Obtaining Input with Urgency

Use these 10 strategies to get employees involved in a turnaround.

TO turn around the performance of a troubled company, a new leader or change agent must gather information in the shortest possible time. For the financial side of a business, there are numerous ways to analyze the situation. Cash flow, profitability, and key ratios are obtained and verified by the controller, the outside accountants, auditors, and lenders.

What about "the rest of the story"? Why did the numbers fall? When management first became aware of a downward trend, what action was taken? What is management's current plan for resolving the problem? How many people in the organization have the accurate story on the company's current status? Are the right players in the right positions to chart a new course?

Other questions can be added to this list. The challenge is getting answers to these questions as quickly as possible and combining them with the company's financial data to obtain a clear picture. This requires input from everyone at all levels.

The common denominator for gathering information across all levels is to establish trust quickly. When individuals in the company hold back, it consumes valuable time. Gaining the trust of employees requires overcoming their fears, the most obvious of which is job security. Whether or not the organization has experienced a downsizing, employees have seen many indications the business is not doing well. Employees often fear that sharing information will cause them to realize their worst fears. Here are 10 ways to obtain employee input effectively:

1. Investigate. Invariably, organizations have old reports and plans buried in files that have addressed some of the problems. Regardless of how little credence was given to those earlier efforts, it is worthwhile to review these reports. Invaluable insights can be gained by asking why key recommendations were not implemented.

An effective technique for ensuring all earlier reports are identified is to ask managers to list prior change initiatives chronologically. Compare these lists for omissions, which can save considerable time and identify potential barriers that exist within the current management.

2. Analyze. The combination of financial data and previous reports provides a foundation for a preliminary analysis. It is critical to develop a clear, concise summary of the business' vital signs and share it with employees. It is surprising how many people within a troubled company do not clearly understand its condition. This information gap must be filled quickly.

3. Communicate. It is common for businesses to hold regular "town hall meetings." These meetings may not have communicated the company's plight. Sometimes only part of the story is revealed. As early as possible, it is critical to hold company-wide meetings that summarize data developed to date. A frequent objection by management to such an approach is the company will lose good people if this information is shared. However, how can good people contribute to the success of turnaround if they don't have the facts?

4. Share. Sharing information is painful but necessary. The more information a leader shares, the more ideas she will get back. The information should be clear, factual, and to the point.

Ideally, everyone in a smaller organization can meet at one time in one place. In larger organizations, several meetings will be required. If multiple meetings are necessary, it is far better to have cross-functional groupings rather than department meetings or organizational-level meetings. Cross-functional groupings have a leveling effect because they emphasize to employees that all roles are important to the successful turnaround of their company, and they all need to work together as one team.

5. Gather. Now the stage is set for gathering information. The presentation of the facts gives the leader credibility. Effective communication has made it clear to everyone why urgency is needed.

A common error made is to assume that one-on-one interviews should be conducted next. Despite wanting to help, employees at all levels in an organization are concerned about losing their jobs. To provide them with anonymity, it is better and faster to ask them to respond to open-ended questions in writing that are turned in to a neutral third party for processing. These results can then be shared with everyone, which generates a generous flow of ideas.

Regardless of the specific style of surveying, the questions should be constructed carefully to guard against suggestive or leading questions. Poorly designed questions can shut off a flow of ideas.

6. Match. The meeting in which the analysis is presented affords an opportunity to ask employees to identify their skills, knowledge, and abilities. Of particular importance are skills that are underutilized. Whenever reorganization takes place, the key is to match the right people to the right positions. Unless people are asked about their career path goals, key opportunities can go unnoticed.

7. Compile. Once employee meetings are completed, it is important to compile the information. A complete organizational chart is absolutely essential to serve as a road map when meeting with people. Names are invariably omitted from the chart at first. To avoid this common error, compare it to the current payroll printout. Creating a confidential version of the organizational chart that includes everyone's total compensation provides a tool to the leader that can quickly reveal inconsistencies.

8. Interview. Targeted interviews are great time savers. Armed with previous information, the analysis of financial data, employee feedback, organizational charts, and career path goals, the interviewer can target questions specifically to close any gaps. Answers are far more revealing when the stage is set with facts.

9. Implement. Most plans for change fall short during implementation. Most employees are reluctant to aid in implementing change if they were never asked for input to begin with. This underscores the critical nature of sharing information with employees and gathering input from them at the onset.

Change is always easier when it is initiated from within rather than imposed from the top. Not only can leaders gather input with urgency, but also they can create an atmosphere in which employees drive the change. When this happens, employees often make comments such as, "These changes were necessary and long overdue. Thank you for taking action and making us part of it."

10. Update. If all are kept up to date, they will keep coming back with more ideas to help the company through the turnaround. Even if financial circumstances worsen because of the loss of a critical customer or lender, it is important to update everyone with the facts. This timely feedback helps to contain the rumor mill, which feasts on partial information. Rumors can be disastrous to efforts to maintain a company's customer or vendor base.

Turning around a ship in rough waters requires everyone to get the same information so they can respond quickly and row in the same direction. If everyone is involved, a turnaround can be overcome in much less time. And time, after all, is money.

This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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