Opinion: when it comes to managing change, many business leaders overlook the importance of their employees in getting the job done 

Business is hard. It's hard to build businesses and lead businesses. It's hard to achieve success and even harder to maintain that success over time. Businesses are boats on stormy seas, battered by the wind and rain of technology, economy, policy and society. That's hard. 

But isn’t business amazing? It’s exciting, innovating, always progressing in some way and purposeful, providing someone somewhere with something they value. Maybe something they cannot live without. Some businesses even push their value beyond their customers and shareholders, up and out into the world to make it a better place. 

Work is hard. It’s hard to get a job, harder to get a good job. It’s hard to consistently perform well at your job and sometimes it’s really hard to hold on to it and all the while workers cling to the business boat. Tossed about on that stormy sea, they work together to keep it afloat and steer it against the wind, through the rain, towards calmer waters. That’s hard.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, gardener Fiann O'Nualláin on the benefits of green offices

But isn’t work amazing? It’s exciting, you get to do innovative things, you progress and contribute to the business purpose giving someone, somewhere that value You are part of the role your business plays in making the world a better place. You even get your own value; a pay cheque, a career, colleagues, challenges that spark your mind and become some important part of who you are. 

It really sounds as if we are all in this together. After all, businesses only come into being through the people who inhabit them so it's not a question of "getting everyone on board" because the employees are the boat.

Some businesses really get that. Virgin's Richard Branson says if you look after your people, you won’t have to worry about your customers or shareholders. Mark Hoplamazian of Hyatt Hotels believes business should focus effort on empathy towards employees, which encourages them to create an emotional connection with their customers and thereby delivering the unique Hyatt experience. For businesses like these, their people are front and centre. They are the boat. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, an interview with businessman Richard Branson

Achieving this in a business - any business, private or public sector, corporate or SME - occurs in two distinct ways.

Working conditions

Good working conditions involves job security, safe work environments, equal opportunity and appropriate pay. It also includes career development opportunities, flexible working options and other innovative HR practices at the other end of the spectrum. 

These things cost money, can be tricky to get up and running and require significant effort between the business and its people. But we know they work. They create more satisfied, productive, innovative and committed employees, who will lean in and row that boat no matter how dangerous the storm. But actually these things are really easy - the business just has to want to make it happen.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, future of work expert Peter Cosgrove on an employee's right to disconnect outside of work hours

Employee engagement

The second way that businesses get their people front and centre in the boat is where the trouble lies. It’s through honesty, transparency, authenticity, trust, open and two-way communication. It’s through listening, questioning, envisaging, re-imagining, sharing, reflecting, interpreting and sense-making.

Many years of management and organisational theory confirm the value of engaging with employees when strategic change is happening. Yes, that means business leaders having to share ideas when they are not yet planned, opportunities not yet understood, problems not yet solved, deficits not yet addressed and failing products not yet revamped.

Leading people through such uncertainty is very hard. They will question you, disagree with you, contradict you, upset and challenge you and make you keep your promises. They will make you think in a different way, share their ideas, help unpick problems, explore uncertainties, generate diverse perspectives and uncover parts of the business only they know exist.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, ActionCOACH Ireland's Marina Bleahan on employee engagement

Together you will make sense of the business and where it needs to go. Most importantly, they won’t just get on board, they will be the boat. Even if they know the boat is now facing an unknown direction, is not quite as luxurious as it used to be, or even knowing the journey for some may be shorter than they had hoped. 

Why then do so many business leaders aim to take the boat on the short and fast route through the storm? Do they think they won’t catch the wind if they stop to get all their people on board first? Do they think if they just wave at them from the bow that will be enough for them to jump on board at the last minute? Do they think if they steam ahead, people will flail around in the water but ultimately start swimming after them when they realise the boat is leaving?

Do none of these leaders ever stop to realise that a good crew will guide it safely into the eye of the storm and on to calmer waters, then sit tight and gather themselves to battle the next storm? Some crews even ready the ship for a new journey and loyally stay behind on the dock, wishing it well. Crews like the people losing their jobs in Roche of Clarecastle, Co. Clare, but Roche’s leaders did all the right things and we can all learn a lot from them.

If you look after your people, you won't have to worry about your customers or shareholders

Business leaders take note. Time and space to prepare for the journey means more than preparing the memo, more than a short window of time to review the memo. It means tearing up the memo and sitting down with the crew. Today, tomorrow and every day, at every opportunity and in every way possible. Then, and only then, will all these boats safely reach their destination. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ