Transition magician Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

Warren Harris has seen a lot of change in more than 20 years with Tata Technologies, much of it coming within the last four years. Harris, the president and chief operating officer, was among those charged with first piecing together a newly combined company in 2005 and then rebranding it under the Tata name.

That’s two major changes in less than half a decade. It’s required a lot of work on the part of Harris and the company’s other leaders, particularly in the area of communication — both outgoing and incoming.

“Over the last three and a half years, what we’ve learned is that it is very important to have long antennae that stretch into the organization,” Harris says. “They allow you to pick up the issues, challenges and feelings of the employees and the various teams that you have assembled throughout the organization. In terms of messaging and communications, it has been just as important for me to listen and to collect input as it has been to package communications and deliver them.”

If you don’t communicate during a time of change, both in terms of disclosure and seeking feedback, your culture will suffer and you risk allowing your company to lose its focus on your mission and core values.

Rebranding, mergers, acquisitions and other foundation-level changes can have many advantages from the standpoint of resources, financial clout, culture and a host of other variables. But it doesn’t make the process any easier to endure.

It’s something Harris has had to continually deal with as Tata Technologies has continued to evolve. Here’s what he learned along the way.

Manage change from the top

Any kind of organizational transition is easier with buy-in at all levels of the company. In order to get buy-in from the employees on the front lines, you and your management team need to come up with a plan that appeals to employees logically and gives them some form of incentive for buying in.

At Tata Technologies — the $300 million U.S.-based arm of Singapore-headquartered business conglomerate Tata — reasoning and incentives were two of the first elements Harris helped put in place before presenting the 2005 acquisition strategy to employees.

“As part of the change management, we really looked at all distinct things,” Harris says. “One is explaining the rationale. Two is ensuring that the appropriate incentives are in place. Three, we try to make sure that competency is there to live up to the expectations. Four, we try to position and establish role models and objectives for the things that we’re trying to put in place.

“If we look at those four groups, I personally spent a lot of time communicating the rationale, being the cheerleader for the change and reinforcing the ambitions of the organization. You need to spend a lot of time on the rationale, communicating why you believe the change is necessary and why you believe it’s important for the market and, by association, your future success.”

Incentives were tied to a balanced scorecard program instituted with the help of outside consultants, which helped Tata Technologies’ leaders measure progress against set objectives. All executive compensation was awarded through the scorecard system.

The competency objective was tied to an educational support initiative, which helped coach people within the company to become example setters and role models for the acquisition initiative. Those people were then strategically placed within the Tata Technologies structure to keep fertilizing the seeds initially sowed throughout the company by Harris and his leadership team.

“That’s been the case particularly in areas of the business we’re looking to build,” Harris says. “We’ve brought in a lot of educational support from the outside, working with outside companies. When we were able to jettison some of the conscripts in the early part of the two companies coming together, we were able to backfill those positions with people who have the right type of capabilities and are committed to what we are trying to achieve.”

Once the initial communication strategy is rolled out, the burden falls on you to keep the communication cascading. You need to constantly reinforce your initial messages, or the change culture you’ve planned for will never grow.

Harris says the daily and weekly reinforcements have to be delivered in an easily digested form so the message doesn’t become garbled or lost as it cascades through the ranks.

“You need to continue to focus on your values and what you stand for as a company,” he says. “In our communications, we tell everyone that we are committed to building one company, committed to positioning the parochial interests of the different regional organizations as secondary to the interests of the organization as a whole. We are a services organization, so, of course, exceeding customer expectations is a critical success factor for us.

“I will talk about the nuances associated with the different messages in different regions when I visit them, but there is never an attempt to confuse or try to distract the message at all.”

Cascade communication

If you run a large organization such as Tata Technologies, daily communication might not be as simple as walking the halls or pulling people aside for spontaneous chats. With a 4,200-employee worldwide presence, Harris’ communication methods are more formalized than might be necessary for a smaller company. But Harris says formalized communication methods, in any form, can help a company through a transitional period.

After the acquisition, Harris says, “I spent my life on a plane.” He traveled the world visiting Tata Technologies’ locations, getting a personal feel for the questions and concerns employees had about the acquisition. In the ensuing years, he’s kept the communication pace through a quarterly video he produces, which all regional managers must play for their employees. After playing the video, which updates employees on the progress of the company and any alterations in goals, the regional managers are asked to communicate Harris’ message in the context of what it means for that particular region.

As your company grows and changes, so will the communication needs of employees. Harris says you need to develop a communications strategy that is scalable with growth, and in order to do that, you have to put the pieces in place soon after you’ve announced a major change.

“What I would suggest is that you need to emphasize communication early on in the process,” he says. “That is one of the things we did. We spent a lot of executive time on it. We made sure the processes were formalized and understood. We made sure the processes that support communication are formalized, and we measured the effectiveness of communication forums.

“The thing to remember is that it is first about conditioning the importance of communication. The second thing to remember is that you need to make sure you have institutionalized processes. Third, surround those processes with metrics and make sure you have appropriate feedback loops.”

Listen to feedback

When you’re communicating before and immediately after a major companywide change, you’re probably trying to disseminate a large amount of information and keep it in front of people. It’s an environment that doesn’t offer many opportunities for listening to your employees.

But Harris says it’s a necessity. If you don’t set up channels for employee feedback and listen to what others in the company are saying, you might miss a correctable problem in its early stages. If you miss a problem early, it will find you later and probably in a far more menacing form.

The amount of employee feedback you receive goes hand in hand with your willingness to listen to feedback, seriously consider it and implement the ideas that fit your overall goals. If you don’t use the feedback you get, at some point you won’t get any more.

Again, it’s a process that starts in your office.

“One, you need to consistently communicate the importance of employees having ownership over what you are trying to accomplish,” he says. “You do that through giving them a feeling of attachment to objectives, by showing them how they are helping the company reach its goals.

“You also need to be critical and be complimentary when necessary, which is why we’ve really reached out to everyone and communicated our desire for feedback. The other important element is that when you get feedback, you hold yourself accountable for doing something about it. How we do that is that in all of our quarterly communication sessions, our executives are responsible for communicating progress against the feedback they receive directly. That is part of the agenda for every session we hold each quarter.”

Giving employees a voice within the organization is a critical element in stimulating their interest in the change process. Employees are your company’s face to your customers, so if they are engaged, the picture painted for your customers will become far brighter than if employees are asked to follow orders and otherwise left in the dark.

“People want to earn money, but they also want to be involved in exciting objectives and initiatives. They want to be a part of something meaningful within the industry,” Harris says. “We want to get our employees to think of the big picture. There is no question that big-picture thinking is critical to our objectives as a company. When we rebranded the company earlier this year, the whole exercise was really focused on exciting our employees about what we were trying to build — not just in the context of the individual business units or the customers they are supporting, but in the context of the overall market we are looking to serve.”

Between 75 and 80 percent of the rebranding budget was spent on internal rollout. Harris says it sent a message to employees that, just like the acquisition scenario of four years ago, their buy-in on the rebranding initiative was essential.

“A lot of it goes back to having those antennae within the organization,” he says. “Developing those presences really allows you to engage people and tap into what is going on in the different areas of the organization. And there are many ways to do that. I make it a point as I go through our different geographies to have many town-hall meetings. I spend a lot of time on the road with different business units, different lunch and dinner meetings. There isn’t one particular playbook to follow. It’s a collection of things that aggregate up, providing those eyes and ears within the organization.”

How to reach: Tata Technologies, (248) 426-1482 or www.tatatechnologies.com