“I didn’t realize it would be this exciting around here,” said one employee during a lunch I typically have with team members who are celebrating their one-year anniversary with us. This particular group included some who joined within one month of us sharing that ING Group needed to sell our business, without knowing how or to whom.
As you can imagine, this was a time of uncertainty for our employees. “Will I lose my job?” is most likely the first question most ask when dealt with a similar change. It’s natural in that sense. And surely this applies to the colleagues who have been with us for years. After all, no one likes change. True? Well, I’m not sure it is.
Many naturally believe that change is bad. “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Said Woodrow Wilson. And we know why. People typically fear the unknown. But others understand that change creates opportunities, like one employee in particular – who joined us just prior to ‘the news’ – even if he didn't know who the new owner would be. Or others, including myself, who have experienced change, learned its value and have become comfortable with it, even ‘love’ it.
Here’s the thing, not much is guaranteed in life other than change. Change is constant. So we either manage it, or it manages us. Take Jack Welch's perspective on the matter when he said, “Change before you have to.”
We’ve certainly adapted that mentality with a number of innovations and operational changes that meet the times we live in. Change in that sense is in our control. It is essentially part of the DNA of ING DIRECT – we inherently believe that if you don’t innovate, you will be left behind. Which is why we make every effort to remain nimble and entrepreneurial, and why we in fact do our best to hire people who love change.
But perhaps dealing with a change of ownership is a little different. We didn’t choose this change. It just happened. It happened to us. So now what?
For business leaders, we need to learn how people respond to change, and their perception matters. Everyone perceives change through his or her own filters. What is 10% uncertainty or discomfort to one is 100% chaos to another.
A leader’s role is to focus on providing clarity and communication with employees so they come to understand what the change means to them. That is precisely what we did when we announced the sale of ING DIRECT to our colleagues. We are built on a foundation of trust and transparency, and there was no question that I would share whatever I could, as often as I could, to explain why this change is necessary.
Equipping employees with information is the single most important thing a leader can do. People don’t expect only good news so a leader must be straight, quick and direct with whatever he or she can share. And it’s crucial to create a safe environment for open dialogue so employees can come to a comfortable place of understanding.
My experience has shown me that people underestimate their personal capacity for change. This is true of many other attributes too. But this is where leaders are most needed, where they can have the biggest impact.
Managing change requires understanding how people perceive the change for themselves. With information, communication and trust you can help people understand the change better so everyone can get on with accepting it and making the best of it – and hopefully seeing the opportunity within it.