Facing a crisis head-on: Strategy, empathy and embracing change

Tom Marsicano has learnt from previous change management scenarios that the human touch is crucial.

  • By Tom Marsicano, CEO of ‘and Change’ a global advisory and change management consultancy.

Change in times of crisis is unavoidable. For many of us who run organisations, when everything around us is in flux, the instinct is to cling to what already works. But nothing can sink a business like being blind to the eco-systems around us. As the world changes, we too must adapt.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, even within the change management sector, where the entire point of our industry is to focus on adaptability and easing businesses through their transitions.

The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously been a time of significant upheaval for many people. Retrenchments, salary cuts, anxiety and stress are skyrocketing. Change is becoming a part of daily life. But for businesses to survive and mitigate the effects of a crisis, it is up to their leaders to seize opportunities and embrace new systems and processes.

For many of our clients, there’s usually time to implement strategies for change. We had the luxury of up to a year previously, before major decisions had to be made, meaning that we could be thorough. But when the pandemic arrived with little warning, there was no time to plan.

We had to be thorough and quick, meaning less time for hesitation, and decisiveness became integral to lessening the damage.

Our advice had to draw on our experience in dealing with an equally pressing situation a few years ago for many of our clients. The African Development Bank (ADB) had asked us to design a solution for their employees to return to Côte d’Ivoire, their original home, from Tunisia, where their head office was based.

1,500 employees and more than 3,000 family members were effectively being asked to leave Tunis and move to a new headquarters in Abidjan, after peace had returned to Côte d’Ivoire. The ADB decided that this change needed to be executed rapidly. They understood that the change required a thorough, human-centric plan be implemented – quickly.

In this instance, it was the leadership who first had to upskill, learn how to manage this change and maintain calm during the transition. Executives sponsored and led the change with their people, as support teams were created in both countries to ensure the move was done efficiently and with minimal stress for the thousands of people whose lives were uprooted.

The critical factor in what was a smooth transition ultimately was effective, personal communication. Similarly, businesses trying to survive during the pandemic also require new communication strategies, especially with physical distance and working differently to different schedules, which leaves many of us feeling so isolated.

The human touch – even in a virtual setting – cannot be understated. Part of that human touch includes flexibility to match customer needs with employee lifestyle preferences. Personal interaction with employees who are more spread out than ever before, transparency and ongoing communication can help maintain morale in times of crisis.

This human touch is especially relevant when retrenchment has become so prevalent across the spectrum of industry. As one of the most challenging forms of change that a company can go through, retrenchments can damage the people who are leaving and those who stay behind.

For those being retrenched, it is integral that their employers equip them with as much support as possible before their departure – whether this means offering to upskill them, providing letters of recommendation, or even something as simple as helping them update their CVs. For those left behind, who often suffer a form of survivor’s guilt. It is also important to support them as they prepare for a new working environment that could include more work and a massively changed environment.

Keeping up morale when the entire world is in a state of stress and anxiety is tough, but it’s vital to ensure that a business can flourish.
Of course, the change management industry was not exempt from the challenges of the global health crisis, and we were forced to remember our own advice as we pivoted to new ways of working. and Change, in 2019, was a primarily face-to-face operation, and while two years later we are used to virtual interaction and shifting everything online, we did not have the luxury of time for this transition.

However, it gave us the opportunity to learn, and to pass on what we had learned about these new forms of communication to our clients – particularly those who were intent on becoming more online-based prior to the pandemic. For example, I believe the financial sector would have always shifted further online – it was simply accelerated by the circumstances of 2020. Many of our clients have, through this move, already seen incredible responses from their client bases thanks to easier access to their services.

For our own business and our clients, we must recognise that rather than seeing these changes simply as a problem, or challenge, we must see them as an opportunity to learn. We must push for new solutions even in the face of resistance – resistance that is heightened by the stress that lingers in a worldwide crisis.

There are positives to this ‘new normal’, and some of our clients have been able to leverage the situation and succeed, all because they were willing to evolve. Conversely, the only way we can fail is by clinging to the old ways and refusing to leave our comfort zones.