A local business reporter left a message asking about an announcement that our company was being acquired.
I still remember the emotions that bubbled up in that moment. As it was my third merger or acquisition in just seven years, so I wasn’t particularly surprised; indeed, the deal seemed to make sense on paper. But that didn’t dim the natural anxiety nor the apprehension over how my life, and those of many others, had just taken a huge left turn.
Today I’m thinking of the thousands of Kellogg employees who might be feeling the same.
Kellogg Co. marked the summer solstice by announcing it would split into three independent companies. The biggest one will focus on global snack foods, along with international cereal and noodles, and frozen breakfast foods in North America. The other two will target cereal and plant-based foods in North America.
It’s a tremendous change for the Michigan-based company that employs 31,000 people worldwide. No doubt the people at the current headquarters in Battle Creek—not to mention those across the community—are wondering what it all means for them.
For the record, I worked briefly at Kellogg years ago, and I have collaborated with their team many times while supporting my nonprofit clients. I know many of their communication pros, and I’m confident they’re doing all the right things to connect with employees.
For the rest of us in the profession, we ought to take this news as a reminder to do two things: brush up on strategic planning for communicating big changes, and recommit ourselves to robust communication with employees. On the latter, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Prioritize internal communication planning. Companies are limited in how transparent they can be about mergers until they’re officially announced, and most of the immediate attention goes to informing investors and the news media. But that’s no reason to put internal communications on the back burner during the lead up. Employees will feel blindsided when the announcement comes. If there isn’t a plan to engage with them right away, their anxiety and resentment will grow. They will also create a narrative of their own very quickly—one that isn’t helpful to anyone. Have an internal communication plan ready to roll at once.
- Make internal communications robust and frequent. Consider employees just as important (at least) as shareholders or journalists or government leaders. I’m not suggesting you move the priority list around; I’m saying you must put staff on equal footing with external audiences when it comes to your communications. Resist the temptation to make employee communication an “and also” exercise.
- Empathize and humanize. It’s easy for leaders who’ve been “in the know” for a while and have had time to process the news emotionally to forget that employees need that time, too. They need to hear that it’s okay to feel anxious. They need to hear (and see evidence) that leaders care about them. They’re looking for tools to help them cope, from how to process their feelings to channels for learning and understanding what happens next. Think of it like this: If your doctor suddenly told you that you have a life-threatening illness, what information and emotional support would you expect right away? How frustrated and frightened would you be if you didn’t get it? What employees need post-announcement is just as important.
- Bring all the answers you can. I’ve seen leaders speak to employees after a merger announcement with little or no effort to bring answers to basic questions. That’s silly (and disrespectful) because those questions are going to be the same regardless of the deal’s details. People want to know how the merger affects their job, their co-workers, their day-to-day tasks, their future, their benefits, etc. It’s okay if the answer to some questions is “We don’t know yet.” Acknowledging them, providing even partial answers, and committing to bringing solutions as soon as possible—and keeping that promise—helps quell the initial anxiety while helping them focus on the next steps. That in turn can reduce losses in productivity and strengthen retention.
- Listen and adapt. If you honestly pay attention to your employees, they’ll tell you how they’re dealing with the news and what they need to get through it. Listen to what they say. Update your communication strategy. And give them credit.
Big changes in the workplace, whether it’s a merger or a major restructuring, don’t have to throw the workforce into panic or the business into chaos. Communication that’s strategic, meaningful and empathetic can smooth the transition.