• 17/02/2017
  • 17:41
  • Insights

Change is often approached with reluctance, hesitation and even fear. What if we could change the way we view change? Our Head of Career Transition, Mel Barclay considers what it takes to adopt a positive approach to change.  

We’ve entered 2017 with large-scale job losses across various sectors hitting the news headlines. While this is typical of the first quarter of any year due to the natural ebb and flow of the business lifecycle, it is also an indication that the unprecedented levels of workforce transformation Lee Hecht Harrison | Penna identified through recent research is likely to be an ongoing theme. 

For leaders overseeing change programmes, particularly those that involve redundancies, a somewhat understandable first response is worrying about delivering bad news and to whom. However, we know from supporting more than one million individuals that have been made redundant over the years that redundancy isn’t code for ‘end of the road’ – reorganisation more often than not actually spells positive prospects for both employee and employer. 

Many people affected by redundancy come out the other side in a better place, having used it as an opportunity to review the direction their career is taking, refocus and seek out more satisfying and fulfilling working lives. One example that always springs to mind is of a scientist made redundant from a pharmaceutical company we provided with career support, who went out to find what he terms his ‘true calling’ as founder of a successful gin distillery. The change in direction is obviously not always that dramatic, but this story perfectly illustrates the point; change doesn’t have to mean bad news, it’s our approach to change that ultimately dictates the outcome. 

Changing perceptions

It really is time we re-think the way we look at change. If as leaders, we can shift our mind-set away from communicating bad news to identifying opportunity and helping our employees to unlock it, then our ongoing relationships with leavers and the sustainability of our businesses will be all the richer for it. Helping someone facing redundancy to explore new career paths and doing the same for those that remain, but who might feel lost in the march of change, supports an organisation’s employer brand. That’s true regardless of whether an employee remains within an organisation’s ranks or not.  

Once we believe the sentiment that ‘change is good’ ourselves, it becomes much easier to fully endorse and communicate to those that we lead and work with. 

Redundancy is not a dirty word

Encouraging someone to look on the bright side when they have been put at risk of redundancy is obviously the most challenging scenario when it comes to communicating change positively. 

Although even in that instance there is a wealth of evidence that redundancy can actually be healthy for career development in the long run. If anything redundancy serves as a chance for someone to actually spend some time thinking about what they’ve achieved to date. What fulfils or frustrates them about their current role and where they want to go next in their career, and that’s ideally a place that will accentuate those positives and minimise the negatives. Being forced to do this outside of their usual review cycle and often not with their line manager can facilitate clarity of thought and help them to really challenge themselves to operate outside their comfort zone. This is the way redundancy should be framed rather than perpetuating common misconceptions that it spells doom, taking a backward step or never finding work again. 

Our research tells us that 40% of full time workers have been made redundant at some point in their career, making it quite a common occurrence to be tackled head on rather than met with distain. What’s more, a third (32%) of those people admit feeling negatively about the company that made them redundant, with almost half (45%) say they think the redundancy process was handled poorly. So there’s definitely room for improvement in this area.

We all have strengths and unique skills, it’s a matter of honing in on what makes people tick as professionals so they can self-identify their own key selling points that will make them attractive to another employer. 

Setting survivors on a new track

In the whirlwinds of change and while the focus naturally falls upon supporting those who will be leaving the organisation, the ones left behind, the ‘change survivors’, can receive less attention than they should. 

In theory the people left in the business are those individuals with the expertise and experience most aligned to the mission and strategic objectives of the changed organisation, and therefore the ones you most need to engage in the new world order. Change has the potential to be challenging for everyone if not managed well, even the normally high performers, as there will be an element of adjustment and refocus for all staff. 

To make sure change is managed well, it’s crucial your top talent feels part of the conversation from the get go. As far as possible make them feel part of the new organisation design as they will play an integral part in making sure it works in reality. 

As is the case for leavers, a change programme presents the perfect moment in time for high achievers to do some career planning. High performers will generally be more aware of how they are doing against the goals and objectives that have set for themselves, as they are likely to take greater ownership of their own career development than under-performers and this self-referencing can result in enhanced performance. 

But that said, being given a reason for additional reflection, particularly as the working world around them evolves, is still helpful. Perhaps the new organisation will unlock an opportunity they had in mind for their future career or a chance to learn a new skill or change the focus of their role. In this sense, relatively minor adjustments to a job can help someone to reignite their enthusiasm for their existing place of employment. This type of career planning should be encouraged by leaders through informal meetings that serve as an open forum for discussing the way forward as individuals and teams. 

Don’t forget those facing redundancy around the employees who will remain in the business are colleagues, and likely friends, and their uncertainty about the future will brush off on those whose prospects are relatively stable. Facilitating career planning with key talent will help to dispel misplaced fears by confirming that great opportunity lies ahead for them. 

The art of career conversations  

Whatever the likely impact of change upon someone’s professional trajectory, it’s important that career conversations between managers and employees continue unabated. Put simply, career conversations are good business practice during times of change as much as they are during more settled periods.

We know from recent research  the promise of greater development opportunities is the second most important factor in encouraging employees to job-hunt (44%), coming just behind seeking out better pay and benefits as the top reason (48%). Career conversations are central to the identification and activation of these much sought-after development possibilities and that’s why they’re so important in talent retention. That retention is vital for maintaining some semblance of normality for clients and other external parties when an organisation is undergoing significant change. 

Leaders and managers need to recognise the value of career conversations and then act accordingly by making sure they actually take place. 

A further study  we carried out to drill down into this issue identified that one barrier to holding such conversation was that only one in four managers felt confident in handling more difficult topics that might come up in discussions around careers like salary, delayed promotions and aspirations vs. ability. 

This is likely as a result of a lack of people management training as reported by almost a third of managers (31%). There lies the first lesson for leaders – managers need training to be able to effectively deliver career conversations and their associated employee engagement and retention benefits. 

In the absence of formal development in this regard, we offer the following advice on how to hold career conversations well:

  1. Prepare: Spend time thinking about your direct reports’ current performance and their future abilities, along with options for development. Come armed with possible topics for discussion

  2. Set up your stall: Agree on objectives and re-iterate confidentiality to build trust 

  3. Let them lead: It’s their career after all, so let them speak. Use open questions to encourage dialogue – such as “what would you like to discuss today?”

  4. Agree an action plan: Set objectives and next steps 

  5. Follow up: Put regular catch ups in place to check on progress and to offer additional support to implement plans.

Don’t put people on hold 

Career development is a core asset in an organisation’s employee engagement armoury; it definitely shouldn’t stop during times of change. However, the general message is not to put any aspect of people management on hold as you focus on the bigger picture of organisational re-design. 

The most common error leaders make is prioritising the financials during a change programme, forgetting that an engaged and productive workforce is financially important. Losing sight of the needs of your people in the face of change is actually a very costly mistake to make. 

Get in touch for more information on how we can support you in changing your perspective on change.