A Very British Lesson in Organizational Change

A Very British Lesson in Organizational Change

One of the toughest challenges facing any organization is change. As a company becomes larger and more successful, major internal adjustments become more difficult. That’s why small, agile “disruptors” can take down entrenched, experienced, and well-funded organizations.

Change is hard.

All organizations, even those with long records of success and profitability, will have to change eventually. You know it, as do your employees and clients. And all of you want to put it off until tomorrow.

But the time will come when you have to put change into motion. Even those resting comfortably at the top of their industries must change, or eventually be forced to abdicate the throne. In some cases, literally.

George looks like he's going to love being king.

Think of the interns.

Our training courses aim to help managers effectively explain the need for change, and direction it will take, to staff, clients, and customers. This isn’t about those hefty notebooks full of details, though they are important. We’re talking about corporate communications.

Your message needs to be simple, clear, and repetitive. Your people need something that will guide their decision making, while keeping them sane, through a long and unpredictable slog. And you need to make it look like everything’s going great, even as things inevitably spin out of control.

Perhaps no organization has done that more gracefully in recent years than The Firm.

Your frilly collar pleases me, but not a great deal.

Not all CEOs do casual Friday.

“The Firm,” as the British royal family is often called, lies at the confluence of celebrity, real estate money, and political power. With their fabulous hats, packs of cute corgis, and long tradition of military service, it may seem like the sort of timelessly elegant organization that would never need to rebrand.

That’s the magic of good messaging.

“Twenty-odd years ago it looked as if the monarchy was in an advanced state of decomposition,” writes The Economist. “The ill-starred marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer undermined the monarchy’s claim to unify the country through dignity… [then] the queen capped it all with her handling of Diana’s death. She said nothing for five days, burning decades of goodwill with her silence.”

It was a cringe-inducing lesson in mismanagement. The Firm understandably had to muddle through that crisis without plans or proper messaging, but there was no excuse when they failed to prepare their people for further organizational changes.

Future CEO Prince Charles married his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, without even acknowledging the atrocious optics, further alienating their people. In the meantime, middle managers like Prince Andrew and Sarah “Freebie” Ferguson divorced, squandered public funds, and subjected their subjects to unseemly episodes of toe sucking.

“At the same time,” continues The Economist, “[Elected government leaders] Tony Blair and Gordon Brown modernised the Labour Party and went on to modernise the state.”

For the first time in generations, the monarchy looked like it was at a real risk of being written out of the UK’s Constitution.

Until new management came of age.

It’s trendy to criticize Millennials, but charismatic Princes William and Harry exemplify the media savvy of that hard-working generation. There were missteps—anyone punished for a social media gaffe can relate to Harry’s unfortunate choice of party costume—but their relentlessly positive messaging won out in the long run.

The incorporation of Kate Middleton into top company brass wasn’t especially well received at first, with royal purists and chatty fashionistas complaining about a “commoner” joining the organization. But the Duchess of Cambridge has been a net positive in neutral heels, and her consistent, repetitive, and optimistic message paved the way for even bigger changes to the monarchy’s top management: The addition of Meghan Markle.

You may have watched the recent wedding without even realizing how it exemplified successful corporate change management. Look more closely, and you may learn something that you can use to smooth your next evolution.

Let Your People Know that Change Is Coming

This one can be a tough call. If you’re contemplating layoffs, you may want to keep a lid on it. But if you’re introducing a new product lines, moving into new markets, or growing your company, let your staff and the world know what’s coming. That way they’ll have time to wrap their heads around it.

Prince Harry handled this perfectly.

After the British media learned about Ms. Markle, they became obsessed with how she was unfit for The Firm. Not only was she of mixed-race heritage, she was also an actress, a divorcée, older than the prince, and of course an American. Perhaps, they speculated unkindly, she was a good fit as a temporary contractor, but not for a permanent position.

Then, in November 2016 (almost exactly one year before the engagement, indicating impressive advance planning), Kensington Palace issued “A Statement by the Communications Secretary to Prince Harry,” asking that the media stop harassing Markle. “He knows that it is unusual to issue a statement like this, but hopes that fair-minded people will understand why he has felt it necessary to speak publicly.”

It was unprecedented. And the meaning—beyond the request to lay off the hate-filled nonsense—was clear. When future CEO Prince William publicly supported the “Love Shield,” there was no denying it. Change was coming.

How can you let your people know, in no uncertain terms, that they need to accept the fact that major changes are afoot?

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

elbow elbow, wrist wrist

Photographers! What a surprise!

The best way to make your messaging work is to keep it short, sweet, and on repeat. Your organization, as well as its clients and customers, will want to drift back into familiar territory—and away from needed changes. Any glimpse of the conflict and chaos behind big decisions makes them seem even more unpalatable.

So keep a simple, positive message in heavy rotation.

The royal couple continued to roll out their public appearances with that in mind. They started with small, beautifully staged paparazzi shots, and then media releases about romantic trips à deux. Next came Markle’s interview with Vanity Fair, timed to coincide with their first official appearance. Finally, The Firm announced an engagement.

Every single media event was short, undemanding, and on message. The couple was always deeply, playfully, and truly in love. The royal family supported them completely.

If they ever fought, with each other or the royals, that took place off camera. Your management team needs to follow suit.

Find your message, put a smile on it, and bring out early and often.

Not Everyone Is Going to be Onboard

Having a Plan B keeps the rain from becoming a storm.

A good manager knows that a stiff upper lip is a talent not all your talent shares. Be ready to step in.

In a previous Chainsaw blog post on organizational change, we explain that the human mind is wired to resist change. Workplace reorganization is particularly stressful, as it threatens our paycheck and social status.

Some of your people are going to sail through those changes easily. Others will become stressed. And a few will act out—badly. Be prepared for it.

Keep an eye open for unusual behavior. Blowing off steam with negative gossip is a normal part of any transition. But if someone becomes erratic—coming in late to work, not finishing assignments, acting unusually moody or antisocial—management needs to step in.

Thomas Markle, Meghan’s father, was pulled out of a quiet retirement in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, and thrust onto the world stage. The Firm then scheduled him for a starring role in a wedding that would have an audience to rival the Superbowl’s.

He snapped.

The Firm handled it. At first, they tried to calm him down and keep him in the wedding. When that didn’t work, Mr. Markle canceled, due to “heart surgery.” (If you can help a stressed-out employee save face, in addition to keeping the company on track, you’ve earned your management position.) Prince Charles stepped in to walk Meghan down the aisle, and the show went on.

Organizational changes are stressful, and some of your people may react badly. Are you ready to manage a strained staff?

Follow the Rules
Actually, she asked him not to wear the hat.
Shutterstock didn’t have the Meghan Markel photo we wanted, but they did have this awesome shot of Prince Philip in a bearskin.

Just because your organization is undergoing massive changes, doesn’t mean that you want to descend into anarchy. Respect for institutional knowledge and protocol can help resistant staff keep calm and carry on.

Bringing a “commoner” like Princess Kate into The Firm was hard enough—and she looks the part. Meghan Markle was a bigger shock to the system. The UK is increasingly polarized, politically and culturally, and much of that upheaval centers on immigration, nationalism, and what it means to be British.

The Firm seemed to be taking sides, by embracing—literally and figuratively—diversity. How would they get the average Brexiter onboard with the royal family’s new look?

By following the rules. Markle’s first public appearance made it clear—well, opaque—that she would follow an arguably unnecessary royal protocol in place since the invention of hosiery. At her first public appearance after the wedding, she not only wore hose, she made sure they were just a shade off, so everyone would know that she was committed to respecting British traditions.

What comforting protocols and traditions can you keep alive throughout your organizational change?

The Power of Story

Come on Shutterstock, you can do better than this.

Shutterstock also lacked decent photos from an absolutely gorgeous fairytale wedding. Here’s a lovely slideshow if this blog is making you crave a recap.

Deep down, everyone involved understands that change is the only way your organization will survive and thrive in the modern world. Even institutions like the British Monarchy need to shake it up every century or so.

Just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean it’s easy. Which is where the power of story comes in. You need to keep your message short, sweet, and on repeat. You need to be relentlessly positive about ongoing transitions, at least in public. And you need to keep everyone focused on the outcome.

The day will come when all those proposed changes have been realized, and your company can comfortably relax into the new normal. You just need to work through challenges that other companies have faced, and conquered. Weave that into every message you send, every story you tell.

Meghan and Harry had it easier than most of us, in that respect. Tales of handsome princes and beautiful princesses finding love, despite challenges such as poisoned apples and exploding death stars, are ingrained in our culture. A stressed-out father of the bride must have seemed easily surmountable by comparison. (Or maybe not, we’ll never know.)

What stories can you tell your people, to help get them through their organizational change?