With turmoil and uncertainty the new normal in today’s corporate landscape, many leaders are in the position of needing to lead and motivate their troops in situations where they cannot control the future or make any promises about opportunities or security ahead. Be it a restructuring, a post-merger integration, or a realignment of the business, leaders are challenged to keep performance high, while their teams are struggling to understand whether they’ll have jobs, how they will need to change, and what the turmoil means to them.

Often the first instinct of leaders during times of stressful change is to hunker down. They close the door and focus on getting things done. This creates a feeling of separation and a void of silence, especially when teams need you most. From our lens of executive presence, this environment tests critical leadership behaviors like inclusiveness, as well as resonance, concern and vision, as leaders retreat into their own worlds to tackle the big problems at hand and let communication and connection take a back seat.

In times of turmoil, we find that individuals need to feel included, critical to the mission, and connected to where the enterprise is headed to be motivated to do their best work. In a recent facilitated session with a global financial services company’s leadership team who is navigating a restructuring, the leadership team came to the “aha moment” that to increase their success during the transition, the single key message they must communicate is that “we’re all in this together.” They know that making this message real in the organization is the secret to increasing engagement, commitment, creative thinking, and productivity among all employees.

Communicating this message is much easier said than done. It’s a tremendous challenge for leaders to embed this feeling through the ranks. In fact, saying, “we’re all in this together” often has the opposite impact. So how to break through?

We helped one executive navigate a complex merger integration by cracking the code on this; her story offers some valuable insight for others to use.

Fighting the temptation to hide can move the needle

Our client was running the global finance function for a key business unit of a Fortune 500 company that was merging with a competitor to form a new, larger unit. As in all mergers, there was considerable complexity, overlap and redundancy in people’s roles and responsibilities, and the finance function was, by nature, at the epicenter of the merger activity. This CFO needed her team to perform at extraordinary levels, despite not being able to promise them a future with the organization beyond the 6-12 months of the integration.

She knew she had to inspire them to work harder than ever without the usual reward structure, and engage them to look beyond the uncertainty to appreciate the unique opportunity they had to learn and excel in this unusual environment; and she knew that this was more than anything a communication challenge. We helped her develop her plan and approach, and worked with her to deliver on the transition. 

She began by telling a personal story – how she and her family once took a very big risk, that could have either torn them apart or brought them closer together – and shared what she learned about how much they grew and benefited from a challenging and unpredictable situation. Then, she fought against the lure of staying in her office and focusing on her own tasks, and instead created a plan for formal and informal connection with the team. Her focus on her team paid off. As the pressure increased and the work got harder, she retained all key staff and they delivered critical analysis to ensure the merger progressed smoothly. She played a key role in the integration and, at year end, her team’s engagement scores and her management scores were at an all-time high for the organization.

How to lead and inspire when the stakes are high

How this leader tackled this challenge – and led her team to feel that they were all in this together – provides a useful roadmap for others to consider.

  1. Stay focused on the now and keep your team there too. This is hard to do but is core to providing the stability to move forward together. This means reining in the temptation to speculate about the post-integration environment, and reinforcing this in individual and team settings. Carefully construct agendas for meetings and conversations that focus on the near-term goals and outcomes. Report frequently on interim progress and successes to underscore how the team is on track and create an upside for the “now.”
  1. Begin by telling a story. Situations like this call for the leadership behaviors of resonance and concern (see the Bates ExPItm model for more discussion of these facets.) Sharing a story about how you have experienced risk and uncertainty, or learned from a stressful experience, goes a long way to demonstrate that you understand and hear the team’s fears and questions, and helps make the connection that enables you to go forward together.
  1. Align meeting and conversation agendas to your team’s perspective. Connecting with your team and demonstrating resonance and concern requires understanding and speaking from your team’s point of view. A tool such as our Audience Agenda system provides a simple but effective way to unlock what’s in the mind of key stakeholders to understand what they want and need in terms of communication, even on complex or controversial topics. Using this structure, this CFO helped her team understand the benefit to each of them individually of staying through what would likely be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Implementing a framework like this as part of regular practice ensures that you systematically deepen the impact of your communication in critical times of turmoil.
  1. Clearly define and communicate the importance of the team’s role in the bigger picture. It is easy to lose sight of the “why” when employees are struggling through a highly demanding situation, especially one without an obvious upside. Making the link between their hard work and the greater outcome helps them feel part of the critical path and more able to focus on the “now.” In the case of the CFO, she showcased how the finance function was core to a successful integration and how each of them were contributing to a successful outcome.
  1. Articulate the benefit and value the team is gaining from the experience. While experiences like a merger are highly stressful, and filled with unknown risk for the employees involved, as our CFO pointed out in her opening story to her team, these kinds of settings also provide learning and development opportunities. An angle sometimes missed in helping employees stay engaged during stressful times is explicitly helping to define what they are learning and the value of the experience to build their expertise, their careers and their own leadership capabilities. This not only adds to motivation, but becomes fodder for uncovering future opportunities, whether they stay or move on elsewhere.

Three tips to navigate your team through turmoil

When you are in the throes of planning your path, consider these tips to smooth the way.

  • Plan your communication strategy and messaging in advance – don’t leave it to chance that you will be able to stay the course when the heat is on.
  • Make sure your plan includes both formal and informal connections and conversation – casual lunches and conversation over coffee are just as critical as regular staff meetings and one-on-ones to show that you care, and to learn what is on their minds.
  • Acknowledge that your biggest priority is to fight the instinct to hunker down – check yourself every day for how you are connecting – get out of your office, walk the halls, sit with your team, ask questions, and listen to the answers.

Turmoil is never fun, and keeping your team on track and inspired through the process is the best way to keep yourself on track, the business on track, and your team ready to tackle any challenge you send their way.

For more insight into engaging more effectively with your team, read this post.

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