Reorganizations are difficult in the best of situations.
Stand up in your office and yell, “Re-org!”. How many people flinch, grimace or run from the scene? It’s a common reaction; most of us have been through at least one poorly-planned “streamlining” exercise, and that experience sticks with you for the remainder of your career.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Even if you don’t have a lot of time to be 100% thorough (as is the case in most high-growth tech companies), there are some easy wins to make your re-org inspirational and trustworthy, rather than chaotic or, perhaps worse, opaque to the people most affected.
- Have a strategy and stick to it (aka “don’t change for the sake of change”). Choosing to re-factor a team or an organization shouldn’t be taken lightly. As one of my cohorts says, you’re like a general creating a battle plan & marshaling the troops to head into battle. You’re talking about impacting people’s careers, which has a ripple effect on their happiness, the organization’s effectiveness, and even the company’s external reputation if done incorrectly (people talk, it happens). You want to keep your people happy and invested in the success of the transition, and accomplishing that usually means being open and transparent about the reasoning behind it, as well as selling the benefits for each individual involved. Are you making changes in order to better align with other partners in your organization? Shifting focus on specific services or products to better serve the company’s core mission? There are myriad reasons for reorganizing- just make sure everyone involved understands the reason(s) and that you own your message.
- Communicate effectively and with conviction (aka “own the message”). Anyone impacted by this type of activity should be able to count on a clearly-communicated plan, how they’re impacted individually, what it means for their own career progression and how it impacts the company. These are pretty daunting questions for most people to ask. Being met with a response that involves passing the buck (“I don’t agree with this, but I didn’t have a choice so you’re stuck with it”) or with a lot of ambiguity won’t inspire confidence. I’m not saying “don’t be honest”, but you’re most likely depending on the people impacted to help with transitions, deprecations, cross-training, etc., and that will be much more difficult to gain if those same people don’t understand the reasoning and don’t have someone with strong conviction leading those efforts.
- Control the message (aka “keep your mouth shut”). Seriously. If you’re involved in a re-org, make sure you don’t blab on and on about how “big things are coming” or provide snippets of detail that only provide a fraction of the entire exercise. Having an incomplete picture of something that’s so impacting doesn’t inspire confidence in your leadership, leads to undue worry among people who may or may not be affected, and may even thwart the effort via people throwing up road blocks or sabotaging the exercise. In the absence of clear, consistent information, people will usually believe the worst.
Involve your HR business partner. Believe it or not, HR folks aren’t just well-versed in handling performance management problems and answering questions about benefits. Most HRBP’s I’ve worked with have some amount of training in organizational development and understand how to approach these efforts in a constructive and structured manner. They should also be involved to help you craft the message and prepare for any potential “fall-out” from the announcement.
- Be organized. This should go without saying, but having a tactical plan for rolling out your organizational changes and tracking the various pieces with show that you care enough about the outcome and the well-being of the company & anyone who will be impacted to make sure nothing gets dropped. It also inspires confidence in others if you yourself can confidently say that you’ve been as diligent as possible. You may miss something along the way, and that’s okay. But missing entire swaths of responsibility because you either forget or don’t take the time to think about what you’re doing really is inexcusable.
Execute. Once you have a plan based on a solid strategy, work quickly to execute on it. Allowing it to languish allows more time for speculation — all those confidential meetings behind closed doors are bound to spawn conjecture, regardless of how well you control the actual message. Executing quickly also conveys your own sense of urgency and commitment to making the right improvements for the good of the organization.
- Be flexible. Everyone makes mistakes, and the larger the organizational change, the more likely you’ll be to miscalculate or misunderstand pieces of the situation. That’s okay, as long as you don’t paint yourself into a corner by approaching it as a one-time, non-negotiable exercise. Strike the balance between flexibility and vacillating though. Remember to have conviction and own the message.
- Build around functions, not people. People leave companies. One of the worst things you can do is impact multiple people’s livelihoods by catering to one or two people’s wishes, only to have them leave the company or the organization a couple of months later. This should NOT be construed as, “don’t worry about the people”. People are the most important aspect of a company’s success (or failure). If someone expects you to build an organization around them because they’re “important” or might be unhappy, then they probably have some soft skills issues they need to work through. If you do this on your own, what message are you sending to the rest of the organization? “You’re less important. You don’t matter as much, so we’re going to jerk you around. Good luck with that.” That’s pretty bogus leadership.
- You can’t please everyone. I’ve been a part of many re-orgs on both ‘sides’ of the coin, and it’s a rare event when everyone involved is “all peaches & cream” at the end. Put some thought into how each individual might react to the news. Have a coherent & considered story for those who challenge the decision or are just plain unhappy with it. And make sure that your fellow leaders are on the same page about that message so you provide a consistent experience, no matter who that unhappy person escalates to. And for cryin’ out loud… if you’ve been diligent and have the best interests of the organization & everyone involved in mind, don’t beat yourself up if someone doesn’t agree with your decision. Be empathetic, but remember to own the message and stick to your strategy.
None of this really takes much time, but it does take effort. As a leader, you owe it to the company, organization, and people to be a mature steward of the company’s resources and mission. Own it.