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In the first 16 years of my career in the corporate world I experienced 8 reorganizations that directly involved my role. For some I was an individual contributor waiting to hear my fate and for most I was in a leadership role designing the future and deciding the fate of others. Eventually things came full circle, and I was an individual suddenly searching for a new career outside of the one I had known for so long.
Reorganizations are difficult, necessary, and deeply personal for everyone involved.
Often, when the term reorganization is used, job loss or cost-cutting comes to mind. Certainly, these are possible outcomes but never the true purpose of the effort. The true purpose is to move the company from the path it is on to a path which leadership believes will be more viable and more likely to lead to future success. I have never met a leader contemplating a reorg who did not subscribe to this purpose, yet 80% of reorgs fail to deliver the hoped-for value in the time planned.1
Simply put, it is not the what, but the how. Humans can be incredibly resilient and highly unforgiving at the same time. There is little point in developing a go-forward strategy if you are unable to get your team to come with you. Everyone is going to receive the news of the change differently and will need help and guidance to create a bridge to the future state. It’s your role as a leader to embrace the human side of change if you want your next reorganization to result in a successful transformation vs. a dysfunctional shell of what once was.
If you’re contemplating your team’s future, consider these best practices and leadership lessons I’ve gathered from my experience through 8 reorganizations, before, during and after the reorg announcement.
Ensure your strategy considers the critical work that needs to get done.
Even if the genesis of the change is to save 10% of the payroll, resist the urge to simply identify 10% of the people on the team to leave. Start by reviewing your go forward strategy, consider the critical work to be done and identify the work you are going to stop too. No, you can’t fit 10 pounds of work in a 9-pound bag, and assuming a new, smaller team will magically find efficiencies is not a way to boost confidence in you as their leader.
A well thought out structure is foundational to your reorg. In your go-forward work plan, identify the roles and responsibilities to accomplish the strategy.
Think about the processes which will need to be updated or created to bind your team together efficiently. Get a second opinion from a trusted leader or partner.
Team selection is strongest when aligned with the new structure.
Determine who from the existing team is the best fit for the new structure. Dig into the best insights you have on the team including performance reviews, cross-functional feedback, talent profiles and career development plans. Right Management’s Career Development programs prepare managers to know who’s ready for the next challenge and our range of Assessment Solutions can help ensure the best talent selection process. The art of this exercise is not about being able to say why you picked those to leave, but why you picked those who will stay. Being prepared to tell the team who remains, why they are on the team, and how they will work together will immediately position them towards the future and lower the likelihood of being fixated on the past.
Leadership Lesson: I recall a conversation with a fellow leader who was looking to stand up a new function within their department and be headcount neutral. Unfortunately, this leader was not very familiar with the intricacies of how their team operated and didn’t follow the Strategy, Structure and Selection approach. Uninformed assumption led to cutting several roles that appeared to be redundant which were critical to established process. Stress and frustration ensued, productivity was impacted and unfortunately, the new capabilities took a backseat to keeping the lights on following the disruption from those employee departures. The lesson here is to take your time, do your homework and carefully involve people who can supplement your own blind spots. Don’t let urgency or impatience impact quality.
Don’t overlook the importance of the communication plan.
With your new structure in hand and difficult decisions made, you will be eager to move to the announcement day as quickly as possible; but before you share the news, you must craft a communication plan. Start by making a list of everyone who needs to know about the changes and then classify what the news means to each individual: directly impacted, impacts their team, or no impact. Then build a schedule that unfolds in a logical order, prioritizing your direct reports and those individuals most significantly impacted. The more difficult the news, the more important it is to connect with those people directly. Make sure direct reports and peer leaders are briefed ahead of time so they can support your key messages and not lose credibility by being out of the loop.
A little compassion can go a long way.
Avoid the temptation to use large gatherings, conference calls or mass emails to distribute difficult, personal news. While it may save hours upfront, the impact on your — and the organization’s — credibility will impart a cost for years to come. Remember that how you deliver difficult news is as important as the news itself. In addition to being the right thing to do for the individual, your demonstration of compassion also rebuilds faith and confidence in the organization for everyone who remains with the company.
Clarity for the go-forward team will be critical.
Communicating the personal impact of the reorganization is only the beginning of the communication process; driving clarity for those who remain with the organization is a critical step which cannot be deferred or delegated. After all individuals have been respectfully notified, the go forward team must be assembled and the new strategy, structure and team must be made clear. Helping those who remain to understand their role in the continuing mission creates a positive outlook and demonstrates how your careful planning took into account what it takes to keep the organization running, not just what it took to cut costs.
Leadership Lesson: During one reorg I had an individual on my team whose job was not changing much, but because of the amount of change adjacent to their role, I chose to have a 5 minute 1:1 touch base so they would not be surprised by the broader subsequent communications. They were grateful to have time to process beforehand and immediately became a supporter of the change as a result. A week prior another I shared my communication plan with another leader who questioned why I had so many conversations planned. “You don’t need to waste all that time, just bring them all into a room and put the org chart up on the screen,” they said. I was willing to put in the time to make sure the entire team understood where we were going and what it meant to them. No change is easy, but I believe the rate at which my team embraced the situation and moved forward had a lot to do with how they felt when the news broke. The lesson here is simple, treat people how they want to be treated.
Thoughtfully managing the transfer of work can greatly reduce anxiety for the go-forward team:
Carefully planning and managing change is critical to both business continuity and individual success going forward. For business continuity, every individual whose role is changing must take inventory of their current work and conduct a start, stop, continue or transfer exercise, ensuring that the baton is properly passed. This effort will reduce anxiety for team members who remain with the organization as they will have less fear of important work being lost in the shuffle or carelessly dumped at their desk.
The value of transition support is empowering.
As a leader tasked with making difficult decisions and delivering life-changing news to individuals, you will never really know the value of career transition support until you have found yourself suddenly and involuntarily seeking the next chapter in your own career. Losing a job isn’t just about the severing of income or benefits, it’s also an abrupt disconnect from a community and support network you spent the majority of your waking hours with. Having a trusted expert to turn to for guidance on what to do next is incredibly empowering, enlightening and confidence-inspiring. By providing career transition services to your exiting employees, you are not just assembling a well-rounded severance package, you are making an ongoing commitment to individual career development.
Leadership Lesson: You can’t expect to control everything once your changes are rolled out. One of the most well-planned organizational changes I rolled out included full cross-functional leadership alignment for work that our team was going to stop doing. We banked that found capacity into the org design, rolled out the changes and quickly found in the months to come that the team was stretched thin because the alignment at a leadership level did not flow downstream. Individual contributors still had the same expectations of my team that they always had, and the team struggled with even less capacity to support them given the new operating model. Fortunately, my managers and peers were still in the trenches with the team at this time. We knew that to make this change stick, we had to support the role clarity, collaboration and process enhancements well past announcement day. Lesson Learned, there is no “set it and forget it” in a reorganization or leadership for that matter.
“We’re getting too good at this,” remarked one of my peers on our leadership team. It was the third year in a row we had restructured the group. We were getting good at the mechanics of reorganization, but what he meant was he’d rather we be spending time leading major customer and product development initiatives or helping our people grow, than creating org charts and delivering difficult news. There is always growth in every change, but even though it sometimes it can feel like 2 steps forward and one step back, it is still forward progress when done right.
I’m often asked how I went from the world of building motorcycles to leading Right Management’s Career Development, Mobility and Change and Outplacement product portfolio. When I found myself reflecting on what I wanted to do next after my role was eliminated (and supported by a great Right Management outplacement program), I came to realize that what I enjoyed most about my work was seeing the impact it had on peoples’ lives. Right Management’s mission of helping individuals grow and organizations thrive, has a significant impact on helping people navigate change and grow to be their best selves… a rewarding fit for me.
As you find yourself contemplating the next major organizational change at your company, be sure to keep the human element at the centre of your decision-making process. Pay special attention to what remaining employees will need to not just keep the lights on, but to chart the course to a brighter tomorrow. Connect with a trusted partner, like Right Management. Our Mobility and Change Solutions and Outplacement Programs can help you achieve the goals of your change effort with rapidly deployable and scalable programs optimized to support your go-forward talent. Our Outplacement Programs support exiting employees with expertise and care to accelerate their transition to the next step in their careers. Commit to helping those leaving the organization find their next chapter with confidence. And never forget that how you communicate difficult news is as important as the news itself.