Facing change Featured

9:51am EDT July 22, 2002

Learn a lesson from Terrell Davis.

The Denver Broncos running back serves as an example of how to handle change, says Patti Hathaway, who has helped companies such as Grange Insurance Cos., Bank One and Nationwide Insurance deal with organizational changes for the past 12 years.

Suffering a migraine headache early in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXII, Davis left the field, only to return in the second half and earn Most Valuable Player honors.

“I don’t think he miraculously got healed over the second quarter,” says Hathaway, a Westerville author and professional speaker known as The Change Agent. “I think he went in there and put on a game face.”

Similarly, she says, business executives must concentrate their efforts when their companies are faced with tough changes.

“You need to focus and concentrate on the things you can control, and let go of the stuff you can’t control,” she says. “If you try to take action on things you can’t control, you’re going to be angry and frustrated. In the areas where you do have influence, you really need to be the best cheerleader and encourager for your people.”

Hathaway advises company leaders to:

  • Understand you will face resistance in the course of any changes.

    “One of the most important things an executive can do is listen to people whine about the change,” Hathaway says.

    When executives ask employees about their concerns, they often find workers are worried about things that aren’t even going to happen.

    Too many executives, she says, hold what she calls “lecture meetings,” announcing a change and asking if anyone has questions.

    “Of course nobody has any questions, because they are in shock,” she says.

    She suggests executives first send out a memo about the changes and leave space for questions at the bottom. Then hold a meeting to discuss specific questions.

    “The bottom line is, you want involvement,” she says. “Here are questions: What are your frustrations or problems with this direction or change? What alternative solutions do you have that would meet our goal?

    “What you do is you help them to whine purpose fully,” she continues. “You will also have a buy-in to what you implemented because they had input.”

  • Admit your game plan might not be perfectly clear.

    Often, she says, the game plan might not be set in stone. Even if it is, the economy or competition might come along and mess up everything. That’s not a problem, she says; just be honest about it.

    “Employees sit back and say, ‘I know they know what the game plan is; they’re just not telling me,’” Hathaway says. “If you don’t know, tell them, ‘We are totally at the mercy of X.’ People just want honesty, and the thing I find is a lot of leaders don’t want to be gut-level honest.”

    They do this, she says, because they don’t want to be out of control. In a fast-moving, competitive business, however, it’s impossible to have such concrete information.

  • Accept the fact that change can be difficult.

    “I tell executives employees will view them as a new pirate who has come aboard their ship,” she says of management that takes over any organization.

    She suggests managers find articles that explain change in their industry to help employees understand the changes.

    “I also think sometimes executives shy away from sending employees to workshops or conferences because they might say the grass is alot greener on the other side of the fence,” Hathaway says. “My thought is, a lot of times they find, ‘I don’t have it so bad.’ If the grass is greener, you want those people to jump ship early.”

    That way they won’t stick around to make the changes even more miserable. Besides, she says, those conferences might provide a different outlook for many long-term employees who simply have no outside perspective from which to view change.

  • Don’t try to convince employees that all of the change is for the better.

    “If you keep saying, ‘Change is good, change is good,’ employees will sit there saying, ‘Change is not good,’” she says, referring to fears they may have about losing their jobs or taking cuts in pay. “If you’re realistic about it, say, ‘Change is hard.’”

How to reach: Patti Hathaway, www.thechangeagent.com, 523-3633

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is a reporter for SBN.