leadership

Lessons from Network Ten’s voluntary administration: How to inspire staff when your business is going through major change

Emma Koehn /

Channel Ten

Source: AAP Image/Paul Miller

It’s been a big week for company upheaval, with news of Network Ten’s collapse into voluntary administration garnering widespread attention, and experts say there’s only one way to steer your team through such change: be human.

On Wednesday, Network Ten confirmed administrators at KordaMentha would be taking control of the troubled TV channel after a series of challenges, including a decision by shareholders Bruce Gordon and Lachlan Murdoch to extend their guarantees for the company’s $200 million loan facility with the Commonwealth Bank when it expires at the end of 2017. 

“Customers, employees and other stakeholders are assured that the administrators intend to keep the business running,” KordaMentha said in a statement.

The saga developed further on Thursday, with reports emerging that Gordon and Murdoch could possibly band together to rescue the network, using their combined shareholding “as the basis for a financial restructure”, according to The Australian.

Meanwhile, staff at the broadcaster are operating in a “business-as-usual” capacity, according to administrators.

“The administrators are confident that the network is an attractive asset which will find a buyer or will be recapitalised,” administrator Mark Korda said yesterday.

However, even with these assurances, the impact of any significant changes to a business on staff cannot be underestimated, says Pollyanna Lenkic, an expert in teams and leadership culture.

How would you feel if the morning you walk into a building, into your place of work, if there’s some tension or something’s going on? What happens to you as a person when that happens? You go into uncertainty, mistrust, fear,” she says. 

It doesn’t matter whether the ultimate outcome of the changes are unknown, Lenkic says: the impact on staff and their emotional stability is still significant.

“But there are respectful values you can use — and it’s about drilling things back down to values,” she says.

Leadership experts and chief executives have spent decades developing practices to ensure staff remain stable when big changes are going down — here are three things your SME could consider when faced with a similar situation.

1. Tell the truth

Author of ReOrg: How to get it right and former division head at McKinsey Stephen Heidari Robinson writes in Harvard Business Review that there are two big communication errors leaders make during ties of upheaval.

“In the first trap, wait and see, the leader … thinks everything should be kept secret until the last moment, when he or she has all the answers,” he writes.

The pitfall of waiting until you have all of the information about a change, instead of just being truthful with staff about what you do or don’t know about what’s going to happen next, invariably fuels “water cooler” rumours and a lack of trust in management.

Not only does this approach fail to encourage productivity, it means that when you are told all the valuable information, you have to dump it all on employees at once.

Lenkic says SME owners really have no excuse but to be honest with their teams from the moment any big changes appear on the horizon, but if you are in a situation where you don’t know the end point, admit it.

“Say, ‘there’s information I can tell you, so here’s what that is. Then there’s information that I won’t be able to tell you, but as soon as I can, I will’,” she advises. 

2. Show some emotion

Whatever the change, there’s no getting around the fact that emotion will be a part of the equation, says Lenkic.

“As a leader, be empathetic and think, ‘If I walked in today and this was erupting, what would the person seeing that need?'” she says. 

Teams respond to news of change when respect is in play, she says, and this comes down to appreciating that not everyone will react in the same way to the news.

“Have some questions in your back pocket [for staff] — one might just be simple, like, ‘Clearly you’re aware that something’s happening, but how can I support you right now?'” she says.

“Understand people will react differently, so have some empathy.”

To keep staff focused during times of stress, good leaders appreciate some of their team might be excited by the prospects of change, while others may have a genuine and negative emotional response.

“It doesn’t mean you jump in the hole with them, but understand that people will react through the lens of their experience,” she says. 

3. Think beyond your values

Leadership experts advise that part of managing major change within a business is drilling down to why your staff are there in the first place.

Head of workplace think tank Reventure Lindsay McMillan says businesses need to remember workers will jump ship if they don’t see a broader purpose to what they’re doing, which is a risk when companies are distracted by bigger challenges and ‘the bottom line’.

“Employees need to have a purpose or they will leave. A business that focuses solely on the bottom line will miss the bigger picture and will lose their most valuable employees to companies that understand the importance of creating a meaningful and fulfilling work environment,” he advises.

Lenkic says managers have to go beyond the values lists written on the wall during times of upheaval, and map out specific actions they are going to complete to make sure staff feel supported.

“It’s so important you have a good employee assist program, or make sure you have at least two or three coaches or counsellors on speed dial — and normalise that,” she suggests.

“Ask people what they need, even if that means saying honestly, ‘I’m not able to give you what you need’.”

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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