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Your change management plan: How to communicate a restructure

The most successful companies remain nimble enough to adapt their operations as needs evolve. Whether it’s time to restructure a team or a whole department, Corporate Comms leaders should focus on these keys to success:

  1. Earn buy-in at every level.
  2. Ensure your communications at each level are aligned, consistent, actionable – and include a two-way exchange.

Why it matters: People are less resistant to operational shifts when they share ownership of them. The more ownership your team feels of a new structure, the greater your chance will be for its success.

  • “It’s not going to happen if they’re digging their heels into the ground,” says Bob Jimenez, who was Cox SVP for Corporate Affairs and navigated major changes as Cox Enterprises is centralizing operations with their Communications and Automotive divisions. “It’s really opening minds to the issues, the challenges, and the possibilities to improve the effectiveness of your current state.” 

First things first: Whoever is driving the change management plan — the CEO or a function leader — must first ensure their leader (i.e. the “Level-up Leader”) is bought-in. For the CEO, that’s the board. For a division leader, it’s likely the CEO. It’s the stakeholder one level above the change.

Then, the executive sponsor of the change (i.e. the “change owner”) will begin socializing their idea with trusted colleagues in leadership, slowly making that circle bigger. He or she should develop a plan that sharply answers these questions: 

  • What exactly will this restructure entail?
  • Why is this change necessary?
  • Who will the restructure impact?
  • What is the order, starting at the top, of people who should be brought in? 
  • What is an ideal timeline for the rollout of this new structure?
  • What does the ideal future state look like and how will we know when we’ve achieved it?

Zoom out: Corporate comms should be added as soon as a change owner has gotten his or her boss on board. It’s incumbent on Comms to ensure that the change owner takes the right steps and that the comms plan is inclusive. Then the first half of the comms process — defining the “what” and “why” — can begin. 

When Cox Enterprises realized all the benefits that consolidating operations would bring, they began painting a vision for leadership at all three divisions about what a future state could look like: 

  • “Why should one company have three different ways to do things? We share values but we don’t share processes. Imagine if there were one Talent Acquisition strategy, versus three!” 

The second part of the comms process — as the restructuring is shared with larger swaths of people — will include a greater focus on “how”: 

  • "How will this work? What is the timeline for these changes? What does this mean for me?”

The pace of conversations will be determined by the scope of the impact and the urgency of the need. 

  • Leaders must be thoughtful about who needs high-touch comms, when, and in what order — and the bigger the restructuring is, the longer this list will be. 
  • At the same time, the tempo should be steady, to avoid communications gaps, and expeditious, if the market demands it. 

The big picture: When it comes to change communication, it’s better to err on the side of oversharing than to risk any leader or member of your team feeling caught by surprise. Remember that the idea of change can evoke fear as a first response. If in doubt, lean toward transparency.

A company-wide comms process usually gets a green light after the CEO and executive leadership team (and, pending the scope of the change, the board) have been read in on the restructuring plan.  

Once those Is are dotted, Corporate Comms should ensure the comms process follows these steps: 

1. Start at the top: Remember, nobody wants to learn new information from their direct reports. They want to learn new information from their boss. The CEO, along with the change owner, should put the comms in motion.

  • You, as Comms, should schedule face-to-face meetings between the CEO/change owner and the organization’s highest-level relevant leaders. This might mean division leaders or functional leaders at your company.  
  • The meeting leaders (CEO/change owner/Comms) should focus on pitching the “why” the restructuring is needed (“Here’s what we are thinking…”). It’s essential to gain leadership support for the new structure — and to solicit their thoughts on it. 
  • The first leaders officially brought in will set the tone for the conversations that follow. Ask them what they think about the idea, as it stands, and speak frankly.

2. Prepare your managers: Remember, leaders like to hear what their direct reports are being told — so include the leaders you have already spoken to in the next round of conversations. Pending the size of the restructuring, the CEO may drop out at this stage.

  • The change owner and division leaders should sit down with any managers whose teams will be impacted. In the Cox case, this included the three divisional H.R. leaders, among others. Tell them what you’re thinking, and make sure that the “what” and the “why” make sense to them. Again, conversations are ideally face-to-face at this stage.
  • Ask smart questions and gut-check your expectations: “What will this change mean for you? Is this theoretical timeline realistic? What curve balls can we expect? What have we not thought of?” Hear them out — these are the people who will help think through, and ultimately execute, the “how” part of the plan.
  • Create a FAQs doc with these managers. Equip all your leaders with active talking points to help them answer questions and support the process as the comms continue and the plan begins to unfold. 

3. Create your ambassadors: As the next step, Comms and leaders/managers already in the know should identify a limited group of trusted stakeholders throughout the company to create alignment with and to fine-tune the plans.

  • The next round of conversations can include anyone whose job will be affected, from a Talent Acquisition associate, in Cox’s case, to a manager with openings to fill. These conversations can take place as small groups or as one-on-ones. If you take the time to engage at this phase, you’ll create ambassadors to amplify your message.
  • Validate the restructuring plan with these pros. Ask them to help design the strategy. They will give the vision granularity and weight, and it will give them shared ownership of the operations. This is the last round of in-person conversations before the larger rollout. Ensure that everyone who needs a high-touch communication has been informed by the end of this phase.
  • Prepare for buzz about the change to start coming out at this stage. These stakeholders can separate truth from fiction around the room — and ensure you cross any Ts you might have missed.

4. Revisit and revise: This is where you take a breath to make sure the restructuring plan is ready for mass consumption and that everyone who should have advance warning has been spoken with.

  • It’s time for the change owner, and the Comms team supporting the process, to review the strategy. Ensure that you have incorporated all the relevant feedback you have received to this point. Confirm that potential pain-points have been captured and that the plan reflects the collective wisdom of your leaders and stakeholders. A change they can endorse will be a change they help deliver.
  • Re-connect about the latest iteration of the plan. Ensure that everyone thus far — from the CEO to the stakeholders — are aligned, and can speak with precision, about “what” change you are announcing, and “why.”  
  • Create documents of truth to have ready for the larger team – information that you can post internally or otherwise share post-announcement, including more detailed FAQs, a timeline, deadlines, contact information, and other resources.

5. The two-way rollout: If your leaders are prepared and people whose jobs will be directly impacted are on board, it’s time to announce to the whole team. 

  • Draft the announcement. Pending the scope of the change and the size of the company, comms at this stage are usually made via a well-vetted email from the CEO or a divisional leader. If the change will make waves externally, the internal announcement should be timed in advance of -- but close to -- the external announcement. Allow plenty of time for the draft to be reviewed and edited by select stakeholders — this is important! — and approved by the CEO. 
  • Lead with what you plan to change, and then explain why. As for the process, you should address the big, obvious questions, but make clear there is room to tweak. The email is the beginning of a two-way conversation. Advise your staff to talk to their managers — who you have already prepared! — with thoughts, questions, or concerns. 
  • Send the announcement and share the written guidance you’ve prepared. Then, take time to listen. The communications immediately after an announcement are perhaps the most important of all. Allot time for this “feedback phase” in your timeline – it can make-or-break your team’s buy-in. Schedule informal listening lunches, meetings and/or zooms. Empower the staff to contribute, and them integrate their feedback when finalizing next steps.  

As Cox’s Bob Jimenez points out, creating an information loop, and then feeding that information back into your model, “makes your model that much more effective.”

The bottom line: Corporate restructurings can be hard, especially if they are met with resistance. Making your comms process a two-way exchange allows your staff to improve the plan, minimizes consternation, and ultimately boosts the results of the change. What's more, communicating the change the right way fosters a healthier, more inclusive corporate culture. 

Go deeper: Axios HQ is helping hundreds of organizations communicate more effectively. Learn how.

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