TUME Insights

Supporting our people through unwelcome change
Published by Monica Collings | 21st October 2020

Many businesses are facing change as a result of the current situation we are in. With a second lockdown increasingly possible, organisations may be facing tough decisions. I am sharing my recent experience of managing unwelcome change and offering guidance on how we learned this could be delivered sensitively and emphatically.  

Back in March, just as Coronavirus emerged in international news channels another headline broke that perhaps went unnoticed for much of the nation, but not our little corner of Bournemouth:

“French giant EDF to snap up Swedes’ UK energy unit iSupply”

That was the headline that hit search engines three hours before I was due to stand up in front of our people with the rest of my executive team and tell them that we’d sold our customer book in a trade sale to EDF; and that everyone was being put at risk of redundancy.

Change, and especially unwelcome change, is always hard to manage. But as leaders I believe we accept a privileged position and as such it is our greatest responsibility to lead through adversity as much as it is to lead through the good times.

I’m going to start by sharing an idea that some organisations may find uncomfortable, but it’s one that I believe is an essential part of any relationship between leaders and their organisations; absolute openness and transparency. When the divestment decision was taken in July 2019, one might have considered not sharing the news with colleagues until there was something more tangible to report on; a fear of uncertainty blighting the organisation. But that’s absolutely not what we decided to do. Let me explain why.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with the Change Cycle. So here’s the thing – if change is a cycle and it takes time to progress through the stages, you have to set time aside for that process. Understanding that people need to transition through the stages of change at their own pace and supporting them well is part of our leadership responsibility.

In July last year, when we announced to our people that our business would be sold, (that there would be major change), we had to be honest that we didn’t have all the answers at that point. We couldn’t foresee the transaction would end in a trade sale and a going concern outcome unfeasible. But in the minds of our leadership team it was right to hold an announcement, and by openly presenting all possible scenarios we treated our people respectfully as grown ups, giving them the option to stay and support us in trying to secure a potentially great outcome, or leave us. People had plenty of time to process the news and work their way through the cycle of change pragmatically and effectively. The reactions, responses and adjustments were sequential and predictable, moving through loss and doubt, to discomfort and discovery. Only once people had time to process were they able to fully understand what was happening.

Communication, as always, was critical and my leadership mantra “communicate until you vomit” was ever present through the way in which our executive team remained visible and present. There were plenty of opportunities for dialogue, and information was shared clearly via multiple channels with consideration for all possible situations. Recognising that some of our people had never been through this situation in their careers before we helped them with information packs enabling them to talk to their parents and loved ones.

The greatest impact this approach had: trust. We built trust with our people in the relationship we had. They knew that whatever the outcome we would be honest, and always work hard to do the right thing by them which was our promise and commitment.

I’m certainly not saying it was easy, and of course the seven months that followed carried many moments of uncertainty. There were many lessons we learned about how not to communicate, how to prioritise better and of course dealing with the unwelcome curve ball of a global pandemic. But let me share the things that helped us in case they may help you:

Galvanising behind a clear purpose: with everything becoming in service of attracting potential investors we created a new purpose that excited our teams, gave us a strong foothold in our community and was true to the cultural origin of our business. This felt natural and welcoming and as such helped people feel connected, in a familiar place, and wanting to be part of our journey (whatever the outcome). This was our ability to deliver great results and move mountains with a purpose led approach to a single destination that avoided inefficiency and ambiguity.

Visible leadership: the transaction would suck up huge amounts of leadership capacity, so ensuring that within our executive team and extended senior leaders we were present was essential. Giving regular messages and importantly explaining silences became an essential part of developing an effective engagement plan. Trust was built on a foundation of openness and we reinforced this at every opportunity. All questions were welcomed and if we weren’t able to answer them we would say so. There was nowhere for leaders to hide, and there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’ – it was always ‘we’ and everyone was in it together.

Frequent, clear and effective communication: using multiple channels, connecting with people via relevant content and encouraging two way communication allowed us to be visible, but also remain ever-curious. We needed to understand the evolving temperature of our business and proactively looked for feedback (one on one and in teams) to facilitate us making better decisions throughout the change. This allowed us to appropriately resource to ensure productivity remained strong, and address any slips in behaviours. What is important through major change is not to leave any room for assumptions or interpretation – that way there’s no misinformation or speculation which can heighten uncertainty, which invariably impacts performance.

Simplifying and prioritising: some activities naturally stopped, so creating a focussed action plan and supporting individuals with reallocation of responsibilities alongside managing emotions was imperative to allow everyone to contribute in the right way to support our new purpose; this allowed people to adopt newly aligned responsibilities and conduct meaningful work that was meaningful on their CV should the worst outcome materialise. From my experience, giving people this structure is actually welcomed, and the focus drives people forward when they feel like they are being listened to and also given new opportunities to grow. 

Additional wellbeing support: an imperative part of any major change is wellbeing consideration. We partnered with Dorset Mind to enable us to deliver the right amount of support universally, and giving leaders the tools and strategies to hold courageous conversations. Dedicating time and space for people to navigate unpredictability, to avoid negative impact on individuals and in turn the organisation.

Motivating and energising activities: alongside the change much had to remain the same, for example, continuing to deliver brilliant service to our customers. That meant keeping our people motivated with energising activities whilst being sensitive to how they felt. A difficult balance to achieve, but by listening and being deeply connected across the business we created initiatives that were fun and truly aligned to our cultural spirit. Whilst not the primary reason for driving this, the support of the crowd certainly silenced the sceptics. Energising activities in my view are a major part of building operational resilience when dealing with the period of uncertainty and challenges being faced.

Visibility is essential as much as strong communication

With the 2019 business plan delivered, the New Year was a turning point as our focus had to be on expectations management alongside a set of new, simplified priorities. Having built trust within our operation the next stage was to steer our business through the final weeks to announcement whilst the deal negotiations concluded. Undoubtedly for me one of the most challenging moments of my career; setting aside my own emotions to juggle the needs of the 270 people relying on me whilst trying to secure the best outcomes for all stakeholders involved. I admit that during those weeks my family was neglected and my own wellbeing temporarily disregarded in order to drive forward with conviction and commitment. Looking back now I recognise the sacrifices we all made and scale of that impact, but that intuitive response to protect and lead was absolutely necessary given the circumstances faced.

Reflecting, one of the proudest moments of my career was the day after the announcement. Having believed in our leadership and trusting us implicitly to support them throughout the next stage of ‘change’, our people turned up to work on time, despite their own struggles, thoughts and feelings, set them aside and served our customers to support them with the news that their energy supplier would be changing. I remember the day so clearly; we had pastries in the kitchens for people coming in early to have breakfast with us.  We brought groups of people together throughout the day to answer their questions. I recall walking across the floor and giving out hugs, tissues and cups of tea when needed (in these strange COVID times it makes the memories of those hugs feel infinitely more special).

My point: treating people sensitively, with compassion and empathy is a necessary part of dealing with unwelcome change. You can be kind even when you’re delivering bad news. In fact, not that you can be kind, you should be kind.

I’ll fast forward through the details of the consultations and individual conversations, save to pause for one moment to recognise that these were important opportunities for colleagues to share their thoughts. As such, it was a vital moment for leaders to be present and listen. This critical process stage wasn’t delegated or left for the HR and People team to manage. Leaders took responsibility for holding these conversations – I personally took around 100 of the individual consultation meetings as these moments were my chance to be there for colleagues with gratitude for the way that they had been there for our executive team when we needed the wheels to keep turning.

There are many things you can do to help people when taking them through redundancy, particularly beyond the financial aspects of the process.

Emotional support: most organisations have some kind of Employee Assistance Programme, so signposting this service as available to help answer questions on the redundancy process but also emotional support and counselling is a great way to extend support services.

Transition support: There are vast services available to support employees through transitioning out of a business with different packages of support from CV writing and interview techniques right the way through to executive coaching. 

Skills mapping, signposting and networking: bringing information together to make it easy for people to navigate change is important. We created a careers portal that gave access to information relevant to our situation. Our People Team, and particularly our recruiter Jess, restlessly contacted local businesses and used their networks to help source exclusive roles open to our organisation first which we shared via the portal. A skills matrix was developed and shared to allow local businesses to assess their requirements and match our people based on their experience. It was highly efficient and allowed us to quickly identify opportunities to place people. For more specialist positions we reached out to industry connections to identify potential target businesses and facilitated introductions.

Training and skills enhancement: a great time for leaders to lean in and share their skills. Show and tells, workshops or lunch and learns on topics such as storytelling or building resilience are well appreciated during times of adversity. Even if only half a dozen people turn up that’s six more people that benefited from resources provided that will help them cope with the unwelcome change. 

Clearly marking the end: I would say this is one of the most important parts of any business departure. Through the process of grief it is important that there is a final acknowledgement that this is the end. We exited our people in tranches and at each stage whilst it felt like another thousand goodbyes, it gave people the time and space they needed to mark the end. Everyone received an exit interview call despite the business closing and not needing insight from learnings. Through the call we ensured access to information needed to have a good transition, and gave everyone the opportunity to share personal reflections. Every team member was given a goodie bag with thank you gifts to send them on their way, and Brendan Clark and I waved everyone off in our company car park as (socially distancing) they returned their kit. No hugs allowed.

I genuinely believe the power is in the combination, and that these essential support elements resulted in c.60% of our people finding alternative employment so far despite the economic situation we find ourselves facing.

Boil it down, and we’re all just human beings living in a highly uncertain world. We are all trying to manage our emotions and reactions based on the events presented to us. Sometimes those things make us uncomfortable, but if we treat people as we expect to be treated, we create the best path we possibly can through unwelcome change.

A small parting gift importantly marks the end of the journey
Thank you

Monica Collings joined the UK energy market in 2018, and most recently was Co-CEO of Vattenfall’s retail supply business, iSupplyEnergy where she led 260 colleagues managing c190k meter points. Over the past 20 years her career has been largely focussed in consumer markets, helping organisations build platforms for sustainable growth.  As a broad business leader, Monica is well experienced in transformation and people focussed change programmes, performance turnaround, strategic business planning, vision creation and operational implementation. She adopts a purpose first approach to leadership and aligns organisations culturally to deliver commercial results. Monica has been a TUME Associate since September 2020.

The Utility Market Experts intends to support those being impacted by change and also those delivering it

In 2020 there has been huge change impacting us and our people as we deal with Covid related issues and as our utilities industry rapidly evolves. In the UK energy supply market alone over 12,300 redundancies have been communicated so far this year and even more have spent substantial periods on furlough (a word that most of us did not even know 8 months ago). 

The Utility Market Experts has an amazing community of experienced leaders (such as Monica) available to lend their guidance and support both to those people impacted by difficult decisions (pro bono service) and to those leaders & organisations forced to undertake them (commercial service). We certainly cannot promise we hold all the answers; however we can promise we will try to help, share resources and lessons learned from experience in anyway we can – you simply need to ask.

Please contact us below or link in with Monica here if you would like to start the conversation (or have a virtual cup of tea)…