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Helping employees embrace change

Help employees embrace change, writes Bob Cronin

As a business owner, you understand the need for change. However, few employees — or management teams – understand its value or want it to happen at all. But change enables opportunity. It isn’t only inevitable, it’s imperative. To unlock growth and value, you must be willing to change.

In my previous positions as CEO of major print and label companies, change was always one of the most difficult issues to inspire and to manage. While people love to talk about exciting new industry dynamics, few actually go along with them. Most often, they enact barriers that not only defy change, but also make it arduous (and expensive) to implement. 

Years ago, the company I ran wanted to replace an ailing product with a more contemporary offering. Our intent was to reconfigure our plant with new equipment, augmenting capabilities and capacity in more lucrative venues. We made the announcements and went to full rollout. Yet, despite our efforts, our launch never got off the ground. Our employees’ reluctance trumped our work. They liked what we were doing previously, and didn’t want to let it go. Our failure at demonstrating the need for change – and getting their buy-in – cost us. It didn’t matter that the end customer and industry had already moved on from our old offering; our staff simply hadn’t. 

I’ve never made this mistake again. In fact, this is one of the first things we discuss with our clients. As you sell your business, recapitalize, or enter into a strategic partnership, your staff needs to be ready for change. Here are four areas to focus on:

Awareness. The first step to embracing change is being aware of the need for it. Good market or bad, you and your staff need to understand where you’re at and what elements are holding you back. Today’s hot market is tricky, as no company wants to admit it has any shortcomings. Equipment purchases tend to be extensions of current business. Capability changes are often made to accommodate existing clients. Thus, employees view actions as a natural evolution rather than a new trajectory – and not any commitment to change. Don’t assume that everybody understands where the company needs to change or what growth measures will have value. Educate personnel on your initiatives. Explain where you’re looking to head and how these changes will help get you there. Show examples of businesses that have successfully ventured out in new directions (think Amazon, Xerox, Apple, etc), and show some that haven’t. Build excitement for the potential future to come.

Contribution. Even with the best game plans, you won’t get there without the troops. Your staff will only accept change if they feel they’re part of it. If you try to change without them, it won’t work. Worse, you can develop a morale crisis and lose some great people. Organizational change initiatives fail at an alarming rate. This isn’t necessarily because they were bad initiatives; it’s because they didn’t consider how changes affect staff or get them involved.

Secure your management team’s input and commitment first. Then create a strategy. Look at who’s affected most by the change, and get them on board early. If you get them committed, they’ll gain the buy-in of others. They may also have some great ideas that will save you time and money. Remember to engage everyone in the process, as many changes occur from the bottom up.

Response. When I ran label companies, our best ideas for change and growth always came from our customers. We sought their opinions, and we showed that we cared and listened. Moreover, we responded to their suggestions, feedback, criticism, and response to any change. This way, we kept their business based on value provided, not just price. Because we had open dialogue, we were able to fine-tune changes for their best impact and result. 

The stronger connections also facilitated communications between customers and staff. When concerns were raised, we all discussed how best to approach. Then, staffers could proudly let customers know how we were addressing – making both customer and staff a critical part of the change process.

Reward. An attractive payoff is perhaps the greatest way to get employees to embrace change. The reward can come in terms of greater job satisfaction (more intriguing work), new incentives or profit sharing (if you’ve established), increased professional development/learning opportunities, or simply feeling part of the accomplishment. By championing the hurdles of change, staff will also feel more engaged in the company – and more loyal. Plus, they’ll be up for the next great challenge.

Our market is evolving. Are you, as the leader of your business, aware of what your customers want? More important, are you aligned with your greatest possible growth trajectory? A tenured advisor can be integral if you need support. Every successful business needs to adapt and change, and do so continuously. It isn’t easy to continually reinvent your business, but the alternative can be a lot more difficult. 

This Opinion was first published in Labels & Labeling issue 5, 2018.


Bob Cronin is a regular columnist in Labels & Labeling, writing about M&A activity in the industry.

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