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This morning, my husband sent me a headline of Sobeys (a Canadian grocery retailer) CEO, Michael Medline, stating that they would not "screw up" their recently-announced acquisition of Farm Boy (a smaller grocery retailer). It's not often that a CEO proactively makes a bold statement like that and I have to admit that I am just a little impressed.

The truth is that changes like mergers,acquisitions, divestitures, reorganizations and digital transformations have a higher probability of going wrong versus right. The fact that Mr. Medline felt an obligation to state his intentions is admirable and a first step in getting this right, but what does that mean exactly?

Having supported many mergers and acquisitions through my career - from the HP/Compaq integration at the turn of the century to the Loblaw/Shoppers Drug Mart acquisition a few years ago, I believe passionately about the integral role internal communication must play to enable, engage and empower employees through the uncertainty associated with change.

Here's what I know for sure. These organizational investments aren't last-minute decisions by those doing the buying and those being bought. These conversations at the leadership table happen over years asking questions like: Who do we want to be in the long-term? How do we remain strong in a changing and competitive marketplace? How do we ensure our business will survive for our own sake and those of our people? How do we continue to meet our strategic goals for our investors?

Acquisitions are always an investment. They are buying strength - people, customers, products, services, market access, and culture. As such, it's tremendously important to decision-makers that these investments are proven correct; yet, it always amazes me that the years of strategy and conversation at the leadership table can suddenly be replaced with unreal expectations for employees to simply accept the change and move on with limited guidance and information.

Once the initial investment has been made, it's time to continue the people investment with internal communication that supports leaders, operations, human resources, and change management. All of these teams should be brought in as soon as possible to collaborate for success.

Here is some advice for organizations and communicators to proactively support change:

Identify your impacted audiences

A stakeholder analysis is key at the beginning of every change. This simply cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Consider differences in attitudes, opinions, and beliefs of those who are part of the acquiring and acquired audiences. Although the facts remain the same, the tone and context provided should be different depending on organization and role.

Brainstorm employee questions. Especially the tough ones

Once you have thought through all of the questions you believe employees will have, you can proactively answer them with facts and context. Having done this with a variety of executive teams in the past, I guarantee the answers are available. It's often just a matter of getting leaders to re-iterate the conversations they have been having anyway. It takes the internal communication expert to provide these answers in a way that people will understand and can relate.

Integrate the communication plan with the operational plan

One of the first questions I ask when working with clients on change initiatives is, “What is happening to whom and when.” Even if a detailed operational plan is not available, ensure you talk about key milestones and their timelines. A great plan identifies these milestones and their impact on people. Drafting a communication plan with the information you do have also helps identify gaps that need to be resolved before communication can proceed.

Ensure key messages provide context

When drafting key messages, ask yourself what employees need to be aware of, understand, do and believe. Remember that the context is different based on organization and role. People need to understand the rationale behind decisions and also understand the real facts. When there is a vacuum where communication should be, employee tend to make up their own truths and the rumour mill is always more dramatic and negative than reality. It’s important to set the record straight and ensure employees are coming to the organization for the truth.

Focus on conversation, relationship and trust

Many organizations treat communication as a tactic or limited-time event. They launch and leave programs expecting operational leaders to take over impact communication on the ground. During times of change, employees want to hear the good news and bad news from their leaders. They also need to hear updates in order to reduce anxiety associated with the change. If you simply treat communication like a conversation you are having with people you care about, you will build trust, even when going through tough times. In fact, I’m just a little proud that every one of the organizations I joined to support through transformational change were recognized as top employers during my tenure.

Final thoughts

A few years ago, I was contacted by a Canadian retailer who was going through transformation shortly after I began my consulting career. Unfortunately, it was clear to me that they saw internal communication as a tactical role. As a customer, I saw the organization invest in public relations, marketing, partnerships and store renovations to turn the organization around. What they failed to invest in was communicating to their employees. Today they are no longer here which is unfortunate for their workforce and customers who both wanted to see them succeed.

The bottom line is that to not “screw up,” organizations need to see communication during change as an investment in success versus a cost. Many of the brands we trust, and consider innovative and successful, invest in communicating with their people. The infrastructure they build during the good times help them with sensitive conversations during the tough times.

Do you have a story to share about when an investment in internal communication led to success or when the lack of investment meant failure for a change initiative? I'd love to hear from you.

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When I started my Communication Career, I never realized there would be so many opportunities to use my skills. As Communication Professionals, we have to understand our stakeholders; educate people about programs and processes; ensure diverse viewpoints are heard; and consult with internal and external partners to help them accomplish their goals.
There has never been a better time to be a strategic internal communication professional. I’m amazed at how many leaders and organizations are reaching out for support to align their employees and internal audiences to help deliver their business goals.
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