Tackling a Major Reorganization Head-on with Values
by Rachel Schaming, Executive Coach, PCC
In the spring of 2018, I was asked to support a large organization in a major reorganization project coupled with a significant downsizing. Entering the project, I quickly observed there had been no change management fundamental groundwork such as establishing a project team, developing a communication plan, and conducting employee meetings to explain the rationale for the significant changes evolving. There was extreme stress and anxiety across the organization. Fear was rampant. Further, none of the senior leadership team had any experience in organization-wide change initiatives or downsizing fundamentals, including how to handle the cringe moment conversations along the way.
The challenging dilemmas in this massive change initiative were not black and white. There were many shades of gray. The organization was known for procrastination and avoidance. This initiative was perfect to introduce Giving Voice to Values, and assist the leaders with tools to incorporate change management plan driven by the company’s values. Individuals in the organization would readily articulate the actions they believed necessary to move the organization forward. Collectively, they experienced inertia when in group meetings. They would revert to individual wants and needs versus considering what was best for the organization. Their focus was frequently short-term versus a longer-term view to move the organization forward.
As I introduced the overview of Giving Voice to Values, the leadership team quickly grasped the actions they needed to take. They articulated their values. They voiced their concerns that the needed changes would impact their relationships with employees; they stated they felt they would not be liked and that the risks were high that friends would reject them. They did not know HOW to move forward constructively. Robust brainstorming meetings followed with a focus on HOW to step into values-based conversations and how to identify rationalizations as well as enablers.
John, the CEO, knew action and communication needed to get underway quickly. Working together, we identified the core transition team. This led to a project team charter that included the values that would guide the difficult work of the project. The Director of Marketing agreed to create a communication plan, and the Chief Human Resources Officer created talking points for John to use in his employee meetings. I worked with John to incorporate the personal values he wanted to articulate in his meetings across the organization. A project timeline was created to guide each part of the project.
In the weekly core transition team meeting, we used values discussions as our compass. Typical agenda items included: (1) articulating the purpose of the reorganization; (2) identifying all stakeholders in the reorganization; (3) surfacing legal and ethical possibilities in the work; (4) considering risk management concerns; and (5) understanding rationalizations, e.g., “This won’t work,” “Everyone will be angry at us,” “I’ve never done this before.” As we talked about and worked through these rationalizations, I introduced the topic of enablers.
Among the most important enablers for this change management process were (1) a 100% commitment to honor the values of integrity, honesty, openness, and fairness; (2) a champion in John who was willing to provide needed resources such as money and consultants as needed; (3) creation of a core transition team and detailed project plan; and (4) specific dates with accountabilities assigned. The departmental reorganizations occurred first in the project timeline. The layoffs followed. Preceding the layoff conversations, training was held for managers tasked with notifying employees who were losing their positions.
Scripts for the notification meetings were prepared by me. This responsibility became mine since I had experience in scripting departure conversations in other companies. I consulted with managers to provide support to them, get their input, and provide education regarding best practices in separation conversations. The scripts in an employee separation meeting are generally quite brief. This was the managers’ script in meeting with the affected employee:
Thank you for meeting with me. As you know, the institution has been encountering significant reduction in student enrollment which impacts the bottom line. As a result of this circumstance, your position has been eliminated. I want you to know, you’re work here has been valued. The institution has created a separation package for you. Human Resources will be meeting with you next to review the package. I want to thank you again and wish you well.
It is important to note that preparing managers ahead of the cringe moment conversation is critical. Managers must be able to handle strong emotions such as anger or tears. They must know how to manage defensiveness – their own and the impacted employees. They need to know how to answer questions such as “Why me?” Managers conducted many practice sessions with me and their fellow managers, who served as peer coaches.
During the training and practice sessions, we focused on values – identified as transparency, respect, honesty, and empathy. We talked about typical responses employees have when informed they are losing their jobs. The Human Resources Department prepared off-boarding packets that included additional compensation, transition support including resume review, and interviewing tips.
A particular concern for me was providing emotional support for the managers tasked with delivering the termination conversations. Many rationalizations surfaced during the preparation of scripts and the delivery to impacted employees. Rationalizations included: “I think Rachel should handle these conversations. She has far more experience than I do.” “I feel like I am betraying people I have known for many years.” “Can’t we just wait a little longer?” “What if we just send an email to these employees?” Time was spent in conversation and training about how leaders need to manage very challenging situations at times as fiduciaries of the institution.
We discussed the discomfort of going through this type of conversation. With time, peer coaching practice, and scripts, confidence and competence increased with the managers. These conversations are an extremely difficult task to accomplish even when well-prepared and experienced.
Following the separation conversations, we reconvened as a team to discuss what went well and what could be improved. Prepared scripts were noted as extremely valuable. Preparing and practicing the scripts lessened doubts and fear when managers entered the layoff conversations. The managers felt more competent in handling the conversation with empathy and candor. The team discussed the emotions they felt entering the conversations such as anxiety and doubt and the feelings they had after the conversations. Those feelings included relief, residues of sadness and a measure of confidence. The cadre of managers who worked together to navigate the challenging changes in this organization became a team of peer coaches. They continue to encourage and support each other in problem-solving and peer coaching.
In my work as a human resources executive, I have encountered situations where senior level executives have committed transgressions that could have resulted in immediate termination of employment. Transgressions included fudging expense accounts, inflating earnings reports, having an affair with a coworker, or diverting company materials for personal use. Bringing values to these situations has resulted in Boards of Directors pausing the immediate reaction to fire the executive to take the time (1) to reflect on the organization’s values – “What do we stand for?”; (2) to question – “If we act on our stated values, what could we do or say?”; (3) to ask the tough questions – “What is the right thing to do versus the legal or quick decision?” or, “When we look back at this situation in five years, how do we want the actions taken now to reflect our stated values?” I have witnessed leaders confront their transgressions, make restoration, and maintain their positions. I have seen Boards of Directors choose the more challenging path of supporting these troubled leaders by walking beside the leader on the journey to restoration. The outcome is preserved reputations for the leader and for the companies they serve.
About Rachel Schaming, Executive Coach
Rachel specializes in supporting institutions, organizations, and leaders in preparing for and managing pivotal conversations, such as giving feedback on employee conduct issues, terminations, downsizing and layoff conversations.
Rachel is on a mission to preserve workplace relationships by making challenging conversations positive and respectful.