“But what’s going to happen to me?” “What’s going to happen to my position/role?” If you are leading a team who is entering into a shared services arrangement, integration or amalgamation with another agency, this question (or similar) is one you will hear often – and if not, know it is being asked either to others, or in the minds of your staff. And it could very well be a question running through your own mind!
As the executive director/CEO who is leading an organization into this new venture, or even those who are in a senior role, this question must be addressed as soon as the thought of this ‘new world’ is communicated to your staff teams. In doing so, you will help alleviate much, though not all, of the anxiety and stress this change can create. The success of this integration will rest on the staff who understand the reason for the change and how it may impact them.
As the (former) executive director of a large $15M+ non-profit organization, I led a team of eight individuals into the creation of a new shared services organization. I was also the founding interim executive director of this new entity. This regenerated team integrated members from the three non-profits who came together to create this shared service.
Following are the five fundamental beliefs I had which assisted in the formation of the strategy, as well as the communications to help build acceptance and support for this integration:
1. Communicate, communicate and communicate – OFTEN! This cannot be said enough, nor can you ever go overboard on this step. It is OK, and encouraged, to repeat the same message. Communication is the critical factor moving forward.
After completing the initial research and determining what direction the three non-profits wanted to move forward with, all three executive directors delivered the same key messages to our staff teams who were going to be directly impacted by this change. We determined the key messages and the anticipated questions that might be asked by each of our staff. We had a rough outline of the process and timelines at the ready. And then we met with our respective staff teams within the same day to introduce the vision for the future. We had questions – but the ‘heavy’ questions came later and came often (more on this below).
We set up regular ongoing staff meetings where we all met to discuss where we were at in the process, what was coming up next, and always provided the space to ask questions. If we could not provide the answer at the time, we came back with the answers. We also created the opportunity for staff to send in their questions privately to each executive director. We then amalgamated similar questions, identified the unique questions, and responded to our respective staff teams in team meetings. We also created a shared, running, ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ document that was regularly updated and posted in a location where those directly impacted by this change could access.
A key working principle in our united approach was for similar key messages to be communicated to all staff across our respective agencies. This new vision would have an impact on all our staff, some to a greater degree than others. The messages communicated were developed with this in mind. All three organizations received the same communication at the same time, and all were co-signed by the three executive directors.
And as the leader of my own organization, I had 1:1 meetings with staff who were directly impacted. The other executive directors did as well. Sometimes these were ‘formal’ meetings that were set up in advance, but more often, they were impromptu visits in their office or mine. It was through these discussions that the hard ‘scary’ questions were asked and addressed.
2. Be transparent, open, and honest. When I was responding to questions, be it 1:1 or in a team setting, I was always cognizant of the fact that I needed to be transparent, open, and honest in my responses. And I was authentic as well – if I did not know the answer, I stated that or that I would find out and get back to them. Sometimes that response came a few months down the line. If I was assuming or predicting what I thought might happen, that is what I said. And if I was unsure of the future, I kept focusing on the vision of WHY we were moving towards this big change – to better support the community we were serving (we were all aligned on this one purpose which made it much easier). My behaviour could not be easily misconstrued by others if I stated what my intentions were when I was responding to their questions and/or stating what I believed the future held.
The one thing I strived for was to never make a false promise. To me, this was one sure way of creating distrust and putting roadblocks or even detours, in the path we were taking.
3. Have each staff member have a say in shaping their future. When I was speaking 1:1 with my staff, I asked them to think creatively – “your role is going to change, this will likely be a guarantee. How that will change and how much it will change, we don’t know. The opportunity is in front of you – what do you like, and what do you not like, about your role? What is it that you are needlessly doing, and what changes do you think need to happen? How do you want to contribute in the future, and what does that look like? Now what do we need to do to make some of this happen?”
By having each staff member have a say in shaping their future helped create the support, ‘buy-in’ as well as the excitement of ‘what may be’.
4. Validate the work of each staff member and the important role they have in the overall operations of the organization. As a leader, you can ask the questions, help identify, and direct where efficiencies may be found. However, what I and my team found most helpful, was having an independent third-party assessor come in and break apart the tasks being done and identify any duplications and/or gaps. In our case, a LEAN assessment was completed for all three non-profits in each of the departments that were going to be integrated. This confirmed what we already knew – we were already efficient in our operations. This work helped identify what positions would be required for the future – both short and long term. And by having a third-party assessor come in, everyone was more open to state what worked, what did not work and what the potential solutions may be.
5. Relationships are key. Relationships do not happen just before a big change occurs. These are built over time, both the easy times and the challenging times, where trust and respect are gained on both sides. The relationships are many: with the individual staff member, within the different teams in the organization, with the impacted team as a whole, AND with the other organizations involved.
I believe one primary reason this venture was so successful was the open and trusting relationship amongst the three executive directors. We were able to share our varied viewpoints, our challenges, and at times, our disagreement on how we should proceed. Each meeting, and in between scheduled meetings, we were transparent, honest, and open about the path we were on. Staff at our respective organizations could sense this too, which made our communications, and eventually our integration, that much smoother.
As we were moving through this process, we created the opportunity for the teams from each of the respective agencies to come together – to get to know one another, to learn from each other about the processes each organization went through, what challenges they had and how they were addressing these. Solutions were shared and relationships between the staff members at each organization began to grow. As we moved closer towards implementation, the teams from the respective agencies started to meet together more frequently – with the three executive directors present and then once the new shared service entity opened its doors, with the founding interim executive director.
As I mentioned earlier, relationships do not form instantly when a big change occurs. But the seeds are sown when individuals from another organization come together in a new entity. As the leader of this new entity, you do not know the new team members as well as those you worked with for many years. In this situation, your reputation as an approachable, honest leader plays a big role in creating these new relationships. Moving forward in forging these new relationships, I made sure to focus on:
- Ongoing two-way communication.
- Having an open, transparent, and honest leadership style.
- Encouraging each staff member to have a say in what their individual roles, and their team role, could look like as we molded the future of this new organization.
- Validating the important work that they were doing and how each person was contributing to the success of this new venture.
Looking over these five tips on building a team in the transition from one organization to a brand-new entity, it really is no different from how one would support an individual or team with or without a major organizational change: these habits are fundamental to strong leadership in every situation.
If you or your organization is thinking about a future integration, The Osborne Group can assist in all facets of determining what the path forward could be, the pros and cons of that path, and assist you in making it happen.
Jocelyne Paul is an articulate, engaging and highly versatile executive with a strong track record of success – with first-hand knowledge and experience in executing successful integrations as well as driving transformational change, developing people, and building teams leading to significant operational improvements and strengthened organizations.