The events of the last few years should leave no one in any doubt that we live in turbulent times. ‘Business as usual’ is an increasingly rare state for most organisations.
Why? Because of:
1. Merger and acquisition activity (as acquirer or acquired)
2. Market dislocation (I still buy my CDs from HMV, do you?)
3. Sector crises (bank bailouts, horsemeat lasagnes)
4. More for less (public and third sector "austerity" pressures)
It is precisely at these times that leaders earn their money – through their competent visible leadership...
Why is this important?
The Change Curve is a well known model (see right). For the sake of the individual and the organisation, it's important to reduce both the depth and breadth of the dip in the curve. Leaders need to do everything they can to fully recognise – but then legitimately minimise – the sense of shock, denial, anger and fear. They must also shorten the time it takes colleagues to genuinely move through to acceptance of, and commitment to, the ‘new world’.
All too often the focus is on ‘getting the deal done’ or ‘closing the project down’. True and lasting success only comes when the projected benefits from any change are realised in a sustainable way. To do this you must bring your people with you – heads and hearts.
Of course this is all easier said than done. We mustn't forget that these major shifts in an organisation's equilibrium will probably affect everyone - through to the very top.
In fact, unlike more routine changes (for example, downsizing), there can be more uncertainty for the most senior people. So the first thing to be done is to recognise this top-level uncertainty and to mitigate it as far as possible.
Assuming that can be done, what does visible leadership look like?
Stick to the facts. The rumour mill will already be working overtime – you don't need to fuel it with your own speculation. Don't over-promise. You'll only disappoint later. You must be seen as the conduit for facts and plans, and for providing help and advice.
Take the Lead
Make it clear to everyone that you are on point. This is not something that should be delegated to your HR or Communications teams – no matter how good they are.
Create a Clear Process
Set it out in advance. And stick to it. Use as many vehicles as possible – face-to-face, conference calls, webinars, online Q&A, intranet.
Receive – Don’t Just Transmit
It is essential that colleagues know they can raise their own concerns – and that they will be heard. Again, use the widest range of vehicles for this purpose.
Be (don’t just sound) Empathetic
People will want to know ‘what does this mean for me (and my friends and colleagues)?’ They may be worried, frightened, angry, confused. These legitimate concerns will influence what people hear and how they respond, so be ready for this and react appropriately. But remember, you are the leader – so no ‘going native’.
And Lastly... Be Visible
Don't hide behind, or under, your desk with your office door closed (if you're lucky enough to have an office). Get your own coffee, use the colleague restaurant, go and see people rather than emailing them. Although people may not want to engage openly at first it is worth getting out and about – to be seen, but also to watch and listen. The mood will come through if you let it.
Of course, none of this will work (and you'll certainly fail the authenticity test) if the first day you adopt these approaches is the day after ‘the big news’.
So – for the good of your colleagues, for the good of your organisation and as a high-performing leader – start acting as a visible leader from today.
David Fisher is Non-executive Director at Leeds Building Society. He is also Chairman of the Remuneration Committee and Independent Director of the Oversight Board at The Law Society of England and Wales. A former Chief Executive at Sainsbury’s Bank, David has held senior positions with HBOS and Lloyds Banking Group.
Image courtesy of Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net