity together (e.g., a community service project), or spotlight awards – nominees are acknowledged and thanked by leadership and nominators are entered into a raffle for a prize.
Just as sprinters run a little faster at the end of the race, team members are motivated to push a little harder at the end. Natural energy abounds. Team members begin to evaluate the experience as a whole. Ends create a great opportunity to motivate through connection and impact. Are there photos of teamwork, quotes from stakeholders, events for sharing stories, or music that sums up the experience? Use them. Change and Project Managers must capitalize on desire to finish strong.
The element of time is powerful. Daniel Pink writes about this in his book, When. There are times when energy and motivation come naturally and times when they don’t. Change practitioners must intentionally capitalize on times of high performance and shore up points of lower performance. And travelers should plan their road trips accordingly.
Is Your Team UncivilizedWorkplace incivility is not only pervasive, it’s elusive. Fortunately our academic friends have figured out a way to measure it concretely.
In the nineties, Accenture struggled to keep women in executive positions. One theory was that women who left the firm did so to devote their time to parenting. But when they did the research, they found women were leaving to take equally demanding jobs. So, if it wasn’t the pull of family, why did women leave? Looking closer at the dwindling female talent pool, they saw something swirling beneath the surface: moments of incivility.
Here’s one way it showed up. Accenture’s informal mentoring focused on navigating office politics – whom to align with to represent you for promotions, and how to manage what others thought of you. One bit of advice was to make sure you were “heard.”
Being heard was a challenge at Accenture. During meetings, it was common to interrupt the speaker. Women found that others, including women, spoke over each other – verbally jostling to hold the floor. In fact, to avoid being spoken over in meetings, one very powerful and petite executive developed a strategy: she stood and up and circled the room while making her point. It worked, and she encouraged other women to do the same.
At many companies, incivility shows up as “throwing people under the bus.”
Recently, a friend of mine stumbled upon her direct supervisor and their Vice President deriding the quality of her work. When my friend brought it up, the supervisor invited her to drinks, begged her not to quit, and said it was a “misunderstanding” and “wasn’t personal.”
How about piñata-style management? This is when a manager believes that if they batter their people, good things might fall out. Another friend recently worked with an executive who sat back in every meeting, waiting to take a swing when the moment was right. Sometimes she yelled; sometimes she was snarky. She was known for asking questions out of left field simply to throw a person off. Yes, people did perform out of fear. But they also criticized, sabotaged, and quit in equal measure.
Christine Pearson, Lynne Andersson, and Christine Porath say what sets these experiences apart from other workplace hazards is ambiguity. Their definition of incivility is “low-intensity deviate behavior with ambiguous intent to harm… (and a) violation of workplace norms for mutual respect.”
So, incivility is not only pervasive, it’s elusive. The perpetrator can credibly deny the behavior, call it a misunderstanding, or blame the tension on the weak character of the target. It’s vague, slippery, and—because people get away with it—it builds over time.
But are discomfort and unhappiness the only down sides? No. Harmful behavior spurs people to leave organizations. And, for people who stay, the sheer energy it takes to live with incivility harms productivity.
Here’s the difficult part as a leader. You probably don’t see it.
That’s because the perpetrators are often high performers who are good at managing up. And the targets often don’t want to cause trouble. If you do see it, or you have a sense that something is off, know that it’s permeating your organization. To root out incivility, a leader must look a few levels lower and use an instrument stronger than a typical employee satisfaction survey.
Fortunately, our academic friends have figured out a way to measure it concretely. See if trouble shows up when you conduct this survey by Lilia Cortina and her colleagues.
The Workplace Incivility Scale (WIS-10)*
During the past year, were you ever in a situation in which any of your supervisors or co-workers:
1: Never 2: Once or Twice 3: Sometimes 4: Often 5: Many Times
1 Paid little attention to your statements or showed little interest in your opinions. 1 2 3 4 5 2 Doubted your judgement on a matter over which you had responsibility. 1 2 3 4 5 3 Gave you hostile looks, stares, or sneers. 1 2 3 4 5 4 Addressed you in unprofessional terms, either publicly or privately. 1 2 3 4 5 5 Interrupted or “spoke over” you. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Rated you lower than you deserved on an evaluation. 1 2 3 4 5 7 Yelled, shouted, or swore at you. 1 2 3 4 5 8 Made insulting or disrespectful remarks about you. 1 2 3 4 5 9 Ignored you or failed to speak to you (e.g., gave you the “silent treatment”). 1 2 3 4 5 10 Accused you of incompetence. 1 2 3 4 5 11 Targeted you with anger outbursts or “temper tantrums.” 1 2 3 4 5 12 Made jokes at your expense. 1 2 3 4 5 13 Ignored or excluded you from professional comradery.* 1 2 3 4 5 14 Put you down or was condescending to you.* 1 2 3 4 5
If you find your team trending toward uncivilized behavior, take the following steps:
- Label it. Uncivilized behavior happens because the perpetuator can deny it. Don’t let them. Words have power. Is someone being condescending? Call it out. Are they rolling their eyes? Tell them you see it. You will remove their ability to deny and start to create accountability.
- Define the behavior you want. It’s easy to talk about respect, but how does that look in your work environment? You might have people share, anonymously, the behavior they would like to see. Then take action — make the best suggestions part of business as usual. A number of colleagues who left 1990’s Accenture have told me they would still be there if someone had acknowledged their contribution. What a shame. If the firm had heard that feedback and translated it into an expected behavior, they might have retained those A-players.
- Don’t tolerate it. You get the culture you tolerate. When you see it, stop it in the moment. And here’s the hard part – if your repeat offender is a critical contributor and/or high performer, you must let them go. They are hindering the team’s performance even while they are convincing you to rely on them. When I have done this, I have found the team’s performance improves significantly. And I’ve had colleagues ask me, “Why didn’t you do this sooner?”
Creating a civil work place is not simple, because it requires intention and confrontation. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s well worth it. Your people will spend less time focused on office politics and more time on the performance and creative solutions you want from them.
*I’ve included two items from a version of this tool from 2001, Cortina, Magley, Williams and Langhout.
How to Harness the Power of Change InfluencersGet influencers on your team to advocate for change and generate momentum.
There is an increasing number of articles and blogs about influencers: marketing, social media, and Instagram influencers to name a few. Emerson is a company that specializes in behavior change. So we understand the importance of partnering with these individuals, especially ones focused on change.
To make change happen, you must enlist influencers in the organization. Identify individuals who give the right energy for change. Then, use them as change advocates to create momentum and move the organization.
Methods to find change influencers
Brainstorm with key people. Find those who know the organization and understand the change.
Use visuals. Create a map of the organization’s people and departments. Identify potential influencers. Are there any individuals you definitely want on board? Are all impacted groups represented?
Look at previous initiatives. Who was involved? How did it go? Any lessons learned?
After following these methods, you should have insights into who the right people are are within the organization.
How to use change influencers
Once you have identified those individuals in the organization, have them actively participate in developing the change solution. Influencers can help craft a solution that actually works in their setting. They will have great insight into the organization and can provide ideas on how to engage impacted groups.
On a recent large transformation project, the Emerson team built a cadre of change influencers. This group represented all functional areas, at various levels and locations. They participated in a strategy workshop to provide input into the change plan. Afterward, the team had a shared vision and consistent messaging to share with their teams.
Once influencers have a shared understanding of the desired state, they can become change advocates and generate momentum. Simply stated – these individuals make change happen.
If you’re curious about how project sponsors can influence the success of change, we’ve got you covered. Read this.
What Not To Do When You Have a New CEOLet’s say you’re a C-suite executive and a new CEO is on the way. You feel nervous—is your job in danger? In our opinion, yes, but here's how to manage the change.
Your Silence Speaks Volumes
Do you know who your boss will be next month? It seems like an unprecedented number of people do not. If last month’s answer was Boris Johnson or Elon Musk, welcome to your new uncertainty.
Jim Citrin, of Spencer Stuart (an executive search firm) says this will be “a record year” for CEO turnover. So far, it seems to be true; according to the firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, CEO turnover rose 29%, year over year, in the first quarter of 2022 — the highest since the pandemic began.
Let’s say you’re a C-suite executive and a new CEO is on the way. You’re a strong performer, and the numbers support it. Still, you might feel really nervous—does this upcoming change affect your position within the company? Are you in danger? In our opinion, yes, you are.
You might be thinking of horror stories like Bed, Bath, and Beyond. After only weeks on the job, new CEO Mark Tritton fired all but one of his C-suite.
Bloodbaths like that are not the norm, but it is common for a new CEO to take a hard look at the team she inherits. She needs to prove her worth, quickly, or she’ll be the one on the way out. Studies show that this is especially true when CEOs come from outside the company, which can double involuntary departures.
So if you’re a top exec with a new CEO – or, for that matter, anyone with a new boss — what can you do to survive?
Harvard Business Review studied CEO changes of over 1000 companies and interviewed a number of new CEOs. Their accounts support something we tell our clients: not communicating IS communicating.
There are many reasons people fail to communicate.
- You don’t yet have what you think you need – the information, or a firm decision to convey.
- You feel like the evidence speaks for itself, and you don’t need to add anything.
- You’re not ready for questions, because you don’t have firm plans. Maybe you feel like so much is going to change in the near future that your plans might be moot.
- You think someone else is better suited to deliver the message. It’s not your strength, or it’s not your place.
Whatever your reason, it’s not good enough. Because people will hear something, even if you’re not speaking. When they have gaps in their understanding, they WILL fill those gaps in some way. All you’re doing, through your silence, is giving up control over what they will think.
So what does this mean for you, if you have a new leader? Say something. Communicate, even if you feel it’s unnecessary.
The HBR interviews revealed what you’re really saying when you stay silent.
- Early impressions are important, but they aren’t based on the information you might think. New CEOs won’t ask their predecessor about you. And even when they get input from valid sources, they don’t place much stock in it. They want to make up their own minds. One big mistake: not enough face time, to help them form the impression. CEOs told HBR of a variety of ways their executives missed opportunities to fill in the blanks, from ill-timed vacations to over-focus on customer relationships. Face time is critical when the new boss is forming impressions.
What you’re saying with your silence: “I won’t be there for you when you need me.”
- One CEO told HBR, “Virtually no one came to see me to ask how they could help.”CEOs are in a naturally hostile environment. They’re in survival mode, trying to quickly figure out who’s with them and who’s against them. CEOs told HBR that they did not equate lack of disagreement with support. In fact, without strong, clear agreement, the CEOs draw their own conclusions: you’re not on the same page. CEOs reported firing executives because of misaligned priorities, even though those executives had never once announced their opposition.
What you’re saying with your silence: “I don’t agree with you and I won’t support you.”
- New CEOs who deliver positive outcomes for their organizations in the first year tend to keep their jobs; CEOs who don’t tend to get fired. So it’s essential that the new CEO delivers on their first-year agenda. They say executives should actively confirm that they understand and support the plans of the new boss. And, beyond simple agreement, it makes sense to clarify what the CEO is doing and what you, specifically, can do to support those outcomes.
What you’re saying with your silence: “I won’t help you succeed.”
- It’s hard to fault an executive for painting a bright picture of their function or division to the new CEO. But resist that temptation; it will backfire. As one CEO said “I don’t have time to sort out trust issues. If you don’t show me the negatives, I suspect that either you don’t know them or that you will try to hide things from me.”
What you’re saying with your silence: “You can’t trust me.”
- CEOs have enough challenges without trying to twist their style to fit their new team. So, of course, they want executives to match their style. You can do that the hard way – many months of observation, trial, and error – or you can do it the easy way. Ask them. One new CEO had a direct-report who others assumed would be fired, but “He…asked how I wanted him to disagree with me. What kind of facts cause me to change my mind — stories from the front line or statistics? Could he disagree in public or only in private? Once he had made his case and failed to convince me, should he try again or just accept that the decision was made? How did I feel about his subordinates or peers knowing he disagreed with something?” His direct and thoughtful conversation literally saved his job and set him up for long-term success with his new boss.
What you’re saying with your silence: “I won’t make this any easier.”
We often tell our clients that saying nothing tells employees, ”We don’t know” or “We don’t care.” Or both. That’s the very last thing you want your new boss to think. Say something.
Emerson Book Club Review: The Power of FunThe Power of Fun by Catherine Price recognizes that, after the last few years, we all need to focus on lighter things. Read this post for straight talk about the differences between Fake Fun and Real Fun.
“Create the conditions for fun!”
These are the words of our CEO, Trish Emerson. Our leader. Our founder. And she is all in.
The Emerson team is just coming off our first in-person company meeting in three years. It was fun – true fun. It wasn’t overly structured. We didn’t do a ropes course to build trust. We had ourselves, shared space, and shared time. Just like our weekly All Hands meetings, our in-person time was a mix of acknowledgements, celebrations, strategic updates, storytelling, and laughter. Lots of laughter.
Our in-person meeting came on the heels of our latest book group discussion. As a team, we read The Power of Fun, by Catherine Price; the book was a gift to each of us from Trish. Trish recognized that, after the last few years, we all need to focus on lighter things.
Price leads us to reflect on times of the truest, realest fun in our lives. From those moments, we can mine our own Fun Magnets.
Fun Magnets are the ways (activities, people and settings) we create the conditions for Real Fun.
Don’t get me wrong—this book isn’t meant to be comic relief. Instead it is straight talk about the differences between Fake Fun and Real Fun. She defines Real Fun as “the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow.”
Let’s check our company meeting for Real Fun:
- Flow is “being fully engaged in your present moment that you lose track of the passage of time.” Check! Time flew by. As our group dinners went past my bedtime, I didn’t even notice. I didn’t check my watch (or my phone) once. I was fully present.
- Connection is “the feeling of a special, shared experience with someone else.” We definitely had that. For some, it was the joy of reunion; for others, it was our first face-to-face meeting with colleagues we had only known virtually. We were so grateful to share the day in person.
- Playfulness is “a spirit of lightheartedness and freedom.” We certainly had that. Even the strategic updates included creative, whimsical visuals and games.
I loved reading Price’s support for fun, and recognizing it in my own organization. It is an unspoken, but very important part of who we are—individually, and collectively. It’s why I feel I can bring my real self to work! And it’s something clients ask us to help them build into their culture. But no matter the project, we do meaningful work with people we love—which creates conditions for fun.