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Got Change?

“Got Change?”

Get a grip on it before it gets to you.

If your company is growing — or you want it to — then change is a given. Sometimes your internal growth drives change, and other times external forces (customers, competitors or the economy) require that you shift gears to grow.

Taking the pulse

To be a master of change rather than a victim, it’s important to identify precisely when, where and why change is needed. CEOs of growing companies are often so consumed by fighting fires or excited about what they’re developing that they may not realize their company has changed — or needs to. Some signposts to watch out for:

  • Complaints from customers and a drop in repeat buying.
  • Decline in productivity.
  • Lack of money.
  • Disgruntled employees.

Analyze before implementing

Whether you’re reacting to a problem or responding to an opportunity, timing is critical. Yet it’s equally important to think things through. Don’t just change for the sake of change.

Examine work processes first. Understand what steps are required and what is overkill. You may have two or three different departments doing the same work. Not only does this create inefficiencies, it can cause clients to hear different messages.

Caution: If you find a shift in organizational structure is needed, try to redeploy employees before resorting to layoffs. More work for fewer people is a recipe for disaster.

Bounce the change off customers. Don’t build a strategy entirely on your own hunch. Otherwise, you might end up making a square widget when the market wants a round one.

Talk to employees. This is particularly important if you’re experiencing problems with productivity or turnover. Business owners often neglect the "people side" of change because they don’t want to deal with the resulting emotions such as anger, anxiety and frustration. Once you determine what’s wrong, create employee teams to help fix the problem. When people are part of the solution, they have a greater sense of control, which will help with buy-in. Getting employees involved also conveys a message of trust and respect, which is key to retention.

Paint the vision

Change is a team sport. You’ll need to win support from a variety of players throughout a variety of stages. Get started by creating a clear picture of what the change looks like.

"As head cheerleader, a CEO has to include three components in any message about change," says Scot Johnson, founder of i3solutions, a technology consulting company in Sterling, Va. When Johnson discusses change, he outlines its impact on:

  • The company: how it can be measured in terms of profitability.
  • Customers: how it helps them improve their business.
  • Employees: how it impacts their personal and professional growth.

Keep in mind that today’s workers, who have been overexposed to flavor-of-the-month management changes, are cynical. So make sure the new objective is meaningful. Unless you give employees a good reason for change, they may dismiss it.

Look at your stakeholder map. Write down everyone who will be affected. What do they stand to lose? How will they benefit? (It’s especially important to get buy-in from managers because they’ll have to implement any new strategy.)

Timing tips: Sometimes getting buy-in can be more difficult when everything is going well; it’s easier to rock the boat when there’s a leak. It’s also easier to win support in the beginning than when you begin to actually implement it, so remember to keep painting the vision.

Spreading the word

One of the most important components of change is communications. Don’t take it for granted that everyone understands the reasons as well as you do. Change is difficult to overcommunicate, and most people err by undercommunicating.

Involve as many people as possible. If you have a communications department, it’s OK to get a few people involved, but don’t turn over the entire project to them. Communications professionals are often removed from the front lines and may not be trusted by the rank and file.

Use as many channels as possible, and test those channels constantly. If employees find out about a major change from someone else, they can feel betrayed. Case in point: One company informed its employees of an impending merger through memos. But the company didn’t consider its service people, who were constantly in the field and rarely in the office. Those folks learned about the merger from the local newspaper.

Be accessible. If possible, announce the change in person so you can be on hand to answer questions. E-mail and letters don’t provide the same degree of interaction as face-to-face meetings, and that human factor goes a long way to helping others become comfortable with any change.

Don’t ignore the negatives. Too often, leaders only address the benefits about a change. Though it’s important to stress the positive in ongoing communications — and how those benefits will outweigh any negatives — don’t stifle dialogue about the losses. If you address drawbacks early, then they’re not a surprise.

The capacity for change

Having the right people makes any change a lot easier.

As a company grows, you may need to switch or complement your founding team; they may not always have the skills to take the organization to the next level.

Whether you promote an employee or bring new talent on board, look beyond performance appraisals and assess their capacity for change. Consider these two key factors:

  1. Response to change — How has an individual learned from past experiences and modified his or her behavior?
  2. Versatility — Could this person take on an expanded role as the company grows?

Embracing change

Employees aren’t the only ones who must deal with transitions. CEOs also need to develop different skills to grow their companies.

One important shift is moving from an ego-oriented style of leadership to a more consensual style (see sidebar). In addition, advisory boards and other CEOs who have "been there, done that" can be helpful.

Stephen Halasnik says his mentor has been invaluable in making changes. "I’m 36, and my mentor is in his 60s. He gives me the experience that I lack," says Halasnik, founder of Expertseeker.com and its parent, Atlas Technology, an $11 million executive-recruiting firm in Boonton, N.J. Besides providing a broader context in which to gauge events, Halasnik’s mentor has taught him to embrace change.

That attitude is one that Halasnik is trying to cultivate — not only for himself, but also for his 14 employees. "I have a young team, and I want them to think about developing themselves more," says Halasnik. To that end, he asks employees to write a personal mission plan, which includes specific goals and action steps. Every month Halasnik sits down and reviews their progress, asking three questions: How did you do against your goals? What do you need to continue doing? What do you need to change?

"Having a plan and a system is instrumental to initiating change," stresses Halasnik. "Otherwise, it’s never going to get done; you’re going to be all over the place, and people will not believe you’re serious."

Writer: TJ Becker