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5 keys to effective change management

by Necole Ezell and Ryan Dawkins

Thanks to technology, businesses have changed more radically in the past 10 years than any time before the Industrial Revolution. Last year's onset of the COVID-19 pandemic evolved practices, products and processes even further.

A survey of 899 executives by McKinsey & Co., for example, revealed that nearly all those surveyed reported that their companies rapidly accelerated how they did business in response to COVID-19. Respondents said their companies acted 20-25 times faster than expected when it came to business transformation and 40 times faster than expected regarding the shift to remote work.

This highlights one thing we know to be true: Change is constant. While we can't always predict what those changes will be, the key to surviving and thriving as a company is to have a system in place so day-to-day operations continue as well as ensuring that acquisitions, mergers and even disruptions go as smoothly as possible. Because company change involves human beings with differing levels of experience, receptivity and skills to navigate new situations, leaders require a special set of talents beyond the regular scope of team management.

What is change management?

Change management describes the practice of preparing and supporting the organization and its employees when a change needs to be adopted to accomplish a business goal. These changes could include new processes, organizational structure, technology and more. Managing change requires strong leadership, careful planning and an understanding of how individuals adapt to change.

Disciplined change management practices in business continue to evolve as we see constantly shifting market conditions, rapid advancements in technology and continually progressing customer expectations (self-service, 24/7 availability, data-driven personalization, social media, etc.). 

Our careers have taught us about the importance of leadership amid change management. Necole has led multiple IT integrations for acquisitions, representing an estimated capital investment of approximately $3 billion, while Ryan has led organizations through disruptive change brought on by restructuring and acquisition. Based on our combined experiences, we have a shared understanding of change management and the resilience and adaptability required to be truly successful. 

As we look to the future with a focus on growth and scale, we are strategically focused on serving more customers while continuously supporting our employees. We want to make sure that we're always well-positioned for whatever comes next — especially if we have multiple acquisitions occurring simultaneously.  

Change management and COVID-19

Mergers and acquisitions certainly run change management professionals like us through our paces, but business-as-usual is nothing compared to the disruptive power of a global pandemic. Pandemic-fueled disruptions across all sectors of government, economies and business support the need for advanced and disciplined change management. For example, COVID-driven health and safety measures instigated a large-scale workforce shift from the office to the home. This has driven organizations to embrace workforce flexibility and optimize digital communications to maintain a sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In times of uncertainty, it helped us to focus on what we do know. For instance, what capabilities are already in place, but just need to be scaled up?

Of Protective's employees, about 19% were already working remotely prior to the pandemic. When COVID-19 closed offices, our team had to mobilize quickly to transition 95% of workers to home-based workspaces. It took about three weeks to complete. Prior execution of strategic roadmaps and the resulting implementation of core technology (such as cloud computing) were critical to the success of the shift. 

Now that people are working remotely, there are new challenges in the mix — primarily, how to keep employees engaged and informed in this new distributed environment. This stresses the importance of communication. While it's more difficult to get messaging across, we make sure to leverage every information channel possible to bring stakeholders on board, including town hall meetings and emails from our CEO, even if that means the possibility of over-communicating.

Building relationships virtually isn't impossible, but it's certainly more difficult than regularly seeing someone in person, especially when considering integrating new teams from a recently acquired company.

Principles for effective change management

If our careers, and especially the experience of managing change through a pandemic, have taught us anything, it's that planning is more important than the plan itself. The better you're set up to handle change before you need to, the better you can react when it's time for transition. 

Some of our guiding principles for effective change management include:

1. Build an environment of trust: When employees trust their leaders to make the right decisions, lead with empathy and transparency, and treat them fairly, they're more likely to commit to company decisions and respond positively to change.

2. Set a clear vision: It's important to explain the "why" and develop a picture beyond the change that’s more than numbers. We must tear down walls of complexity, use common sense and communicate clearly, as well as streamline, clarify and simplify everything we do.

3. Continually iterate and assess: To ensure success, it's important to constantly measure the impact of the change, incorporate new learnings and adjust plans accordingly. 

4. Create short-term wins: Real transformation takes time — having short-term goals and celebrations help to maintain momentum and engagement.

5. Leverage workplace culture and change agents: What people think, say and do, as well as the collective output of their behaviors, define an organization's culture. Consequently, understanding, leveraging and optimizing workplace culture must be a catalyst for change.

In order to implement these tactics, you have to create a structure in which it can all happen — and keep reading the room. We can anticipate many events that will occur as a result of a change, and we can even guess, broadly, how people respond — different pockets of people usually react in predictable ways. But there will always be the parts that we didn't anticipate and that didn't go according to the plan. That's when you need to build in contingencies for the hidden variables.

One thing we're sure of is an organization's future success hinges on how well it can master small changes as well as crises, big transformations and outside influences. The ability to strategically manage change must be a core capability for organizations to remain competitive in the market. The ability to maintain a positive workplace culture and work past uncertainty, frustration, resistance and other roadblocks, strengthen an organization's infrastructure and promote future long-term success.

Change is an inevitable, continuous, cyclical journey. In day-to-day operations, organizations are either proactively initiating change or reactively responding to change. The more proactive, intentional and disciplined organizations are with leading change, the more effective they will be when required to reactively respond.

Necole Ezell is VP, Acquisition Integration and Ryan Dawkins is VP, Acquisition Integration at Protective. 



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