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Leadership Lessons I’ve learned about leading organizational change

CEO, M&M Food Market

In July, 2014, I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of my new job at M&M Food Market (known as M&M Meats at the time). The company had just been purchased by new owners, and it was my job to modernize the business. The team waiting inside was a tightly knit group who had worked together to build a well-known Canadian brand with more than 30 years of history. I was an outsider about to unveil a radical transformation plan to people I’d never even met.

If there were ever a time when I felt nervous about my first day at work, this was it.

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When organizational change is managed poorly, it causes confusion that leads to discord, conflict and failure. But if it’s managed well, change can be a trigger for growth and success. This is the challenge for leaders — how do we find strategies that inspire and empower people to find the good in change, while steering our organizations clear of chaos? I’ve spent many years pinpointing “sweet spots“ in organizational change, and I’ve learned a great deal along the way.

Establish clarity as a policy from day one

From the moment I walked through the door at M&M, success hinged on rapid, company-wide acceptance of a new vision. Uncertainty inevitably gives rise to distrust. However, transparency is a strong countermeasure, particularly in circumstances where changes in behaviour are necessary.

Explain the justification for change and ensure teams know exactly where they fit in the process. Too often, leaders rely on lengthy speeches or presentations loaded with jargon, acronyms and charts that don’t feel relevant to the day-to-day lives of people across the organization. Carefully consider that fact before you engage. Does a sales manager or human-resources department really care about your EBITDA goals? Do they want to know your plan for better alignment at the board of directors level? Probably not. They need to know three very important things: where they stand, who is in charge and your unambiguous plan. Anything less is an invitation for dissent and, eventually, rejection.

People expect accountability and consistency

The buck always stops at the top, and a key part of a leader’s job is ensuring everyone knows that they are personally responsible for all policies, direction and decisions. This is especially true during a time of change and goes hand in hand with an obligation to regularly deliver updates on progress – both positive and negative.

Perhaps the easiest way to meet the accountability test is to embrace transparency and a consistent timetable for reporting back to staff. For example, during my first week on the job at M&M, I spent time in face-to-face meetings where I outlined every detail of my plan and when people could expect updates from me. Regardless of who I spoke to – vendors, franchisees, our receptionist – my goal was to eliminate uncertainty, establish leadership responsibility and build trust by committing to regular progress reports. Within a few days, employees were able to articulate the new company plan and timetable. Since that time, we’ve held town-hall sessions and countless meetings where teams are brought up to speed on our work, new developments and what the road ahead looks like. Assuring accountability will help sidestep disorder and allow leaders to focus on important tasks.

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Past achievements should not be a reason to avoid change

During my career, I’ve spoken to people who have gone through the unfortunate experience of business failure, and many admit that getting too comfortable was the cause. Their idea was great. They enjoyed success for a period but, at some point, things stopped working, and it was too late to alter course.

In 2014, M&M was a company in need of a new course. The established ways of doing things may have seemed good enough on the surface, but a deep examination revealed a level of comfort that, if left unchallenged, threatened the future of the company as well as the livelihood of employees and franchisees. What followed was a three-year effort to incrementally overhaul everything from the look and feel of our brand to the products we sell every day.

Just because something’s been done the same way for years doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be modified. For example, we reassessed our tried-and-true way of collecting and analyzing customer data. New customer insights informed decisions around product changes, took the guesswork out of pricing adjustments and helped guide how and where to focus our marketing activities. This also informed our rationale for major investments and renovations of our stores, which have transformed our customers’ experiences and how they think about us. We’re now on an all-new and very positive path. Modifying long-standing business practices can spark positive momentum that breeds success, while building organizational confidence to do more.

Don’t underestimate the need for speed

Let’s face it, not all decisions are easy. You may have to make the tough choice to let someone go or modernize a well-loved but outdated CSR (corporate social responsibility) program, but if decisions are rooted in strong rationale, they should be as swift as they are decisive. It seems counterintuitive to not give people lots of time to adjust and get used to the new regime. However, this is an area where speed is often the more prudent direction.

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Moving slowly can give rise to unhelpful “hope strategies,” where leaders spend hours overthinking a situation. They might hope that a situation resolves itself, second-guess themselves or even rationalize how the old way of doing things might be acceptable. I often think about the decisions I’ve made at M&M and what would have happened if I’d dragged my feet on changes that ultimately strengthened our business. In my opinion, it’s tough to make a bad decision that’s rooted in logic, so, when it’s time to change, it should happen immediately.

If I think back to that July day when I arrived at M&M, the business cards in my pocket read “CEO,” but I was untested in the eyes of the team. We have covered a great amount of territory since that day, and without a doubt, our future is brighter than it has ever been. I’m proud of having accomplished two interconnected goals since joining this exciting company: effectively managing organizational change and beginning the exciting job of modernizing an iconic Canadian brand. I know the strategies I’ve followed have played a big part in our achievements to date and will continue to drive our future success.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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