Eight employee communications lessons from an historical merger

I thrive with change. In fact, within six months after I arrived at DuPont in 2015, we had a new CEO, a $1B cost-restructuring initiative and a $130B mega merger with Dow. My reaction was, “Alrighty then, now we’re picking up some speed.”

I wasn’t always this way, and I know all too well that not everyone is as comfortable with the same pace and scale of change. Every human, company and culture has a different tolerance, and the implications for managing change communications are correspondingly complex.

As communicators grapple with what, and how, to lead change communications through periods of sustained stress and change, I thought it might be helpful to share eight lessons I learned doing just that for the largest industrial merger in history: the DuPont and Dow merger.

All the standard caveats apply; it wasn’t perfect, I’d do some things differently and it was painful at times. But at the end of the day, our internal communications efforts led to results that showed clear impact on understanding the journey, belief in the future sta

te, attrition rates below historical norms and consistently increasing engagement metrics — all as business performance improved significantly.

While the transaction closed in August of last year, the twists and turns of 20 months of shareholder votes and regulatory approvals —followed by another 18 months of standing up 3 new companies — brought unprecedented opportunities for wins, losses and a ton of learning.

These lessons apply regardless of the type, pace and scale of change, and cover a range of critical disciplines ranging from content to process to measurement —all under the umbrella of change Communications. So let’s go.

Lesson #1: The narrative is king.

The single most important tool in any change Communications journey is having a clear, compelling and sustained narrative. If you don’t get it 100% right at first, there’s always room for improvement. Without one, you’re in a boat without oars. And done well, it will serve as a consistent North Star your leaders and employees desperately need to give them confidence in your progress and belief in its end state. Spend the time and energy up front getting this as right as you can.

Lesson #2 Have/use a Communications Program Management Office (CPMO).

Many of us are familiar with the concept of a Change Management Office (CMO), but its purpose typically is to support transaction management in ways that are broader than only communications. The idea of additional process may be anathema for some communicators, but having a disciplined review process that assesses and aligns all communications during the change journey is absolutely critical. We sure saved ourselves on multiple occasions from stepping on our own feet by ensuring that communication initiatives and related messaging were consistent during the almost two years  between the announcement of our merger and its completion.

Lesson #3 Audit internal channels for rebuilding, adding or —yes, I’m saying it — killing.

It’s easy to think that when change arrives, all we need to do is to create new content and plug it into existing channels we manage internally. Nothing could be further from accurate. The reality is that we need to audit our current channels to ensure they are reaching their intended audiences, assess the need for new channels to reach internal stakeholders, and consider eliminating  inefficient or underused channels. We very quickly learned a great deal about the performance of our existing channels and identified gaps —all of which proved to be highly useful in engaging leaders and employees globally with content about our change journey.

Lesson #4 “No/We can’t” is just the first answer. Keep pushing.

Sometimes — not always —it’s understandable that our companies cannot fully answer legitimate questions that employees are asking when they first ask those questions. But we learned that when we can’t answer with a direct what or when, we often could still focus on how. It often meant describing processes and or timing around how we could get to their answers. While not perfect,  we demonstrated that we were aware of employee needs and pushing to get their answers.

Communicating change is iterative. No matter how effective any organization thinks it is with communicating change, the truth is that it gets better with more practice. Think of it as building muscle to flex during change. Employees and leaders not only need information, but they desperately need to continue building skill sets that enable them to listen, engage, deliver and measure communication effectiveness. We provided training and tool kits for leaders and employees to help them build their skills with these disciplines.

Lesson #5 Let them know you’ve got their backs.

Telling internal stakeholders you’re thinking about them helps —especially in periods when you can’t communicate new insights or details. When you don’t have all materials complete with crossed t’s and dotted i’s, but you know there is anxiety in the organization about what tools they will have, let them know what you’re working on for them. As we approached the transaction close in 2017, we really focused on ensuring leaders understood that we were working on comprehensive tool kits for them —and for their employees — to help them digest new changes coming after the transaction close. It also included messaging that helped them manage their own anxieties about what expectations the company would have of them as leaders or employees. The feedback we received by pre-communicating was exceptionally positive.

Lesson #6 Measurement should be immediate, sustained, integrated and actionable.

Often, there isn’t much time to plan a measurement strategy with big announcements. But that doesn’t give communicators a pass to not gain a baseline measurement from which to start. There’s a natural connection point with any company’s HR function to tie communication metrics to planned or existing Organizational Health or employee engagement measurement plans. Do it fast. It makes assessing progress much easier and more clearly shows demonstrable Communications impact on the continuum through change. And best of all, it allows us to course correct quickly with messaging and channel performance.

Lesson #7 The continuous feedback loop is never more important.

Change is fast, and the Communications function can’t wait months or quarters to assess its impact. We attached some type of feedback loop to almost every piece of content, event and channel we used. We routinely used leader and employee feedback to create new content for everything from short-format videos to CEO global town hall agendas. And we used a monthly dashboard to paint a bigger picture that allowed us to make actionable decisions and share our progress with leadership. Our finger was on the pulse of the organization and our work at all times. We knew about issues before anyone else, and we addressed them before they became problems. That put — and kept us — in the driver’s seat.

Lesson #8 Segmentation works.

One size doesn’t fit all, so we spent time developing content and delivery mechanisms for a segmented internal set of stakeholders. C-suite leaders, senior executives, people leaders, recruiters and the global employee population had unique needs. Our planning started with placing ourselves in the shoes of each, and envisioning the experience each said it wanted (through those feedback loops we created). The communication strategies and execution needs flowed from there.

Whether I learned these lessons or reaffirmed them through my experience with the Dow DuPont merger isn’t as important as knowing they work. Having amazing team members and partners who stood shoulder to shoulder with me on this journey was the real blessing in the experience.  And the experience isn’t something anyone should keep under a rock. Just paying it forward for all my teachers along the path.

Mark Dollins
President – North Star Communications Consulting