How to survive change and thrive

The news that "organisational change" is in the offing strikes fear into the hearts of many workers.

Some cross their fingers and hope they'll still have a job at the end, or bemoan the fact that “fings ain't wot they used to be”. Others view the upheaval as a chance to advance their own careers.

For occupational therapist Jane Benston, major changes to her role at work in 2010 gave her the jolt she needed to strike out on her own.

Employed for more than 10 years as one of a team of health and safety advisers at a retail conglomerate, Benston travelled between stores, advising managers on maintaining safe workplaces.

“I'd been in what I thought was my perfect job,” she says.

Following the group's takeover, she found the team decimated and her duties radically redefined.

“I went from very much an out-and-about role with autonomy to being in the office four-and-a-half days in five, writing procedures,” Benston says.

“I stuck it out and kept hoping it would change.”

It didn't, and Benston found herself becoming disengaged and unwell as a result of her unhappiness.

Advertisement

“At that point, I realised I was allowing it to happen to me, rather than me taking responsibility for my career,” she says.

“I started to see it as an opportunity. It was the push I needed to get out there and do what I was too scared to do in the past.”

Fast-forward three years and Benston says she has her mojo back, as a happily self-employed leadership consultant and coach.

“I love the work that I do and the lifestyle I have and I love the challenge of creating a business,” she says.

Realising she needn't be a pawn in someone else's game was her watershed moment.

“I had the realisation that I had allowed someone else to drive my bus,” Benston says.

“Once I took control back, everything changed. It's about taking your own responsibility for your career direction and not waiting for things to change, making your own choices.

“People see it as something happening to them, not something they can influence… there are always choices.”

They needn't mean handing in your notice and hanging up a shingle, Benston points out.

“Sometimes the opportunities can be internal – you may find yourself as someone of value to the new organisation,” she says.

“It's not always about leaving. It's seeing whether there are better opportunities with change and grabbing hold of them.”

Instructional designer Mark Parry agrees. He spent a decade developing e-learning resources in the NSW education and TAFE systems, where upheaval was the only constant.

“The organisation was always restructuring and moving people around; some would resign, others would get voluntary redundancy,” Parry says.

After observing colleagues struggle with the fear of being packed off without warning, Parry realised he needed to have his parachute packed.

“When [redundancy] happened to me I was reasonably emotionally prepared,” he says.

“I had a plan that was sort of in the back of my mind of how I would manage it.”

Part of the plan involved assessing his skills and their value on the open market. When his number came up six years ago, he invested in video production training, relaunched himself as a freelance designer and consultant, and hasn't been short of work since.

“It was a blessing in disguise in a lot of ways,” Parry says.

“I realised there were heaps of opportunities out there. There's a lot happening in e-learning. I'm riding in on a bit of a wave.”

Change management consultant Claudia Perry-Beltrame says organisations often lose their best people when major changes are pushed through without regard for staff, which is one reason why 70 per cent of change management projects fail.

A speaker at the Change Management Institute's 2013 conference in Sydney this week, Perry-Beltrame says companies need to focus less on altering structures and processes and more on working with employees to achieve desired outcomes.

“If people's values and beliefs are attacked or challenged, you'll get more resistance,” Perry-Beltrame says.

“People regress into self-interest if things are badly managed.”

The people-first approach works for Bega Cheese executive chairman Barry Irvin, who has overseen several takeovers and a twenty-fold increase in staff numbers during two decades at the helm of the NSW dairy company.

Staff tend to view organisational change with trepidation but making it clear early on what will occur and why alleviates fears, Irvin says.

Having a loyal team on side from the outset minimises mistrust in the process – but you'll only get one by earning a reputation for acting with integrity and doing the right thing by the local community, Irvin says.

“The key is to build a team which fulfills goals and values and isn't just about getting bigger and making more money,” he says.

“If we get all those things right, when we introduce change, people will understand what we're trying to achieve.”