Last week, we were thrilled to serve as lead sponsor of The Conference Board’s 18th Annual Change & Transformation Conference, “Leading Through Unprecedented Change.” Never before has its content been more relevant to the challenges companies face today.

During the conference, attendees heard compelling keynote speeches from transformation leaders of companies such as Google, Comcast, Prudential, and Kaiser Permanente, in addition to panel discussions and workshops led with participants offering perspective from dozens of other leading companies. Gagen MacDonald was grateful join some of our own clients and share examples of the work we’ve done together. First, Meghan Marschall, the Vice President of Employee Engagement and Supply Chain Communication at Johnson & Johnson, joined our CEO, Maril MacDonald, to discuss the role communication has played in inspiring the company’s ongoing, purpose-driven transformation. Similarly, Matt Hanzlik, Vice President and Head of People Strategic Initiatives at Nielsen, and Myriam Vidalon, the Global Head of Diversity, Talent, and Culture at Nielsen, joined our Molly Rauzi to discuss Nielsen’s ongoing process of splitting into distinct, specialized businesses, and how Human Resources has used people and talent strategies to help spur the transformation. To wrap things up, Gagen MacDonald Senior Director Greg Voeller talked with a group of Chief Transformation Officers about the growing emphasis on their roles, and how innovative organizations are working to build agility and change into their foundations.

While conversations were expansive and delved into countless practices around managing change and leading transformation, several key themes emerged. Among our many takeaways from two days of presentations and dialogue, here are concepts that made especially lasting impressions.

  1. Change and transformation are interrelated, not synonymous.
    This was a point Maril MacDonald raised on day one of the conference in setting up her conversation with Meghan Marschall, and which continued to surface over the course of both days. In particular, Maril registered a point that many attendees expressed as especially significant: While change is about taking a different action in order to get an incrementally better result, transformation happens when so many interrelated changes occur simultaneously that the resulting organism is, effectively, entirely new. For instance, adopting new procurement software to optimize spending would be a change. Going from a B2B to DTC business model, on the other hand, would be a transformation. Whereas changes can be managed using tools such as RACI charts, budgets, and project milestones, transformations operate social movements. They capture the imagination of large, ideologically diverse groups of people, inspiring them to actively contribute to the creation and construction of a fundamentally different entity.
  2. We must go from driving people to driving change itself.
    As Travis Hahler, Business Gobal Change and Transformation Lead at Google, described in his presentation, the neuroscience of change is in general not just improperly applied to organizational change; it isn’t even widely understood. In particular, we largely fail to address the reality that humans are inherently wired to resist change. When confronted with it, humans innately focus on what is being lost, and become emotionally fatigued by the intense output of resistance. Furthermore, as April Mills, Business Architect and Principal Consultant at Intel Corporation added, organizations deal with this neuroscientific reality in the absolute wrong way: by countering resistance with mandates, and by trying to coerce change by driving people through intense oversight mechanisms. This method may achieve some superficial, bare-minimum behavior adoption, but it ultimately depletes morale, erodes trust, and lowers potential return on investment. Rather than coercing people, we should shift our focus to driving the change itself. When organizations undertake this approach, they focus on making the change itself compelling. They use storytelling to create both rational and emotional invitations for participation, demonstrate progress incrementally, and create small but frequent opportunities for employees to experiment with new ways of working. While this can slow down initial phases of transformation, over time, it builds trust, increases two-way engagement, and ultimately raises the ceiling on long-term potential.
  3. What’s old is new: transparent + frequent communication is still a bedrock of success.
    2020 has witnessed a combination of depth and breadth of change unlike any year in modern history. The magnitude and pervasiveness of radical changes across regions and industries has been jaw-dropping. The virulent spread of the coronavirus has bred anxiety about our health and wellbeing in nearly all scenarios, social distancing and shutdown measures have created enormous complexity in many employees’ personal lives, and the renewed movement for racial justice is demanding employers not only say something, but do something, too. Amid this collision of disruption, employees crave information. Throughout this year’s Change & Transformation Conference, participants consistently reflected on the ways in which clear, transparent, and frequent employee communication enabled their success navigating change…and how communication breakdowns and failures were generally at the root of any mistakes they made along the way. Having effective communication infrastructures that reach employees how, where, and when they consume information, in tandem with executives who operate with a bias for transparency, is a clear differentiator for top performers in 2020.
  4. Transformation happens through thousands of individuals: treat them as such.
    Even while trying to drive massive collective transformation, the events that have transpired this year have greatly accentuated the need to approach and influence employees as distinct and individual humans. We are all experiencing the stress of 2020 in unique ways. Where one employee may be juggling the strain of virtual education for school-age children, another could be tending to the needs of high-risk parents in nursing homes, and a third still might well be quietly dedicating nights and weekends volunteering hours to support social justice protests. The point is, change happens one person at a time, and individual people are infinitely complex: They carry with them the scars and triumphs of their previous life experiences; they are more emotional than rational by nature; and they learn and process information in a variety of ways. The bigger the change we seek to drive, the more we need to tailor our approaches and target people as individuals. We must coach leaders to assess and recognize employees’ triggers and learning styles, give them permission to design experiences that cultivate employees’ overall mental and physical wellbeing, and help them align the work employees do each day to their own private senses of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. In many ways, throughout the conference, this era of personalized leadership rose to the surface as a next frontier.

2020 has been a year we’ll never forget. While it has been incredibly difficult at many junctures, sensing the pride in the room at the work that HR, IT, digital, and communication professionals (among many others) have done to help steer their companies through choppy waters while driving transformation was inspiring. There will be more hard days ahead, but the opportunity to create something fundamentally new awaits us now more than ever. It is thrilling to imagine what the future will bring, and gathering with colleagues and friends old and new, as we were able to last week, furthers all of us on our journeys.