We Aren’t Going to Slogan Our Way Out of This

Miki Reilly-Howe

Of all the strategy work our company does, our most important work is interviewing employees inside large organizations in the midst of a major transformation. These types of interviews are illuminating because stress is high and tolerance is incredibly low. You get to the truth quickly.

The truth, as seen from the perspective of people in the trenches of the organization, is the essential ingredient for leading a successful transformation. Leaders can close the gap between their own point of view and that of the workforce by proactively addressing employees’ real concerns, reducing friction caused by confusion or mistrust and allowing transformation efforts to move faster.

This raw truth won’t come from surveys. It emerges during confidential depth interviews in which employees are encouraged to speak freely to an impartial outsider. This post’s headline is an example of a great quote from such an interview. Other people we spoke with during the project had similar thoughts, but one manager summed up the situation eloquently. The global firm had been through several volatile years, and the last thing employees wanted was another “You Make the Difference” poster or “Our People Are Our Greatest Asset” speech. They wanted something that felt real and relevant – even if that meant a reorganization or layoffs. They wanted the truth.

At a global meeting a few weeks later, the division head prepared his talking points with these truths in mind. He began with the expected PowerPoint presentation, talking through last quarter’s numbers and recent developments in the market. A few slides in, his presentation went dark. All that appeared behind him was a field of black. While people in the auditorium assumed it was a technical issue and those online hit the refresh button, the Executive Vice President began to tell a story. His story.

Without the distraction of a chart-filled slide, he was the focal point. He talked about his own surprise at the volatility in the market. His frustration with the multiple changes in leadership. He spoke about his fear of losing their innovative culture. He talked about his frustration, his sense of loss, his discomfort in not having all the answers this time. He took the audience with him on his personal journey over the last few months, which reflected their emotional journey in many ways. Then, he talked about his own decision to stay and fight and win.

During the rocky transition year that followed, he retained his most talented people despite a reduction in the workforce. His engagement scores went up while other divisions experienced the opposite. His initiatives gained traction, and sales began to grow more rapidly. This had a lot to do with his charisma as a leader, his talent as an engineer and his experience as a veteran in the industry. It also had a lot to do with his courage to speak honestly with his people at a critical time; to be vulnerable and authentic in the face of change.

This small gesture eliminates psychological barriers and builds an emotional bridge that binds everyone to a common goal. Rather than creating a slogan, leaders who close the distance between the narrative of the workforce and their own story create the unity needed to respond more quickly to change.

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