In my most recent CEO position, I had the reins for eight years. During that time, we rolled out two significant transformational plans with similar scope, but vastly different time to completion. I’d like to examine each of these initiatives and the elements that made our second attempt faster and more successful than our first.
Our first company-wide plan took around three years to execute. Of course, that wasn’t the aim when we set out, but frequent changes throughout the industry necessitated changes and adaptations. Many of the assumptions we used when starting out changed, even within the several months of initial planning.
But it was still three years from conception to the “final report.” That’s three years of meetings, emails, discussions and all the other things that got in the way of settling down into daily operations. We needed a big overhaul, but that was well beyond the scope we’d envisioned. By the time we were “done,” much of what we set out to do was already outdated.
The issue wasn’t a lack of communication, but targeting the message and action to the right audiences. With recurring meetings and presentations, many people struggled to connect their areas of responsibility with our big goals. All of that information blurred together, and our most attentive managers were still fuzzy on the details of executing the project. Many locations, differing local priorities and management approaches further complicated the process.
Most of our planning took place on the management level. So when we began rolling out our by-then carefully crafted, well-thought-out ideas, the management team was tired of thinking about it and wanted to start doing. We were close to it, but our line staff had very little understanding of their individual roles in the plan. As the CEO, I could see the tactics from a top-down perspective, but that didn’t mean much when most of our organization couldn’t see where they fit in the plan.
We ultimately got there, but it was a long, hard road. Rather than keep things simple and clearly relate each job to the plan, we overcomplicated things and missed crucial line-level details. When all was done, we met about 70 percent of our goals, which, in my experience, is not bad for “big transformation.” But I suspected we could do better, and continued industry changes meant that we had to get a new plan underway.
We took a breather and then got to work on another organization-wide project. And this time, we made changes in approach. First and foremost, we’d learned that we had to make our big plan work on a small scale. That meant that everyone from the c-suite to our line staff had to know what was expected of them, how they’d contribute to the plan, and (by far most importantly) why their work mattered.
We also took feedback, because contrary to popular belief, management does not see everything. Talking in small rooms, across departments and locations during the initial conception process got us a variety of perspectives and insights that saved us months of headache.
Once we’d established that foundation, our priority shifted to solidifying our message. Because it’s easy to tell your staff to do something; it’s much harder, and much more important, to reinforce that message and stop it from slipping. While we didn’t want to overcomplicate the plan, we did make sure to keep drilling in the goals and how each staff member would work to achieve them.
Finally, after all of that planning and work, we rolled the big concepts out to the whole company. And it was much more successful. We’d skipped hiccups by listening to ideas from the line staff, people worked more efficiently because they knew what to do, and we hadn’t wasted time in unnecessary meetings. All said, the second plan took 18 months, and was more effective than the plan that we’d spent three years on.
The moral of this story isn’t just to keep your big plans simple and actionable. The bigger lesson to take away is that your people need to understand how they fit into your ideas, especially if those ideas are transformational. Because while you may be able to see each cog working in your organization, that only matters if your people feel like they’re contributing to the collective.
Moreover, this is a lesson in handling change management in an ever-changing industry. Two big takeaways for me: First, a good leader needs to set global direction, but a wise one takes the time to listen to all of their team members before doing so. Second, once the direction is set, your primary time investment should be in helping front line staff understand where you’re going, why you are going there, and what, specifically, they need to do. That is the big secret behind pulling off large scale changes, and I hope you’ll take it to heart and save yourself three years of headache.
Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He is also an associate with Grimes, McGovern & Associates, specializing in news media M&A. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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