Jul 18, 2018

Six Proven Steps to Effectively Communicate Change for Growth

Steven O’Hanlon, Numerix CEO

“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” This quote by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, coming from his best-known masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, is easy to pick up and apply to people in the modern working world. We all know that many, if not most, people fear change in the workplace. Change can be (particularly if it is significant and sudden) very painful to the human mind. People generally feel very secure in the whatever spot they’re in, but we can’t stop the future. And a company cannot be complacent in a hyperactive business world.

So as a CEO of a rapidly moving—and growing—fintech firm, in addition to having participated, built or led six startups prior, I know a thing or two about leading change in an organization. I would like to share some of my thoughts and best practices to the benefit of those who already lead change or are about to embark on it.

Ensuring Successful Change Communication
I understand that change is uncomfortable, but we all need to recognize it is inevitable and important—important because change in an institution represents progress and moving forward in a way that produces more effectiveness and, hopefully, greater profitability. This is why I cultivate a culture whereby Numerix employees accept change and understand that they play a role in making it a success. By developing that mind set, Numerix has been able to absorb and overcome changing markets and quickly develop industry-leading products and services to meet evolving industry demands.

The status quo is never static for long. The reasons are many: client needs and expectations change, how customers interact with you change, the technology they need to use changes; the competition will threaten with new, innovative offerings, and your market share is always at risk. I never want to be in a “follow the leader” position—I expect us to always be on the cutting edge of progress. As Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, once advised, “Change before you have to.”

In many organizations, change is communicated by managers or department heads (which is understandable for large institutions), but I insist it is up to me to make the announcements and pass along the details. I fear that as news of change spreads through a company’s hierarchy rather than straight from the top, details can get twisted and employees potentially end up receiving wrong information. Poor communication can cause problems, such as a lowering of morale, the spread of insecurity, and, possibly, a failure in successfully executing the change. According to Towers Watson’s 2013 – 2014 Change and Communication ROI Study, companies that are effective at change communication are three and a half times more likely to significantly outperform their industry peers who are not as effective at communicating change.

In leading several companies through periods of change, I have definitely made mistakes along the way, but I have applied those lessons learned in order to do it right. Accordingly, these are my proven six steps for effectively communicating change to employees and for building a culture that is habituated to change:

  1. Be clear and timely. The individual sending the message must present it clearly, in detail, and exude honesty. Communicate all that is known about the change, and do so as quickly as is reasonable, which can help preempt rumors and false information.
  2. Keep a positive attitude. Your attitude as a leader is a major factor in determining the type of atmosphere your employees experience. I don’t want to add to any potential stress or confusion, so I remain upbeat, enthusiastic, and display confidence when communicating a change. Additionally, I am always inclusive, encouraging employees to provide their questions, comments and suggestions. I don’t want employees to think they are victims of or captive to the change effort. I want them to understand they can be active contributors to it. I then thank them in advance for any extra effort they may have to put in to effect the change. I conclude by reminding them that the company’s greatest asset is its people.
  3. Focus on the benefit. The messaging should also focus on the benefits any new situation will bring. Focusing on the positive should help ensure that the negative is not the first thing an employee feels. Additionally, helping employees understand the business drivers of change will get them to see it as an organizational requirement, rather than something they take personally.
  4. Communicate the vision. In my view, in order for people to accept the change in the workplace, I must communicate to employees the vision behind the change and the strategy for executing it. I want people to really understand the reasons for the change—and why we are going from “here” to “there”. Then I paint a picture of what “there” will look like. When a leader communicates the change vision effectively, it can establish a foundation for gaining the commitment from employees and managers to embrace the new direction.
  5. Develop a comprehensive communication plan. It is important to act beyond the first announcement, so I plot out a sequence of messaging for the change process. I think successful communication of this sort requires repetition. To further get the message out, I use a variety of communication vehicles, including town halls, emails and informal meetings with smaller groups and even individuals.
  6. Listen (and empathetically if needed). You can't know the thoughts of any individual employee, but if one expresses a concern, never minimize it, even regarding the simplest of changes. A change may seem innocuous to some or even many employees, but certainly others will be impacted. So be ready to hear from them and let them express their point of view.

Like most fintech organizations, we have employees, clients, strategic partners and other stakeholders throughout the world and we communicate and collaborate with each other daily to achieve results desirous to all of us. However, we are also faced daily with potential changes among any of our constituents that can affect us, not to mention changes in our own industry or organization. We are comfortable with this fact and, as a result of effective change communication, we embrace and welcome change and interpret it as representing new opportunities and possibilities.

Steve O'Hanlon is president and CEO of Numerix, a Fintech specializing in solutions for capital markets. O'Hanlon has spent his 25+ year career in leadership positions growing start-ups and SMBs across the financial services technology industry. He has a passion for entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation. Today O'Hanlon is focused on building businesses, promoting a digital mindset and driving success.

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