When COO Sarah was given the unenviable task of announcing a major restructure with ‘a number’ of redundancies, the grave faces in front of her confirmed that the impact would be far reaching.

A month before, a sharply dressed team of consultants had appeared and secret executive team meetings were held offsite. The rumour mill had been running wild for several weeks as people speculated on best and worst case scenarios.

Making people redundant is the hardest thing any leader will ever have to do.

Sarah knew she had to help everyone navigate the bumpy road ahead but she simply didn’t know how. Having been personally impacted by a bruising restructure when she worked for another company, she knew what not to do.

Change Leadership Fail - the wrong way to break brutal news

Do not…

  • Pretend nothing is happening – people aren’t stupid
  • Send mixed messages (‘The company is doing great and we’re growing fast but we have to cut headcount by 25%’) – credibility, trust and respect will evaporate
  • Drag it out with long silences in between - a sure fire way to heighten anxiety as people fear the worst
  • Underestimate the depth and range of reactions – everyone will be impacted in different ways
  • Abdicate responsibility – it’s not HR’s job to hand out the pink slips
  • Distance yourself from the impact – this is not a time to be the invisible, absent leader
  • Expect everyone to instantly accept such a disruptive change.

During her coaching session, Sarah shared how this approach had backfired. Rather than losing the lowest performing 25%, the company had lost most of their hard to replace, disenfranchised top talent. The resulting fallout led to a swift and sharp fall in morale, productivity, sales and profitability.

We explored how Sarah and her colleagues could minimize the negative impact of this restructure and help themselves and their people navigate their way through the disruption.

Change Leadership Win - a better way to break brutal news

Over several coaching sessions, Sarah developed a values and principles based approach:

Transparency and Honesty

Don’t wait for the structure to be finalised before communicating. Share what you can as soon as you can. Small pieces of information often reduces speculation and fear. Be upfront that you don’t yet have all the answers; that decisions are ongoing and will be shared as soon as they are made.

Tell people what to expect and when specific information will be communicated and follow through on your commitments..

Face to Face Communication First

Schedule weekly All Staff Briefings followed immediately by senior leaders meeting with their direct reports to unpack what this week’s news does and does not mean.

Video these briefings so those who are unable to attend can see and hear (rather than simply read) the message and the tone with which it is delivered.

Replace Speculation, Myths and Rumours with Truth

Fear and uncertainty are uncomfortable and human nature has a way of making up stories to counter them. Keeping an ear to the ground will help leaders pick up what’s being said, believed and felt. Without attribution, it’s helpful to acknowledge the ‘stories’ and correct any misinformation publicly and quickly.

Be Visible, Available and Approachable

It’s tempting to bunker down in many closed door planning meetings during a restructure. However, Sarah and her colleagues committed to take turns eating their lunch in the lunch room daily throughout the restructure to facilitate informal question asking and pulse check conversations with their people.

They also dropped into online Team Meetings for regular ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions.

Understanding and Respect

Aware that everyone responds differently to change based on their personal situation, belief systems and past experience, Sarah identified groups and individuals within groups, mapping out likely responses and how to provide appropriate support.

For those facing redundancy

Be clear, patient and caring. Enable these people to maintain dignity and provide a team of specialist support services based on individual needs.

Thanking them for their efforts and contribution whilst concurrently telling them they are no longer needed, can come across as disingenuous. Simply listen, empathise and acknowledge the impact. Be specific and genuine when expressing appreciation.

For those left behind

Having escaped the cull, ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ is real. Encourage people to share how they are feeling and acknowledge rather than downplay it.

As the implications of doing more with fewer people sinks in, increasing despair and stress are normal responses. Focus people on what IS within their control and involve them in How We’re Going to Make this Work sessions, redirecting energy and headspace to what needs to happen next.

Acknowledge and normalise the disruption and discomfort

Clarity and Optimism

Clearly communicate the vision, plan and why the restructure is necessary.

  • Use ‘black clouds and rainbows’ to paint honest pictures of the consequences of not changing, followed by the potential and opportunities that change will bring. Swap the copious word dense slides and endless graphs for clear messages.
  • Swap high level, motherhood statements and meaningless ‘weasel’ words (eg trajectory, right-sizing and paradigm shift) for concise and simple language - ‘As we have achieved 95% market share in Australia, we are shifting our focus to increasing sales across Asia. This means we need fewer people in Australia which I acknowledge will have a significant impact on you.
  • Metaphors and analogies help people ‘join the dots’. Tell relatable stories – ‘It’s like renovating a house. We need to keep our strong foundations whilst changing the floor plan so our structure is flexible and able to adapt more easily.’
  • Build the belief that ‘every problem has a solution’ and ‘over time we’ll work it all out’, whilst avoiding toxic positivity. People need to have faith in your calm optimism.

Focused Leadership Support and Growth

We often overlook or dismiss the emotional toll that making people redundant and disrupting the status quo has on leaders.

As Sarah and her executive colleagues felt like they were often ‘flying blind’, we co-designed a series of regular Group Coaching Sessions, held over the transition period. These sessions provided the opportunity and a safe environment for the Senior Leadership Team to:

  • Share and reflect on their experiences
  • Build a toolkit of specific Leader as Coach skills to coach their people through the change
  • Strengthen trust between the team so they could support each other.

Within 4 months, the restructure was successfully implemented and the business was on track to achieve their best results ever. The executive team were openly acknowledged for the professional, supportive and respectful way they had led the change which Sarah rightfully claims to be her proudest achievement.

Sarah's Key Take Aways

  1. Lead with and demonstrate empathy to help people feel heard and valued
  2. Be inclusive and bring everyone ‘into the tent’ to work collaboratively on the ‘how’
  3. Intentionally and consistently demonstrate your core values – they are your best guide rails.

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron

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About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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