For those of you who joined my Webinar with Hibob, you’ll know that my approach is FAR from HR (even though that rhymes). It’s about managing change through PEOPLE leadership! 

I’m not interested in discussing traditional HR Change Management processes, because I don’t believe slapping a generic process on top of a problem ever works. In modern day, fast paced, high growth businesses, we need something more transformative. Hence (one of) Unleashed’s mottos:

HR is dead, long live People!

We’ll start by looking at some key steps to creating positive practises and initiatives, to support business growth and drive high performance:

1) Improve communication between HR and C-suite

Let’s get this straight. There should not be a divide! 

If you’re a high growth start-up or scale-up, you absolutely must have a world-class ‘People Person’ at leadership level. And you should invest in this early on so that this person has time to be strategic – before getting totally consumed by firefighting.

The job of this world class People person (thinking specifically about Change Management) is to ensure complete and utter alignment across the leadership team and the wider team – understanding why the change is needed and what the outcome will be. This is the basis of everything. 

During the webinar, someone asked a fantastic question about how to, as a People person, get that seat at leadership level. This is particularly tricky if you’re in a business that still favours a more ‘traditional HR’ approach. My advice would be two-fold:

1) Find an advocate within the current C-suite who can vouch and support your vital presence there.

2) Explain the requirement for a diverse skill-set on the management team.  No company ever questions the decision to hire a CTO, someone with a specialised knowledge of tech and product, likewise with a Head of Sales or Marketing. Why should it be any different with a People function? Without People, you have no product, revenue stream, or customers.

Whilst founders should rightly be thinking about market & product fit, and revenue growth, it’s essential that someone (else) is in charge of looking after the most important piece of the puzzle – the individuals who go out and build the product and create the revenue,  ensuring they stay motivated, challenged and on mission.

If the above isn’t enough to support an argument as to why a People person should have a seat at the table or be involved in ‘change’ from the outset, then there often isn’t much choice but to let things play out. 

In the aftermath, you can initiate a retrospective that brings leaders together to discuss what went well and what could be done better next time. It is with this latter question where there would be a learning around involving the People Team either at the outset or the earliest opportunity. Often, we learn through mistakes.

2) Involve employees and managers with change management

In startups/scaleups, change is a constant. It’s important to adjust people’s expectations to ensure they understand startup culture and that change is inevitable. It’s part and parcel of being in that environment. 

The people joining your team should be aware of this and excited about being on the speedboat (otherwise they would have jumped aboard an oil tanker). That said, they’re only human, so might need reminding sometimes. Reassure people that change has happened within the business since it was founded – it’s a rollercoaster journey, but ultimately that’s why we do it.

Secondly – people aren’t being d!cks (excuse my language – but this one is important). Remember that people don’t react defensively to change because they are dreadful people – it’s a survival instinct and that’s totally normal. 

The person announcing the change often forgets they have been thinking about it for a long time (and often have more context). However, when they make the announcement they tend to expect people to instantly be on board, with very little time to absorb the information. If you’ve been thinking about something for 2 weeks, you’ll need to give your team 3-4 weeks. 

So during these conversations, remain open to people’s objections, challenges and questions. The best way to get people to be open and reacting positively to something is to model the behavior yourself. Keep empathy top of mind and don’t get defensive.

Communication is ALWAYS a two way street, but naturally, not everyone likes to communicate (or is able to learn) in the same way. Perhaps think about how to create a safe space, maybe a forum situation, for people to ask questions and communicate their concerns. You can also collect questions and opinions ahead of the group discussion. Similarly, if you’re dropping a bomb, make yourself available for 1-1s after the announcement.

Everyone’s opinions and questions are super important to address, especially before they become bigger issues. Ultimately, no one wants to work somewhere where they have to keep their guard up.

Once you’ve created this safe space, and have got people sharing and asking questions, make sure you write everything down. I mean, keep track of EVERYTHING even if only one person asked the question – just because only a few people asked/pushed back doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who didn’t know the answer/felt the same way. Then post it somewhere public like an internal wiki to allow for those who absorb things better when they have space to read the information.

And finally, challenge with warmth some concerns that may be raised. In all honesty, ‘change makers’ may not be clear on why someone is seemingly more upset than seems rational. If you don’t know, don’t assume. Perhaps their concern or anxiety is being triggered by something you don’t have exposure to. If so, you may not be able to resolve their concerns quickly – and that’s ok! Either way, in trying to get to the bottom of it, asking and outright “why?” can sound accusatory. Something along the lines of “Hey, thanks for raising this, let’s talk through the areas that you are finding a concern” is much better.

3) Maintain clarity in communication

Bring people along on the journey – explain the ‘why’, from initial concept to implementation. I really cannot stress this enough. Is this a functional change or is it change over time? As a company, are you preempting change in order to plan for the future? Why is this change important? Can you liken it to changes you’ve made in the past? Is this change a solution to something? Whatever the situation, explain what’s been considered, how you made the decision, and give people all the context needed to really understand how this change has happened.

Communication:

When it comes to people, INPUT does not equal OUTPUT. Different people will hear the same message differently and naturally put their own slant on things, so make sure you communicate in different ways and meet people where they hear the message. 

Alignment:

It’s key. From C-level to line managers, it is your job to make sure the message is straight and that all managers within your business completely understand the ‘Why’ behind the change and ensure that your managers actually tailor the message to individuals, based on their motivations. Everyone within your company will be motivated and unmotivated by different things and will learn in different ways – they’re human! Make sure your managers are sensitive to that because ultimately, if you’re the one delivering the message, the onus is not only on you to keep the message going. 

Check in with people:

In the aftermath, check the pulse of where people are at with the change. Some people find change significantly harder than others – you or your line managers should know who those people are, so be available and talk to them! But don’t forget that some people might not be honest with the CEO about their objections or concerns so feel free to seek out the ‘in the know’ people – every company has these kinds of internal influencers, and they actually might be your key to some great insights as to where people are with hearing/accepting this new change.

4) Be more authentic and transparent in your HR leadership

My main issue with this statement (‘be more authentic’) is the idea of being more Authentic. Quite frankly, if you need to try to be more authentic, you might be in the wrong career. It’s about Empathy – just try to be as empathetic as possible and make sure you have the right information under your belt to do your role correctly, understand the why and never go into a conversation when you’re unsure of the reason.

Don’t try and build an empire by yourself – by this I mean, don’t hog information – share it. In alignment with this, remember to  say or share things with the team in an attempt to protect them. For all your sakes, your business should be full of adults and they should be able to cope. Your job within this, is to make sure the people have what they need to cope. That’s where all of the practises and principles we’ve discussed above come into play, so use them – don’t wrap people in cotton wool. Be open to talk and be open to say ‘I don’t know’ but don’t be an information hog or overly proud – it’s patronising. 

Finally, being part of the Leadership team, you need to make sure that the change you set out to achieve is on track, that everyone is kept in the loop and that the messaging remains consistent. Mixed messages from a leadership team is a sure fire way to cause mass anxiety within a business. 

So, to summarise…

  1. Alignment, alignment, alignment. I’ve said it once, and i’ll say it again! If there’s one thing that’s going to make a team feel anxious and insecure about a specific change, however big or small, it’s hearing an inconsistent message from the leadership team. Make sure the message is completely straight and that your whole leadership team including your line managers, completely understand and are confident communicating the ‘Why’ behind the change.
  2. Explain the WHY. It’s about the journey! The beauty of being part of a start-up or scale up is that you have a passionate group of people who have actively stepped onto a speedboat with you, and let’s face it, sometimes it’s going to get choppy. People should understand that there will be a lot of changes along the way, but at each point that this happens, make sure they understand why the change is happening. Where has it come from? How has the decision been made? You naturally have this context because you’ve been thinking about it for a while and now makes complete and utter sense to you – but don’t expect others to understand in the same way you do, without that context. 
  3. Remember, your team are human. They will absorb the information in different ways, at different speeds – they will communicate their concerns differently, or perhaps not at all. They are human. Similarly, make sure YOU communicate in different ways – in groups or forums, 1-1’s, through line managers – meet people where they hear the message and give them time to absorb it. 

from Michaela Bartlam

Michaela is a People and Culture Partner at Unleashed, working with start-ups & scale-ups to build and execute great People strategy, operations, infrastructure and culture. Prior to this, Michaela was the People Operations and Growth Director at EDITED.