As companies navigate an uncertain future, the need to change has never been greater. So why is the formula still broken?

According to a number of reputable studies, a majority of organizations fail to gain the intended result from a major corporate transformation or change initiative. From an M&A standpoint, new strategy deployment, safety improvement, cost-containment, quality excellence, new product commercialization, and top-line revenue growth, too often, the tendency among leaders, managers and communicators is to translate important efforts into a campaign without specifics, leaving employees confused and ill prepared. The old adage, “people hate change” is actually wrong. What people hate is not knowing what the change is and how they need to engage in the effort.

With so much upheaval in business today, transformation is the mantra of today’s CEO. But why is it so difficult for a new initiative, such as a product launch, a cost-cutting measure, a business strategy or even a turnaround effort, to succeed?

Consider the case of a global automotive company, poised to introduce a line of redesigned high-end sport utility vehicles (SUVs) – a move so critical to the organization’s future that senior management believed it would mean the difference between the company’s success and failure. To win, the company needed to redesign virtually every aspect of its operations and how it performed. Yet, instead of providing employees with the specifics of new behaviors, and the needed training and rationale for the new product line, leadership asked internal communications to promote the situation via a campaign to get employees “excited” about the new vehicles.

What went wrong?

Welcome to the new business reality – one where business-critical initiatives, whether a new corporate strategy or an M&A – can succeed or fail based on whether or not the workforce understands and accepts them. “The dynamic has changed,” notes one senior leader. “People have to first comprehend the reality and then dictate exactly what they need to succeed. No longer can transformation be dictated from the top. There has to be a real dialogue, including constructive disagreement in order for people to buy in.”

As the research indicates, many well-intentioned major initiatives have failed or never gotten off the ground because company leaders and communicators either ignored detailing the actual areas of change necessary or trivialized the effort with slogans, big-scale launch events, and motivational programs designed to stir up employee enthusiasm and acceptance. According to an expert, initiatives introduced with this kind of fanfare and no substance are doomed to failure. “Typically, what happens is that management decides the business is no longer competitive and rethinks its entire model. Communications – usually after the fact – is directed at communicating the change or transformation initiative in order to elicit employee buy-in.”

“What’s the Change?”

Transformation or change is neither shiny nor exciting. It’s disruptive. It’s unwieldy. It’s kinetic. The most egregious error CEOs make in a transformation effort is failing to identify the specific change necessary for the business to succeed. By not providing specifics, employees are left hearing noise instead of information. Without critical information on what people should do to survive and thrive in a new reality, the transformation effort is akin to visiting Disney World without the attractions.

Further, aligning the initiative to your culture can accelerate your success. Corporate culture is an organization’s greatest asset when it comes to implementing critical initiatives. From a total reorganization to putting into practice a new business strategy, corporate initiatives can best succeed if the organization’s culture is stable, high-performing and open to change. Unfortunately, a dysfunctional culture can stop any corporate initiative in its tracks. These are cultures that exhibit the following characteristics:

  • A top-down leadership style
  • Unhealthy competition between functions – or turf wars
  • A sense of entitlement
  • No accountability
  • Low levels of employee trust

Honest discussion, including dialogue and debate between and among leadership, managers and employees, is the bedrock of a healthy corporate culture and, if nurtured over time, can help an organization overcome cultural barriers. Open, honest communication can transform dysfunctional cultures into workplaces that have a bias for action, a sense of urgency and employee commitment, and fortitude to see initiatives through to their successful outcomes.

We’ve experienced a direct and strong correlation between successful initiative implementation and a strong internal communications system – integrated with leadership and management decision-making, multiple channels, content centralization, manager involvement, feedback mechanisms and a push-pull system of information exchange.

This is the most overlooked, under-appreciated yet powerful insight for an organization going through change, transformation, renewal or some form of a corporate initiative effort.

Behind any important corporate initiative is a solid management and communications system to support it. The system is meant to support the purpose or goal of the effort. It includes the proper training efforts, the essential information infrastructure and reporting model, while spelling out the specific measures to determine progress against the goal.

Too often, major corporate initiatives lack this protocol, and, in many instances, communicators fail to inquire about or question such a process, opting instead to develop the tools, techniques and materials meant to communicate the program.

When brought into a planning situation regarding a corporate program, strategy or initiative, communicators can make a solid contribution or even influence important decisions by asking insightful, specific questions. Whether we’re talking about a new corporate strategy, a cost containment program, a new system or quality effort such as Six Sigma, the following questions can go a long way to ensuring that communications support and reinforce the effort:

  1. What is the primary reason for such an effort?
  2. How will the effort be led, managed, measured, rewarded?
  3. Who/what are the critical levers in the effort (i.e., those that are the difference between success and failure)?
  4. What do people need to know, feel and do in order to make this effort successful?
  5. What types of training/skills are needed?
  6. What actions will legitimize the effort? What may be an obstacle?
  7. Will this effort require significant behavior change? By whom?
  8. What role will management play?
  9. What are the milestones to indicate progress?

This management/communication integration is critically important because, in a corporate transformation effort, for instance, communications can actually become the de facto management plan in that the need to communicate and get people engaged trumps the time it takes to pull a management or deployment plan together. In this regard, both management and communications must be tied together at the hip and work in concert throughout the change initiative process.

Corporate slogans and other internal branding tag lines are usually developed to sharpen employee focus around an internal initiative, but end up as the punch line in employee jokes at best. They are also indicators of how clueless senior management and communicators are when it comes to reaching employees and gaining their buy-in.

Another slogan trap can occur when external branding initiatives or advertising campaigns are tweaked and unleashed inside the organization. Several years ago, a major domestic airline attempted to translate an advertising theme into a company-wide platform to change the corporate culture and employee behavior. The theme appeared in all communications channels and then made its way to specific training and development programs. The goal was to convince the airline’s passengers that employees care and were trying to always do better in terms of service and capabilities. According to the airline, the training programs were part of a larger effort designed to empower all employees to do whatever it takes to provide more professional and enjoyable travel experiences for customers.

The result: The effort was dead on arrival. Employees felt betrayed by the company for suggesting – first in their ads and then with a very public internal effort – that they were solely responsible for the problems customers faced. Additionally, since the entire concept started out as an advertising campaign, it lacked the credibility and discipline of a management directive, relying instead on slick tools and vehicles to convey messages and change perceptions.

The lesson: Slogans breed mistrust and ridicule. They are a sales tool, and employee wariness is natural. Whether developed specifically for employees or adapted from an advertising tagline, slogans are difficult to turn into viable corporate initiatives since they are not outgrowths of strategy. With no support or investment and, therefore, no buy-in and credibility with employees – and worse, customers – slogans that become initiatives are only as good as the next advertising campaign.

What we have seen in the earlier examples is that “selling” people on anything today, particularly important changes in business direction, is next to impossible.

After decades of experiencing “the sell,” consumers and employees have developed a force field around their emotions. Breaking through is the challenge facing today’s leaders and communicators.

Given that, it’s time for communicators and managers to change the formula. A new formula is emerging that allows consumers and employees to discover the very attributes the organization needs them to experience in order to be successful. This enables people to engage in the business: to sense, feel, think, act and relate. From an internal standpoint, this is being translated in a variety of ways:

  • Changing the style and tone of messages to reflect a more mature, diverse workforce;
  • Making available additional information around key programs, strategies, etc., in a “pull” format so interested employees can learn more;
  • Running pilot efforts to test programs, messages and systems and gain early buy-in and positive word-of-mouth;
  • Including dissent in official discussions to provide a true learning opportunity; and
  • Ensuring proper training and system support throughout the initiative life cycle

A fatal flaw many organizations and leaders make is to not respect the time people need to probe, investigate, test and acknowledge the change being sought.

Often leaders immerse themselves in a strategy or initiative and then drop it on the rest of the organization, expecting people to acknowledge it and get up to speed in days or weeks versus the time spent by the leaders to delve into, discuss, debate, research and agree on both the rationale for change and the actual initiative or strategy itself.

The lesson in change is to respect the learning curve as the initiative’s success is dependent upon employee understanding, acceptance and commitment to the effort.

Leaders, managers and communicators have tended to treat employees as a captive audience and, to a lesser extent, a necessary burden. The result can often be compared to dealing with employees as children – spoon feeding them rhetoric and, worse, pabulum, in the belief that they would just “eat it up.” The reality is that employees are smart, knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children and actively involved in their communities and the world around them.

To be effective organizationally, employees must be treated as if they are a public constituency (versus an audience) capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and ultimately, organizational success – which they are! This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication. The situation at excellent organizations notwithstanding, the crux of the problem at many organizations is that neither management nor the communications function understands that today’s employees are savvy and need to be treated as mature, intelligent, capable adults. Instead of motivational speeches and parties, leaders and managers need to give employees the facts, the rationale, the objectives, goals, training and follow-up information to make change stick. Then, they need to provide encouragement, inspiration and the tools to get the job done. “Forget the rah-rah sessions,” agrees one senior communications expert. “Employees want the tools to make their jobs easier and more satisfying. Don’t trivialize important initiatives with launch parties and meaningless tchotchkes.”

Moving forward, what can today’s leaders and managers do to help prevent their initiatives from becoming empty slogans and losing credibility? The following guideposts are intended to help guide leaders as they grapple with how best to gain acceptance for their next product launch, redeployment or cost-cutting initiative.

  • You cannot separate communications from management planning and decision-making. Instead of turning to the communications function when you’re ready to introduce a new initiative, involve communications people in the process from the beginning. The more they know about the initiative, the better prepared they’ll be to set clear communications objectives that are in alignment with the business initiative.
  • Corporate initiatives must become the priority for all managers. If managers don’t believe in the strategy and make change a priority, no one else will. Deal with managers first, immerse them in the initiative, train them and address their concerns.
  • Education versus promotion. Any corporate initiative should be viewed through the lens of learning and development, and moving people from where they are to a new place – one that allows them to stretch, grow and excel at higher levels. Promoting a new initiative leaves the intended audience – employees – paralyzed in terms of behavior change.
  • Employees and customers must experience the change inherent in the new initiative rather than being told about it in literature, promotional materials, presentations, speeches, emails and other forms of one-way communications.
  • Make sure you get the message right. Employees need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Then, they need to know how it will affect them, their group, their department, their office, etc. Always listen to their concerns, issues and requirements. What’s the timetable? What will success look like? How will each employee make a difference? Don’t do anything without understanding what employees believe about the organization and their jobs right now.
  • Before you embark on a new initiative, start with where employees are, not where you’d like to take them. This accomplishes two things: first, it nurtures a respect that you understand the current reality; and second, it allows for a more realistic assessment of how the initiative evolves and adapts.
  • When it comes to launching new initiatives, don’t copy other organizations’ success stories and expect the same results. Every organization has a unique culture and too many companies try to copy what others do and how they act instead of how they think. Remember: You can’t benchmark “mind-set.”
  • Avoid mnemonic devices designed to characterize corporate strategy and initiatives, such as “The Plan” or “Focus. Invest. Act.” These tend to de-legitimize the purpose and importance of the program.
  • Work together to assess people’s reactions. Make sure whatever media you employ include mechanisms to solicit and evaluate feedback.
  • Face-to-face interaction is critical to building respect and rapport, encouraging involvement and improving comprehension. Indirect communication methods (e.g., email, newsletters, video, broadcast) should be used to reinforce but not substitute leadership communication.

In the final analysis, management and communications must spend time on defining the actual transformation that must take place and articulating it to the organization to begin a process of assimilation and movement.

Today’s employees deserve more than to be sold on a decision that management has already made – they must understand it and be involved with it. In the end, corporate initiatives mean change, and successful implementation means a shift in mindset. Leaders need to take into account what employees want, need and are willing to hear. Success is all about outcomes, not outputs.

Ask yourself: are you equipping your employees with the knowledge they need to make effective decisions and help the company reach its goals? Have you provided employees with a venue for healthy discussion, dialogue and debate as a backdrop for the initiative? In the end, transformation is about relevance. The more people comprehend and absorb the elements of the change so they can adapt accordingly, the faster the transformation can happen. To that end, communications is both catalyst and guide in the process – but it takes a complete rethinking of internal communications from a promotional tool to a strategic lever.


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