In the Fall of 2020, StemoniX announced plans to merge with Cancer Genetics, bringing into focus two different and very complementary skill sets for Drug Discovery. As a result, I have been thinking a lot lately about the potential toll that major change in an organization can have on everyone. From mergers to reorganizations to shifts in commercial focus, it is so important that change is handled thoughtfully and with purpose. You can open a number of management books that
can tell you which business aspects to pay attention to – integration of IT, benefits packages, customer communications – but you can rarely find guidance on the human aspects that go into making the transition successful.
Over the years, I have been brought in to lead difficult transitions, and no matter what the situation, when dealing with the human side of things, there are four basic principles that I follow in order to be successful:
1. Rise Like the Tide
We have all been in situations where upper management brings someone in to “shake things up” or make major changes. They come in and make quick decisions on what stays and what goes and who will do what job going forward – crashing into the new organization like a tsunami. If you remember nothing else that I say, remember that I said: Don’t do THAT. No matter how much upper management, or your Board is expecting you to make swift changes - there are real reasons (maybe not good reasons, but reasons all the same) why processes were put into place. Organizations are like fine lace – when you pull on a string in one corner, you’ll find that a corner somewhere else starts to unravel, so you’d better know where each string leads before you pull it. Rather than crashing onto the shore, rise slowly and steadily, like the tide. Spend time with the current processes and people and try to understand why things are done that way and who does them. Ask questions and gently offer your thoughts until your staff looks around them and your influence can be felt everywhere. Slowly and steadily become part of the staff’s world and understand why they are doing the things they do, and they will trust you to make changes that are in the organization’s best interest.
2. Let the Sun Shine
Believe me, in a merger or reorganization, everyone from the CEO to the shipping clerk is worried about their place in the organization. They can and will act weird, especially if they have a lot of anxiety about it. And let’s face it, not everyone is good at finding the right way to show that they are essential. So if you want to cut down on the interruptions, resume’ reading, and grandstanding in meetings, give people a way to shine – to show everyone what they’ve got to offer. Once you understand each of them better, you can create venues, presentations, and moments where they can showcase their skills and talents. You can set them up for success if you give them clear instructions on what you expect them to present or prepare. Remember this – If you enable them up to shine, it is your responsibility to ensure they have the tools to succeed.
3. A Window is Always Better than a Door
When it comes to managing change, any book will tell you that transparency is key to your success. Transparency helps staff to know what to expect and lets every employee act as a leader whenever the opportunity arises. I would go one step further and say that your staff needs transparency (telling them what is going to happen) as well as, and possibly more importantly, clarity (telling them WHY it is going to happen). It is not enough to tell someone that a department they are in is going to be put under a different leader. You need to tell them WHY. Clarifying both direction and how the pieces are anticipated to fit together empowers employees and colleagues to be part of the process, understand the roadmap, and surmount inevitable challenges; they will be able to help sidestep the landmines that those changes may create. Employees will be your partners, not just your followers. And they will want to help you be successful, rather than watching from a distance as you falter.
4. Shift Your Focus from the Shadow to the Light
I have been around the block on this a few times, and the one thing that is a constant is that there will ALWAYS be people who will resist change. No matter how much clarity you give them, how much you involve them, or even how great the change will be for them – they sit on the sidelines and grumble. Early in my career, I spent 90% of my effort on trying to make the naysayers want the changes that were coming their way and only 10% of my effort on the people who were excited about it. That was so wrong – a recipe for failure, really. When I finally shifted my focus to the people who were excited, working hard to help and inspire the people around them, the path forward became so much clearer. Big change in an organization isn’t made successful by well thought out processes or Gantt charts. Successful, deep, and lasting change relies on the people who will champion it when the planning failed to account for something. Or when you aren’t there to inspire the hard work. Look to the people who are looking to you and give them everything they need to take your vision forward.
The reality is – major organizational change is exciting, challenging, rewarding, and excruciatingly painful all at once. And I couldn’t recommend it more highly! If you have the privilege of leading others through it, factoring in the human side of things will go a long way in enlisting your staff in the organization’s success. My colleagues in Cancer Genetics and my peers in StemoniX have embraced the principles discussed here and that is how I know our merger will be a success; building our capabilities, enabling further development, and strengthening our commitment to the excellence our shareholders – and, most importantly, our customers and partners – have come to expect.