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Change happens Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

While there are some people who love living life minute by minute and are bored to tears by the monotony of routine, most people prefer to have a little consistency in their lives.

Keith Tompkins believes people often fear the unknown when faced with change. So when he announced his retirement as president and CEO of Kinetico Inc. last year, he sought to provide as much information as he could to his 400 employees about the impact of the change.

“The more you can prevent rumors and the more you can mitigate the unknown that can certainly be a huge distraction for your people,” Tompkins says. “You can even lose some of your people if there is too much uncertainty. If you err on one side, I would err on overcommunicating.”

Tompkins left his post at Kinetico in August and was replaced by Shamus M. Hurley. The move came a little more than a year after Kinetico, a provider of home water systems, was acquired by Stamford, Conn.-based Axel Johnson Inc., an arm of the Swedish-based Axel Johnson Group.

When one change closely follows another, you need to find ways to reassure your employees that their lives are not about to be turned upside down. And that begins with your senior management team.

“People look at the leadership group for their assurances that things will be all right,” Tompkins says. “It’s extremely important that that group has all the information possible and is supportive. If people sense there is any uncertainty in the leadership group, then it’s going to permeate the whole organization.

“Once a decision is made to move to a new CEO, it needs to happen as quickly as you can. It could easily get out, and a lot of people tend to look at change as negative. The more you can assure them that it is life, and change is not always negative, I think that helps.”

Less than a week after the position was offered to Hurley, the new CEO came in to meet the company leaders.

“It was very important to get a face on his name with our key management group as quickly as we could,” Tompkins says.

The other benefit of getting managers directly involved in the transition process is the fact that they often have closer relationships with employees than does the CEO or other executives.

“If we can convince them that the change is well-thought-out and healthy and that we’re bringing someone in with the same values as the rest of us, I think things will go rather smoothly,” Tompkins says. “Any time there is a change in any department or at any level, there is going to be some difference. We just need to convince people where we’re headed.”

You also need to talk to your customers, vendors and anyone else outside your organization who has regular dealings with your company.

“I personally called most of our major customers prior to making a public announcement of the change so they would hear it directly from me,” Tompkins says.

At the end of the day, don’t be afraid to overcommunicate because it can only help the process of reassurance.

“People tend to look at things from their own vantage point,” Tompkins says. “I don’t know that you can ever communicate so everyone gets the same message and the same take. ... All you can do is give them your honest take on what is happening.”

HOW TO REACH: Kinetico Inc., www.kinetico.com or (800) 944-9283

Leave no doubt

When Keith Tompkins retired from Kinetico Inc., he made plans to stay on for a short while to help his replacement get acclimated. But Tompkins worked hard to make sure everyone knew that he was no longer the company’s president and CEO, and he put out a communiqué to every employee to remove any doubt that Shamus M. Hurley was in charge once Tompkins had retired.

“It’s very important that there be zero confusion as to who is in charge,” Tompkins says. “From Day One, it has to be clear, and people need to know that this company is now his responsibility. I’ll do everything I can to help him in the transition and pass along my knowledge as much as I can. If I hear anything from people, I’ll certainly make it clear that it’s his company. They can pass information to me, but whatever they pass on to me, I’ll be relaying on to him.”

When you decide to step down as head of the company, it can only help your case to support the new leader and spend some time talking with him or her.

“It’s talking to him and getting a feel for whether he has the same values and the same outlook for employees and people that we do,” Tompkins says. “I don’t think it’s any different hiring a CEO than hiring any of our employees. All those things we look for in our key people are not unlike what we look for in the CEO.”