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Your business will need to change directions and how you communicate that with your team is the difference between success and failure.
Every business that reaches meaningful scale has gone through at least one or two big changes in their strategy. Those pivots are very difficult to make, since they involve throwing out much of what you have done in favor of a bigger opportunity.
Even if you don’t have major pivots, you likely will have many smaller shifts in your strategy. When you make one of these shifts, the biggest risk is not that the new strategy fails. It’s not even that you don’t have time to execute it.
The biggest risk is that your team stops believing.
Communicating change, especially significant change, is a skill. Most people only have a few chances in their career to practice this, and as a result the vast majority of us are not good at it. Even worse, as a leader you have significantly more context about change than your team so things that make sense to you won’t make sense to them. All of this means you cannot trust your instincts.
Here is a simple framework you can use when communicating change to make sure your team understands and internalizes the change:
Step 1. Setting Expectations
Communicating change starts well before it happens, with the expectations you set with your team. Even if you don’t know the specific changes coming, growing businesses are nothing but change so you know something is coming. Communicating that change will come, and that nothing you do is considered “permanent”, is a critical expectation to set.
You will need to reinforce this expectation constantly, as people take pride in their work and their jobs and over time will become attached to them. If you do not remind them that change is coming, they will start to assume they are building something that will last.
For example, you cannot guarantee all of the members of your leadership team will scale with the company as it grows. We always hope they will, but it’s inevitable some will not. On a regular basis you should remind them that they will always be the first choice for their role but the job is not guaranteed to be theirs forever. They need to re-earn their job at every inflection point of the business.
Expectation setting alone is not enough, but it does allow everyone to prepare for change when it comes. No one likes surprises.
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Step 2. Communicating the Change
When the time comes for change, you need to be clear and confident. Whether it’s a reorganization, a shift in business model or entirely new product, change is going to be scary and new to everyone on your team. You might have been working on the changes for months, but for some it will hit them all at once.
Ideally, you will start communicating the change to your leadership team first and then work your way down the organizational chart. This is not always possible, so you might need to tell everyone at the same time. Some people might be offended that they didn’t have advance notice, but that is an unavoidable cost of moving quickly.
When you communicate change, your presentation needs three specific things:
Why things need to change
What the changes will be
Why the changes are the right decision for the business
Most leaders make the mistake of covering just #2, but that demands an enormous amount of trust in you and your leadership (see The Well of Good Will). You should lay out the reasons that the status quo cannot continue, and why the changes you are making are for the best. If you do this well, even people who do not like the change will admit it’s the right decision.
Step 3. Reinforcement
No one can absorb change all at once. It takes time, so it’s critical you reinforce your message over time. Some members of your team, who prefer the old ways, will resist the change or hope you will change back to the way things were. You need to be consistent and firm about the changes and why they are the right direction for the business. As soon as you waver in your confidence or clarity, the team will begin to doubt you, the change or both.
Reinforcing the message does not mean inviting debate or revisiting the decision again and again. If your team is spending energy looking backwards, they are not working towards the future. Everyone needs to commit to the changes, even if they disagree, and if they cannot it might be time for them to depart.
This might seem like a cold approach to what can be significant emotional issues, but the reality is that the business cannot afford to fight itself. You put significant thought into making the change, so further debate will not result in a better decision - only distraction.
What happens next?
After a change happens, the team will get into a new rhythm faster than you expect. By setting expectations and communicating clearly, you’ve given them direction and purpose which they can follow. Everyone wants to succeed, and this change is the path to success.
But, you can’t stop now! You need to once again begin the expectation setting process since more change will be in your future. The biggest mistake you can make, after effectively communicating change, is to let your team believe that was the last change. This process will repeat over and over again until the end of your business, there is no end.
Change is a reality of high growth businesses, and it makes them exciting and fun. Communicating change effectively will help your team stay positive and enjoy the journey.
NOTE: Layoffs are a special case where you need to be extremely careful about how you communicate. For more details on how to handle layoffs see Layoffs are Horrible.