How companies get stronger in periods of profound change

Thungela Resources’ executive head of HR, Lesego Mataboge, details how seamless change management saw the business through a massive shift.

Take a pandemic that turned the world’s ways of working upside down. Now add to that a separation from a global organisation you’ve formed part of for more than a century. With the pandemic, we were already in the midst of a period of upheaval, which we took to an altogether different level with our listing as an independent company on the JSE.

Having a strong change management process was pivotal and, more than anything, we were determined to be there for our people. To be present. And that made all the difference.

Despite the challenges, Thungela’s people-centric strategy paid off, and in just eight months, the company was named a Top Employer in South Africa. While establishing itself as a standalone entity, Thungela knew it needed an aggressive change management process that would provide ongoing reassurance to employees and earn the team’s buy-in.

Some of the things that were prioritised as part of the change management plan:

It starts with culture: We always had a unique culture but there were a few things we wanted to change. We wanted to be intentional about what these changes would be and why. We took a deliberate approach. We looked at our values with a clear view to entrench these in our culture.

A culture of accountability: We want all people to feel empowered to do what they need to do. We don’t want micromanagement. We want our people to feel trusted to deliver on what’s expected of them.

An agile organisation: As a standalone business, we introduced a new level of agility – but never at the expense of rigour.

We want excellence: We want our people to go out and become the best they can be by seeking better ways of doing things all the time.

An entrepreneurial mindset: We want people to feel a sense of ownership; to have an owner mindset. A strong sense of belonging gives people the confidence to make decisions.

Keeping connected: We’ve always had a family culture; there’s a feeling of togetherness. During Covid-19 and the demerger, it was critical for us to protect this. During our transition to an independent organisation, there were a lot of questions. People were excited, but also anxious. We were venturing into something new, and they wanted to know why, plus, how it would affect them personally.

As leadership, we needed to be visible. People needed to feel like they could connect with us. Like we were there for and alongside them. They needed to see us and speak to us. Of course, in lockdown, we couldn’t be present physically. So we had weekly dialogues where the workforce could ask us any questions. A lot of these revolved around what the change would mean for our people. We needed to do a lot of reassurance.

Keeping composed: People were taking their cues from us. We needed to be composed, confident and make it abundantly clear that we had a strong plan in place.

Keeping up communication: We also needed to own the message from day one. Negativity can spiral fast. It was critical we were vocal with constant updates, so people didn’t make up their own stories. We made sure we were upbeat and enthusiastic about the new chapter.
We firmly believed things would be great; that our business had a strong future. That’s the narrative we shared and that’s exactly what’s happened. We let people know we were in this together.

Keep improving: While the connected and family-orientated culture we’ve cultivated has many merits, we know that it’s imperative to be able to hold our people accountable. We need everyone to bring their best to work. When you’re building a business, it’s all-hands-on-deck. We need to ensure we’ve got strong feedback loops in place, so people know the expectations and can set realistic goals. This also compels us to take into consideration and act upon the feedback.

It’s also about admin: A lot of change management is about logistics. We needed to make sure all the right policies and processes were in place and communicated to our people. We also needed to ensure our employee value proposition was strong and reflected our values. In just a few months, we created a leadership academy to ensure we offer development opportunities tailored to our needs. We’re also launching a new performance management process that reflects our unique way of working.

You need everyone on the bus: We knew we wouldn’t be successful unless we engaged our entire workforce at their level, in a way that resonated. We wanted to clearly communicate the value and contribution every person could make.

Forecasting the future: Another big part of change management is future gazing and predicting problems. There’s nothing more frustrating than being on the back foot. We needed to identify prospective problems and have resolutions in place before these issues arose. Proactivity is essential. For example, we know we need to grow our business. So, it’s critical to anticipate the capability gaps and start talent pipelines now to stay three steps ahead.

Make people feel at peace that there’s a plan: I can’t stress it enough. You don’t want pilots who are unsure of themselves during times of turbulence. There needs to be a plan, and this must be communicated to all stakeholders early on, with regular updates on progress made.
In times of change, if you’re good to your people, you can earn unimaginable loyalty in return.