Australia: The principles of leading and communicating change successfully

Last Updated: 18 February 2013
Article by Robyn Sefiani

There is no doubt change is in the air, on the global and local political, economic, media and business fronts.

The last 12 months alone has seen significant shifts in Australia's legal, retail and professional services landscapes. In this new paradigm, organisations are reviewing their strategic direction and many are opting for change to strengthen their competitive position.

The challenges presented by significant change are accompanied by risk, which is nothing new – as noted by Machiavelli over four centuries ago.

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

Change is often confronting, and managing change successfully requires a carefully planned approach to ensure internal and external stakeholders clearly understand what change is happening and why it is necessary. But well-managed and communicated change can also present great opportunities for CEOs and leadership teams to get on the front foot.

A recent Financial Review Business Intelligence survey indicated that responding to change – in relation to business environments, globalisation and organisational structure to deal with an increasingly remote workforce – is critical to success.

Furthermore, communication was ranked the most important issue for current leaders (87% of respondents), ahead of leadership, strategic thinking, resilience and decision making.

Communicating change effectively

These days, communication strategy sits alongside legal counsel, business strategy and human resources advice as a critical part of planning to support change. Sefiani's specialist Change Communication Practice works with leadership teams to provide expert help to navigate the challenges presented by communicating change, not least addressing issues around rumour, speculation and fear of upheaval often experienced by stakeholders.

Overall, the six key principles for the successful leadership of change are:

1. Establish rationale, purpose and urgency of change

Major change projects need momentum to succeed. The more clearly leaders can communicate the problem they are trying to solve by instigating change, the better. A sense of urgency is critical to garnering the support of stakeholders throughout an organisation. Without motivation and clear rationale, stakeholders within the business will question the need for change.

While it may feel difficult to articulate, the reality of what would happen if action is not taken is a powerful way to communicate the absolute necessity of the change itself. Authenticity is also imperative, as 'crying wolf' will not be tolerated by employees who may already be fearful and speculative of change coming their way.

2. Identify stakeholders

Think broadly and deeply about everyone the change will affect. Establish their influence and importance in relation to the success of the program, and bear in mind that more often than not, these influencers sit outside of your business. They could be the spouses or friends of employees considering a relocation or redundancy package, and understanding the impact of these influencers and finding a way to communicate with these groups is essential.

Also consider 'agents of change' - these may be esteemed managers within the business, or well-respected external experts who can support your rationale for action.

3. Lead from the top and establish a change leadership team

Major change needs to be led actively and authentically by the head of the organisation. It also requires a powerful guiding coalition able to take the message of change, and return with feedback, to all areas of the business. This includes not only the leader of the business, but legal counsel, communication strategy specialists, human resources representatives, change agents and influencers. Defining appropriate roles and responsibilities for these leaders of change is critical to ensure not only a co-ordinated approach, but the assurance that feedback received will be owned and actioned.

4. Plan with military precision

Successful change programs, whether operational or cultural, also need careful and detailed planning and long term thinking. Planning for the announcement of change is only half the battle, and in the majority of poorly executed change programs, it's where the momentum – and the battle - is lost. Without a long term plan, with carefully structured updates, milestones and wins, a change program loses drive, employee engagement and, critically, faith among key constituents.

5. Develop clear vision

Successful change needs to be supported with a vision that is clear and easy to communicate. It needs to appeal to your key stakeholders – to customers, shareholders and employees. The picture must be viewed from their perspectives.

For example, numbers and fiveyear-plans meant nothing to Apple employees in 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to the business he founded to discover it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Steve Jobs cultivated a vision and a culture of innovation that spoke to all of his stakeholders – it was clear, concise and easy to grasp, and has resulted in arguably the greatest turnaround in US corporate history.

Equally critical is removing obstacles to that vision, and ensuring the actions, statements and behaviour represented within the business are in line with the vision. This may mean making some tough decisions if you are dealing with leaders or managers obstructing change, but there is little point striving for a vision that is consistently undermined by actions – or worse – endorsed by the inaction of the leadership team.

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Do not underestimate the importance of not only regular updates and announcements, but listening and responding to feedback to fine tune your strategy as change rolls through an organisation.

  • Communicate authentically, frequently and responsively.
  • Remember, communication does not exist in a vacuum – messages, no matter how well-practised and fine-tuned, will always be influenced by the circumstances in which they are received.
  • Consider events and circumstances both outside and inside the organisation may impact the delivery of critical messages, and think carefully about the communication channels you have to deliver them.
  • As a general rule, use active channels – face-to-face and direct personal engagement
    • when dealing with major announcements. Passive channels
    • email, pre-recorded videos and newsletters – are best used to reiterate and support messages, rather than drive them.

Planning and communicating change is complex and challenging. There is little doubt that leadership teams who take action to manage the risks inherent in both are far more likely to succeed in positively positioning not only the change itself, but their personal and professional reputations.

About Sefiani Communications Group

Established in 1999, Sefiani Communications Group is the largest privately-owned corporate and financial public relations firm in Sydney, and one of the leading issues management firms in Australia.

Led by an experienced team of Directors, Sefiani offers strategic counsel backed by industry expertise, commercial insight and strong networks, and the ability to execute communication programs successfully.

Sefiani's senior change specialists work closely with clients through change communications strategy workshops, timeline planning, stakeholder identification, message development, crafting communications materials, issues anticipation and response, media relations, social media engagement strategy and risk identification. Sefiani also provides CEO media skills coaching for announcement day, manages media engagement on the day and monitor the effectiveness of change communication to all stakeholders.

Sefiani has a considerable track record of working with boards and leadership teams to develop strategic change communication programs. Rapidly growing client need has reinforced Sefiani's decision to establish a change practice, led by Managing Director Robyn Sefiani and Associate Director Francesca Boase.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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