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5 Key Strategies for Leaders that Create High Engagement During Change

By Therese Lenk, Senior Consultant, The Piras Group

How Leaders Create High Engagement During Change

Unpacking Employee Engagement: 

Client Spotlight: Simon Jelley, General Manager

Simon Jelley

In Conversation With Therese Lenk, The Piras Group

Leading teams through change has never been more challenging.  In today’s world, organizations are in constant change: acquiring or being acquired, growing organically or downsizing, restructuring, changing strategy or all of the above.  Managers are left with the job of figuring out how to quickly and repeatedly get their employees focused on the newest set of priorities, while keeping them motivated and re-engaged with their jobs, often in the middle of chaos and ambiguity.  This article provides 5 key strategies for how to keep high engagement during change with tips provided by Simon Jelley, GM, at Veritas.

Therese Lenk


Thank you Simon for taking time out of your day to talk to us about leadership and today's topic is really about engagement.

One of the reasons I've asked you to share some of your philosophy, approaches and tips about this topic is because I've had experience working with you for so many years looking at leadership and seeing how your leadership shows up during change.

You've certainly had many years of experience leading teams in change and keeping them engaged and that's really the focus of what we're looking at today: 


How does a leader create high engagement during change? How do you keep your teams motivated during change?


I recall having a conversation with you, once upon a time, when you had been through some continuous big changes and you had yet another new boss.

Your new boss observed how highly engaged your team was compared to the many of other groups and units across the company who were feeling, understandably, the tiredness and change fatigue that often plagues employees who are in constant organizational change.   So, there are things that you do and that you've learned to put into your leader toolkit that I'd be interested in unpacking with you today.

Importance of Leader Taking Time for Reflection


I look forward to discussing the topic.  I appreciate:  a) The recognition of some of the things we do well with the team and have gone through in change and then particularly I’ve loved working with you over the years and your support in helping me reflect and think about how we can be more thoughtful during change. 

I think as part of going through these changes it is helpful to have a coach who can work with you to create moments that help you to step back and reflect.


A trusted coach can work with the leader to step back and reflect on how to have personal impact as a leader.


Certainly, the engagement you and I have had over the years has always been helpful in terms of just making me stop and think for a while and reflect on how we can improve moving forwards with the team and my personal impact as a leader within the larger organization as well.  


That’s such a good point Simon because often in change we're all into execution, right?


Absolutely, it’s all about RESULTS, especially with new bosses.  New bosses are eager to share results very quickly.


Yes, and understandably, right?   Yet, often what is not taken into consideration in the strive for, “the next new results,” is the impact on people; how are people doing with morale, especially in today's organizations, many of whom have seen numerous restructurings or mergers and acquisitions or refinements of strategy, and so forth, so I think this point you make about the need to stop and sit back and reflect a little bit before you move into further action is really important for leaders today. 

So, Simon, what are some of the things that you reflect about when you are in change, that you think is important for leaders to pay attention to?

What Leaders Reflect Upon During Change


I think particularly when you go through change, or you get a new boss, or objectives change, it’s human nature, to very much think about how is the change impacting me personally

One of the things that great leaders do, in my opinion, is to move past that question of “How’s the change impacting me personally?” to really thinking about “Do I really understand how the individuals in my team are impacted?” Do I as a leader understand the front line employees, how they are really feeling the change?


Do I really understand how individuals in my team are impacted by the change?


What the front line employees are really frankly trying to understand is how does it impact them personally and so I think that one area of stepping back and reflecting is trying to understand is, “Do you as a leader, understand your new role, your new boss, your company’s new objectives in such a way that you can translate them into what you need from the individuals, how does it personally impact them, how is it going to change their day? A manager must be able to articulate answers to these questions.

Then, set clear goals and objectives for your people so they can refocus and handle the change because without that clear focus and those objectives, people will flounder. It’s often easier to unpack what’s expected at my level, but it’s less clear how that builds down to the frontline employees, so that’s the most crucial thing quite frankly because without that clarity for people, there is ambiguity and worry and people can’t move forwards in delivering the execution that is expected.


Clear goals and objectives can refocus employees to better handle the changes.



So, do you stop and actually look at each individual on your team and their teams to look at that impact?


Yes. First and foremost, you have to be in a place where you can have a comfortable dialogue with your new boss, whoever the leader is and be honest with yourself in setting those new objectives for the organization. Have you established a good relationship with your boss where you can have clear communications? 

Second, do you have a clear sense of for your organization objectives and what you are trying to accomplish and how that success is going to be measured? 

Third, you then have to very quickly translate that into: how is that measurement for success then reflected down to your immediate team and from them, they are really rolling those expectations down into the organization. 

Therese:You are saying handling that ambiguity for employees is so important, but we know that sometimes all is not known at the beginning of change, like the new vision, strategy, goals, etc. When information is missing, what types of direction can leaders provide as information when all is not known at first?

Reducing Ambiguity for Employees During Change Is Key to Engagment

Simon: Ambiguity is the biggest risk factor in a leader’s ability to manage through change. If the leader is communicating effectively and all the people are getting comfortable with knowing that change is happening for good reasons and they themselves can see a path forwards in terms of what is their part in the change and how that can be positive, help contribute, and drive action toward the change, I find that individuals are eager to get on board and embrace change once that question is clearly answered for them.


Reducing ambiguity is critical for employee engagement during change.


To help people move through change and ambiguity, there are a couple of key factors in how you as a leader can help.  Number one is build an honest dialogue and relationship with your new boss, whoever is setting that direction.  So, doing that early and quickly, really offering yourself in terms of “how can I help build that clear perspective on what we do need to do?” and  “what are the objectives being set by the CEO or the SVP?”  Really getting clear, what’s important to them?  What are the objectives at their level?

The other side of that, is helping your boss to understand what you can realistically deliver, be honest with your boss about what the capability of your organization is, whether that is displaying previous objectives and how the organization has delivered, or connecting your new boss to broader parts of the organization. 

Get to Know Your Cross-Functional Stakeholders

One of the things I learned from one of my previous leaders was how important it is to get outside of your immediate team, particularly when you take a new role to understand what is happening cross-functionally in the organization in order to get the objectives accomplished.  Often new leaders come into the organization they do not have those relationships so establishing those cross-functional relationships is key for them to be able to deliver on so no one is going to sign up for objectives unless they feel they can be successful at doing so.


I know you are big on calendaring 1:1’s. How does that factor in during times of change when your calendar is already quite full?

Listening Creates Learning for Everyone


One of my favorite sayings is, “I have two ears and one mouth.  Use them in that ratio.” Why? Because listening is important during change. 1:1s is most important not only with direct reports but at skip levels.  I try to do that particularly when I am new to an organization, getting face to face with people.  So, getting out of the chair and your office and getting together with people.  Fly to their location. Yes, we have Skype and teleconferences and we should use them if we have to but I am a big believer in getting face to face with people and getting with people in their own back yard, someplace that is not my office or their office, but feels comfortable to them, a “safe harbor” so to speak and number one:  listen. 


I have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that ratio.


Listen before you talk.  From that you can learn so much about how people are feeling about the change, what kind of clarity do they need and what are you as a leader missing in what you need to communicate about the change, or what are the areas they feel they need support from the broader organization, or what is it about the change they are not buying into because they just don’t feel they can be successful.  I think that is the most important thing.  Just being open to listening.

Communications and Accessibility Insures Two-Way Info

Of course, this is not the “one and done” conversation. Communications cadence is important. This is the beginning of a dialogue.  This is about building a relationship.  It’s how do you move forward to have regular ongoing interactions.  How you plan to have a regular cadence of interactions.

During change, I try to have 1:1s with my direct reports weekly, I also have bi-weekly deliberate cadence to speak to other members of the organization, I calendar time for that and hold it is as a priority. 


Being accessible means there is never a meeting with employees I don’t take.


I also make sure everyone knows there’s an open door to me that means they can call, text message or drop in any time to continue that dialogue moving forward.

Being accessible is important.  One of my mentors told me there is never a meeting with employees I don’t take.  It could be 5 minutes or 50 minutes.  There is an opportunity to learn there and there is an opportunity to make sure your objectives are aligned to them and as well to the organization moving forward.

Be prepared to be wrong

Be prepared to be wrong and be prepared to change.  No individual and organization has it right the first time.  Show willingness that you ‘ve heard your people and you are willing to change what you’ve put in place or provide the resources the team is asking for.  When you listen to individuals, that’s important but what really builds trust and sets your credibility as a leader is your willingness to act on what you’ve listened to and heard


Be prepared to say “I got it wrong.”


And some of those might be “hands up I got it wrong and we need to do something completely different”.  That’s what sets people up to be on board with the change and build credibility for the changes moving forward. 

Be clear on what’s fixed and what’s not. 

That said, while it’s good to get many inputs, listen and adapt, you have to also be clear as a leader what is not up for debate – some things just are fixed and ‘set in stone’ and it is critical for a leader to make it clear to employees what can be debated, and improved, verses what cannot or is not worth debating so individuals and a team don’t waste time and energy on ultimately what is a futile debate/exercise. 


Know what is fixed in stone and what is moveable.


That way you are focusing the teams on areas that are moveable and where positive movement can occur.

So, that’s how you keep the momentum for high engagement during change.


5 Key Strategies for Keeping Engagement High During Change

The top tips for leaders during change to keep people engaged, from my experience are:

  1. As a leader, get really clear with your top executives about how the new playing field is being set up.  Understand what the new mission, direction and objectives are and how your team is going to impact it, what the capacity is of the team, and how they will be measured.
  2. Translate how the new mission, vision, strategy and goals roll down to your team at the individual level and help individuals internalize how those impact them personally, monetarily, how and if their roles change, and what does it mean to the success of their career. Provide them clear direction for how what they do fits into the new mission and direction so they can get on board and help drive execution.
  3. Build the listening points and check points; regular interactions so that you can hear the feedback that people really got what you are saying; it’s easier for the top leader to consume the change than for others down in the organization.  Having that open door and being accessible is important so that employees can have that dialogue, iterate their understanding, ask questions if they are unclear.  This listening includes not only with your direct reports but the broader organization.  It requires skip level 1:1s, creating casual environments and round-tables, and creating “safe harbor” environments, opportunities for more candid discussion, including informal meals with teams.  The important aspect here is also finding the feelings and emotions in the organization to understand how are people reacting to the change?  What’s the concern or the excitement?  What’s the level of true engagement?  Where are people in the process of the change?
  4. Be prepared to be wrong and be prepared to change.  No individual and organization has it right the first time.  Show a willingness that you ‘ve heard them and you are willing to change what you’ve put in place or provide the resources the team is asking for.  When you listen to individuals that’s important, yet what builds trust and sets your credibility as a leader is your willingness to act on what you’ve listened to and heard. That’s what sets people up to be on board with the change and build credibility for it moving forward.

Know what is fixed and unmovable within the organization’s change and do not waste time debating those things, instead focus on bringing your people together to focus on areas that create momentum within their team.

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