Communicating Change


If the purpose of the Communications function is about reputation as I wrote in a recent post, then its reason for being is change.

Changing mindsets. Changing beliefs. And ultimately changing behavior. All with the goal of developing a well-known reputation of being a great place to work, buy and invest, in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

If a communications strategy, plan or tactic isn’t ultimately about change, it’s unnecessary. Why communicate at all if you’re not working toward making your organization and your team better?

And what better season to embark on change than the spring? It’s the time of new life, new beginnings and new possibilities.

Whether you’re launching a major organizational change or you want to make positive changes in your own life, here’s what’s worked in my experience.

Start with why. “Why? How? What?” is the golden circle of action, leadership expert Simon Sinek says in one of the most-watched TED talks, “How great leaders inspire action.”

It’s modeled on his book, Start with Why. He defines “why” through a series of questions – “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause” What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”

It reminds me the key question I learned in a “Strategy 101” course by McKinsey & Company for DIRECTV leaders. I ask it often – what problem are we solving for? It’s another way of starting with why.

It could also be framed as a vision statement. An aspirational view of what the desired future state could be.

Or as change expert Darryl Conner would ask, “what’s the burning platform that is forcing you to change?” As he aptly describes, people will change when the pain of maintaining the status quo exceeds the pain of changing to a new state.

Form a key team. Any change effort needs a key team of people to lead and champion it. At DIRECTV we form steering committees. These are the people who, in Darryl Conner’s lexicon, are the sponsors of change.

It worked well as we institutionalized a focus on the customer experience and winning loyalty for life. It began with a steering committee and an operating committee and grew to encompass leaders and employees alike. We now have one of the highest levels of customer satisfaction in the pay-TV industry.

It enabled us to create a connected enterprise with new social collaboration tools. We began with a vision of employees being able to connect, collaborate, access and share information, anywhere and any time, leading to increased engagement, productivity and innovation. Nearly 90% of eligible employees have adopted our social intranet.

And it drove new ways of working and increased pride in our company when we moved into a newly renovated headquarters campus with more natural light, open space and new amenities. Not only is it a more environmentally sustainable space, but employees also gave it high marks, after initial concerns about how their work areas would change.

Paint a compelling picture. How can the future be better than the present? What has to change in order to get there, and how? Why is staying in the present state going to be more painful and less advantageous than making a change? What benefits will various stakeholders experience?

These are all questions you must answer in one way or another as you paint a compelling picture of what the future will look like.

Involve people. Every successful change initiative I’ve worked on has involved people throughout our organization.

With the customer experience, we had a steering committee, an operating committee and a learning lab that was ultimately scaled across the organization.

With our connected enterprise, we launched an Enterprise Collaboration Council with leaders across the company. We engaged key stakeholders in a beta test, which improved the platform and created early evangelists for social business.

With our new headquarters campus, we formed teams of employees to give input into new ways of working. A few examples – the conference center, the cafeteria, the fitness center, wellness, sustainability and workplace flexibility.

We engage our employee resource groups in major change efforts, because members come from all over the company and communicate well about change.

As you’re building your communications team, look for people who have grit – those who are resilient and can figure it out as they go.

Address resistance. Resistance was a concept I resisted for a long time. It challenged me because it falls in the realm of emotion rather than logic, where I prefer to dwell.

But with my recent exposure to the work of Darryl Conner, I’ve come to accept that resistance is a normal part of change. And that the absence of resistance isn’t a good thing, but a warning sign that issues aren’t being actively addressed.

So look for resistance. Acknowledge it, validate it  and use it an opportunity to explain the why behind the change.

The picture above is from the awe-inspiring Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit in Seattle, which my family visited last week. I chose this image because it reminds me of the messiness and the chaos that can be part of change, but also of its ultimate beauty.

Share wins. Change isn’t always a fun process. But done right, there will be some early wins. Make a big deal of those. Share successes with key stakeholders. We’ve done this through videos, awards and events. Use wins as a chance to bring people together and increase enthusiasm and inspiration.

Reflect and repeat. What did you learn through the change process? What worked well and what would you do differently next time? Apply that learning to your next change effort, or as you scale the current change.

Think back to some of the doom-and-gloom you may have heard early on. The naysayers. The critics. Maybe some of those voices even came from you. Did the worst outcomes come to pass? The best? More than likely, the change was a net plus.

I’ve changed colleges, careers and companies. With each change there was some fear and resistance. But there was consistently a better outcome ahead because I was willing to change.

Every time I’m launching a new change, I think about that.

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Caroline Leach

Hi, I'm Caroline Leach. I help people and organizations tell their stories. I'm a Marketing VP at AT&T, a former Communications VP at DIRECTV and an alum of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This blog, How to Build Your Career through Social Media, shows you how to build your personal brand, advance your career and embrace your future. It helps you promote your employer and your network too. Opinions expressed in this blog are my own. Your comments are welcomed and encouraged. I'd love to hear from you!

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