Change Communications Playbook: Leverage Your Frontline
As a strategic communications coach, I find myself using a good number of sports analogies. My father introduced me to several team sports as I was growing up, including football. He taught me the rules, how teams run their plays, and the roles of each player. He also explained that huddles aren’t just for team captains.
Every member of a team needs to know what to expect so they are prepared to do their part toward scoring the next goal. But things don’t always go as planned. Now and then, a quarterback fumbles, or a running back drops the ball. If members of the team are confused, the play falls apart. Panic reverberates across the field, spilling into the fans. The offense loses ground it worked hard to gain, and time is wasted. Unexpected change paired with a lack of preparation can cost a team the game.
Now let’s pass that pigskin over to a game of change communications. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a fumble during organizational change? From the perspective of an organization’s offensive line, such as frontline managers and their direct reports, it’s confusing at best. When change is fumbled repeatedly by team captains (directors and above), it’s frustrating enough to cause any talented receiver to consider a trade to another team.
How can anyone play their best game if everyone’s running in different directions, reacting to plays they aren’t prepared for? A dropped ball during a big game has the same outcome in an organization that fumbles change communications. Not only does it cost you points (dollars) and players (staff), but your fair-weather fans (customers) will switch teams faster than a pass deflection once they’ve lost faith in your team’s leadership.
Six Winning Plays for Change Communications
After years as C-suite advisor, and more years as a frontline manager, I’ve learned six key plays for successful change communications that help to avoid game-ending penalties. This is a game plan for purposeful, planned change that leadership knows is coming, with the flexibility to pivot when things don’t go exactly as planned.
Play #1: Avoid a false start.
Organizational culture plays a key role in the success of change communications. Those that cultivate trusted leaders at all levels to serve as advocates are more likely to breeze through change. Organizations that restrict information to their C-suite and drop a “C-bomb” on everyone at once are asking for player strike. There’s no Hail Mary that can save you from a botched kick-off. The game clock begins with the first announcement.
When there’s change on the horizon, you don’t want key investors learning about it from the media, and you don’t want your customers to have more information than the reps they’re calling for answers. Depending on scope and anticipated impact, develop a timeline to prioritize the timing of change communications by key stakeholders. This may include your advisory board, key investors or funding partners, additional executive-level leaders, government and community leaders or partner agencies, internal directors, managers, all employees, vendors, customers, and the media. In some cases, your executive or communications team may need to “divide and conquer” to notify stakeholders simultaneously.
Play #2: Include the 5 W's and an 'H.'
Change communications are much like press releases in terms of content. They should include the 5 w’s and an ‘h.’
- What changes are taking place?
- Who will the changes impact?
- Why are the changes needed?
- When will changes occur?
- Where will changes occur (companywide, region(s), offices, department(s), etc.)?
- How will the change happen?
Information should also be tailored by stakeholder. Members of your board, for instance, don’t need (or want) to get into the weeds of how the change will happen, so keep their information high-level. Your frontline, however, needs detailed information to execute changes, particularly when systems or processes are involved.
Your content should address the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) for each stakeholder. Include no more, and no less. Avoid industry jargon or internal acronyms that stakeholders may not understand. Keep messaging relevant, clear, and concise.
It’s crucial to map this out early in the planning phase. Allow enough time before launch for preparation and review of change communications or training materials, and for any advance training required to prepare the workforce. To do that, you need to ask individuals tasked with the training how much time they’ll need.
Play #3: Understand multidirectional impact.
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is leaders that don’t recognize, solicit, or leverage the expertise and influence of frontline managers. These are the folks responsible for the daily delivery of products and services for the organization. They oversee people, processes, and resolve issues. The communicate directly with consumers and understand what works and what doesn’t. They are intimately aware of local politics, demographic challenges, or cultural sensitivities that may need consideration. These are the people tasked to communicate, execute, and manage change on the frontlines of an organization, yet they are rarely asked for their opinion during the planning phases of organizational change.
Executives are typically not involved in enough of the details to understand the true ripple-effects of change. Soliciting feedback from frontline managers before announcing changes will reduce the time and expense of fixing mistakes by understanding the full picture. The quickest way to lose competent managers and develop a culture of mistrust is to take a deaf ear to these subject matter experts. When treated as a trusted member of a change management team, frontline managers are more likely to show up as change advocates, smoothing the process by convincing their special teams to get on board.
Play #4: Prepare people managers before a companywide announcement.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen leadership make company-wide change announcements without preparing people managers in advance. That’s like running into a playoff game with a team that doesn’t know the plays. It sets the players up to fail by turning a playoff game into a guessing game. It creates unnecessary stress and resentment throughout the workforce as frontline managers scramble for information so they can respond to the flood of questions from all directions. This is especially true if the C-suite didn’t solicit their feedback to begin with (see play #3). It’s a surefire way to destroy trust, feed cynicism, and irrevocably damage internal relationships.
Managers are more likely to serve as advocates if they’re not blindsided by companywide announcements. Arming them in advance with fact sheets, answers to anticipated questions, and allowing time for manager Q&A helps to ensure that everyone’s on the same page, communicating the right information at the right time and in the right tone.
For more sensitive information, such as layoffs or restructuring, this can happen in as few as 1-2 hours in advance of a companywide announcement. For highly sensitive changes that may impact stock value, for instance, leadership can still have materials ready in advance that can be released to managers as announcements are shared (see play #1). Failure to provide managers with more details than their direct reports will generate misinformation by forcing them to fill the gaps with conjecture.
While there is understandable concern of information leaks, this is an opportunity to demonstrate trust and prepare people managers for change communications. When treated with respect for their roles and expertise, they’re more likely to respect executive leadership’s request to sit on the information until a formal announcement is made. Managers who don’t respect a request for confidentiality will quickly weed themselves out.
Play #5: Keep talking...and listening.
Depending on the duration of the change process, a regular communications cadence should be established, providing updates and recognition along the way. This is especially true for longer timelines, as employees can and will get change fatigue. Change doesn’t always happen smoothly on all fronts of an organization. Provide multiple channels for ongoing feedback. Update and re-share FAQs. Consider hosting monthly or quarterly “town halls” to provide updates and opportunity for live Q&A. Track lessons learned so that you can course-correct and execute better the next time or repeat the plays that worked well.
Employees need to hear of progress and to be reminded that there is a goal line in site. Celebrate milestones to break up a longer timeline. Continue to ensure your managers have the support, information, training, and resources they need throughout the duration of the change process to successfully execute what’s being asked of them. Leverage frontline managers as change advocates, keeping the workforce calm, positive and productive.
Play #6: Recognize your MVPs.
Make time to celebrate the successful completion of the change process across your organization. Recognize collective efforts of the workforce, and especially the frontline managers that guided execution, communication, and resolved issues along the way. Report positive results and anticipated benefits of their efforts, so employees don’t feel their work was for nothing. Be very clear about the impact of changes made, tying back to the “why” that you provided in the beginning.
Change communications that are done exceptionally well can strengthen a workforce. Careful planning and thoughtful communications on the front end are essential for a winning game strategy.