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Making change work Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

Michael Gonsiorowski was facing a challenge unlike any other he had faced in his life. National City Bank had just been bought by The PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and the regional president of the bank’s Central Ohio region had a lot of nervous employees who wanted to know how this blockbuster deal would affect their jobs.

“People are sitting there going, ‘Jeez, am I still going to have a job?’” Gonsiorowski says. “Early on, you really don’t know until more of the details of the plan get figured out. You try to get as much information to secure people and their futures as quickly as you can.”

But when it’s still so fresh, even in your own mind, how do you know what information to provide? How do you know that the information you are providing will prove to be accurate? How do you know that your own job is secure?

Those were just a few of the challenges that Gonsiorowski faced in trying to keep things moving at the offices for which he was responsible. In the end, the key to getting your company through a potentially life-changing development is your ability to follow the principles that guide you every other day.

“How is this going to feel? How do you behave? How do you lead through that transaction?” Gonsiorowski says. “As it turns out, it’s the same kind of basic leadership principles you would engage in in any change situation. Lots of communication and honest dialogue around as much as you know the facts to be as they develop.”

Here’s how Gonsiorowski calmed fears, honed his message and did his part to put National City Bank in a position to be ready to become part of the 56,000-employee PNC in less than three months.

Say what you know

When your employees have been hit with big news regarding your company, you need to get out in front of them and start talking.

“You literally communicate as soon as you can and as broadly as you can all that you know about the situation,” Gonsiorowski says. “You try to encourage people to recognize that this anxiety and uncertainty and uncomfortableness is natural, given the state of affairs. There is a common bond of understanding around that and a common bond of teamwork to deal with that.”

Start with your leadership team, your closest direct reports and get them on board with what’s happening.

“The best leaders are successful because they provide an example that their next layer of leadership can follow and use with their leadership teams,” Gonsiorowski says. “I would want to treat people honestly and communicate often the facts as they develop with the people. We would then expect them to be cascading the messages down through to their teams.”

When you’re speaking with your leaders at that early stage, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something.

“In a situation like this, there literally are periods of significant uncertainty or significant lack of clarity around how the new model might later look,” Gonsiorowski says. “The point is, when you don’t know, you say you don’t know. Honesty and frequent communication is probably the biggest key.

“I literally plan on what I want to communicate. I don’t write out my remarks, but I write out an outline on the critical topics that I want to cover in those remarks and then I always make sure I leave time for questions and dialogue to deal with what might be unexpected. Then you deliver that message as forcefully and effectively as you can. I have a whole team of senior managers here. So typically those managers are also asked to prepare in that way to speak specifically to their business lines as to what they might know about dealing with the change. You present it as clearly as you can.”

In the PNC/National City deal, it turned out most leaders believed the transition would be fairly smooth.

“It quickly became apparent that the change was going to be more manageable and more beneficial and providing such a stronger platform and there were so many benefits to the change, that managing the change became a lot easier,” Gonsiorowski says.

When that became clear, that was the message that was conveyed to everyone else in the company.

“As we communicated that, the anxiety level and the uncertainty starts to diminish rather quickly,” Gonsiorowski says.

Of course, just because the companies will be able to mesh without much trouble, that doesn’t mean employees can stop worrying about how their jobs might be affected. You again need to speak with honesty.

“You tell them that as the leader, you will continue to see it as your responsibility that the organization treats everyone honestly and fairly,” Gonsiorowski says. “Hopefully, you have some storehouse of credibility with your audience that they believe you when you say that. That’s not something that just arises. That’s something that is established over time based on how people have been managed over time.

“You don’t always have to have the answer, just the act of having the conversation in such a way that is open and honest is the reassurance people need in those early days to know that there is work under way to ensure that they are treated fairly. Sometimes, employees just need the venue.”

Grade your performance

When you’re speaking to a larger group of employees about a big development, make sure you clearly ask for questions to be raised.

“You say, ‘There must be questions out there that you have,” Gonsiorowski says. “What are they?’ It’s how you can respond to those questions and how forthright and honest you come across. And oh by the way, this doesn’t start from that moment. You would hope that you have a leadership quotient already in place with your team so that they know that you are an honest leader and they know that you have a history of treating people fairly in their business dealings.”

No matter what kind of leader you are, you need to focus on being authentic when your people are looking to you for leadership.

“By authentic, they literally project their personality and their abilities as best as they can,” Gonsiorowski says. “I would like to think that a good leader treats the furthest subordinate in an organization the same way they would treat their boss. If you do that and if people recognize that’s how you behave in the normal course of your business, it gives you a great storehouse of credibility when you’re up there dealing with uncertainty and saying, ‘Look, I just don’t know what the answer to your question is. But the decisions I make, I will tell you and I’ll share it with you as I can. We’re going to be as fair and honest about whatever the situation is as we can possibly be.’”

Know your audience before you speak and think about whom you’re speaking to.

“I would always counsel someone to be in touch with the audience and recognize the range of people within the audience,” Gonsiorowski says. “Great communication always starts with better listening skills before great speaking skills.”

When you’re done speaking, get some instant feedback as to how people closest to you think you did.

“I go to the senior people who are in the meeting and say, ‘How do you think that went?’ 1D; Gonsiorowski says. “You do a debrief. ‘Was it clear? Did we get our message across? Do you think people got what we were trying to say? Could we have done this better? Next time we do this, how can we improve on the content?’ It’s an iterative process. I think good managers just do that as a matter of course.”

Encourage your messengers

As your people move past the initial days of announcements and big meetings, you need to make sure information is still flowing through the organization and some of the questions people had are being answered.

“You’d have to be fairly dense or oblivious to the concerns of your employees or clients not to realize that people are hungry for information and hungry for contact,” Gonsiorowski says. “Just the contact alone can be seen as a positive thing. The failures would be they just don’t reach out and they don’t communicate openly and honestly quickly enough.”

Since you can’t be there to speak personally to everyone in your organization, encourage your other leaders to be more visible.

“It’s about making sure that you’re more visible than you normally would be, that you have more communications rather than less and that you’re as honest as you can be,” Gonsiorowski says. “Visibility and frequency are probably more critical in a high-change environment than less. You start out by saying, ‘We’re going through a period of change and uncertainty and that’s why we’re meeting more often, so that we can have dialogue and discussion of all the aspects of what’s happening.’”

When problems crop up, don’t shy away from them.

“I’m a big proponent of confronting problems head on rather than deferring and delaying and ignoring,” Gonsiorowski says. “I’ve always thought the frontal assault approach to solving problems is usually the most effective.”

Work with your people on dealing with problems and difficulties that they might have in speaking to their direct reports.

“You’d say, ‘Did you think about what you wanted to communicate? Did you realize how painfully uncomfortable you appeared up there? Did you test drive your message before delivering it?’” Gonsiorowski says. “You’d work with them to try to improve it. It’s one of the key jobs that a leader has is coaching and developing the team. Every good CEO has his successor always under management, always being groomed and prepared to take over when necessary. That’s true, and you constantly have to be developing talent and coaching your team.”

Beyond your efforts to coach and train and provide as much information as you can, you just have to hope you’ve done a good job preparing your people to be confident that the cascading of information is taking place.

“Your only true test as to whether you did it well or not is time,” Gonsiorowski says.

With the PNC acquisition of National City, the deal was announced on Oct. 24, 2008, and closed less than three months later on Dec. 31.

Gonsiorowski credits the ability of himself and others in the organization to get information out to the people as a key to the successful transition to become part of the $2.4 billion company.

“I often say my job as president in this market is not to screw it up,” Gonsiorowski says. “I’m delighted to say I haven’t. When you have a great team and they have been in place a long time and their relationships with both their team and their clients is strong, it makes this a lot easier.”

For those who don’t like change and all the work that goes into it, Gonsiorowski can’t offer much in the way of hope.

“Get used to it; it will keep coming at you,” Gonsiorowski says. “We all live in a pretty fast-paced environment. Just recognizing that fact alone can sometimes help you deal with it.”

How to reach: The PNC Financial Services Group Inc., (888) 762-2265 or www.pnc.com