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  • Writer's pictureCJ DiMaggio

How to talk to your employees about change

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Face it: your disruptor is coming.

It was an awful conference.

About 200 middle managers were crammed together in the conference room of a third-rate hotel on the edge of town. The A/C was broken, and freight trains rumbled by every half hour.

Everyone was wiped out and looking for the exits.

After two days of boring presentations, the executive team opened up the floor to Q&A, and a usually reserved accounting manager raised her hand.

“Not many people know this,” she said, “but this year is the 50th anniversary of our company’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange. A few miles from this hotel, we have production plants that have been operating for over 100 years. We’re a legendary American company. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but we’re a survivor.”

“But our history is no guarantee that we will continue to thrive, or even survive. Technological change is disrupting every industry, and I see no reason why our industry and our company should be immune.”

“So my question is…what are you doing to stay ahead of change? What systems and processes are you putting in place to detect and manage external changes that could affect our business?”

The eight or nine VPs on the stage looked at each other and fumbled the microphone among themselves like a hot potato before the HR director put them out of their misery and took the bullet.

We don’t need anything like that, he said. No systems or processes. No policies or procedures. We’ve got it covered already because…we’ve put together the right leadership team. Right here, on this stage.

You could almost hear the cringing in the audience.

Just because they had held a mountain retreat one weekend doing cheesy icebreakers and team-building exercises, these guys thought they were a dream team.

Instead of highlighting their grasp of strategy and building up confidence, the execs only confirmed how out of touch they were.

They were saying, in effect, we’re perfect, just as we are. We’ve got it all figured out, even though we look nothing like this audience, and even less like the markets and communities we serve.

It was a good question. Not an easy one to answer. But it was also an opportunity missed.

This is what should have happened, instead.

The CEO should have grabbed the microphone right away and said this.

“Look. We’re on a journey, together. We understand that the world is changing around us, every day. We’re learning. And we’re listening. We don’t have all the answers. And we’re going to make our share of mistakes along the way.”

“That’s where you come in. You’re our eyes and ears, out in the field, talking with your people, talking with our customers, taking the pulse of the business every day."

"We need to hear from you.”

“If you see something not getting the attention you think it deserves — unsafe working conditions, a mistake we’re making, something our competitor is doing better than us — tell your manager. Or, better yet, stop by my office, anytime.”

Real leadership means having the self-awareness to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and never will — about your own business or about anything in life.

You dedicate yourself to alleviating that the only way you can:

By surrounding yourself with people smarter than you who often don’t look like you.

You’re an executive?


You worked hard to get where you are?

So did everyone else.

You’re not smarter or better than anyone. You just got lucky. You were in the right place at the right time and your potential was spotted.

Like everything else in business, you’re completely replaceable. Management teams come and go.

Sure enough, the dream team broke up within a year or two. Their endless turf battles were no match for their fake, forced, fragile bonding.

It doesn’t matter if your company is old or new, big or small.

Your disruptor is coming.

If you’re not smart enough and humble enough to recognize that, you don’t deserve to lead anything.

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