Especially in the age of the coronavirus (COVID-19), businesses of all types and sizes have been forced to develop contingency strategies and consider best-case and worst-case scenarios and what it all means for the company, its employees, vendors and even the communities where they operate. “Pivoting” has become the label for businesses responding to changing market conditions by shifting strategies and is a term that makes many companies’ stakeholders queasy. Pivoting implies change, and for many companies, especially family-owned businesses, the word “change” has a negative connotation.

Because contingency plans include “what-if” scenarios that can include the prospect of downsizing, furloughs and layoffs, a company’s ability to communicate the current status of the business and how the future might impact stakeholders is critical to maintaining morale and ensuring the company’s stability and image, the likely future prospects for employment and maintaining the status quo.

Throughout the pandemic, business leaders have grappled with finding the sweet spot when it comes to communicating change within their companies. The process has been made easier for some, thanks to a healthy and transparent culture that starts at the top. For many family-owned businesses in the meat and poultry industry, company owners literally work shoulder-to-shoulder with employees and maintaining positive relationships is made easier as the team often works in “the trenches” together to achieve a common goal each day.

“People need to hear from leaders about what’s happening, what’s being done, what they know and what they don’t know,” said Barbara Dartt, DVM, a principal consultant with the Family Business Consulting Group (FBCG), based in Chicago.

Change may be the only constant in life, but for many family businesses, it triggers bristling and uneasiness among employees. Fair process and true governance are phrases Dartt talks a lot about when discussing effective change implementation in family businesses. Fair process occurs when business leaders take the time to assess a current situation, consider potential outcomes and develop response options that also reflect input from the family owners and possibly third-party sources. Meanwhile family leaders rely on true governance, or a well-defined leader or leadership group, who ultimately are the decisionmakers for the company.

Consistent messaging is important during times of change, in terms of the messenger communicating the message, as is the frequency of the messaging to customers and employees, Dartt said. It’s important to recognize that some top-level leaders are not cut out for delivering company news when uncertainty is a theme, which has been the case with COVID-19.

“There are some leaders in family businesses and non-family businesses that simply are never going to be comfortable standing in front of a group and admitting, ‘I don’t know,’” Dartt said. “They just can’t be that vulnerable.” Dartt points out that relating the message of leadership is not a quality everyone at the upper level of leadership possesses.

“Sometimes the people who have the most authority, aren’t the best communicators,” but when it comes to conveying the details of a company changing its strategy, employees tend to place more value on the credibility of the person delivering the message and their status as an owner over their ability to be masters of communication.

“If you had to pick one or the other though, you probably go with the person in the position of authority and then work really hard to support them. That way, people feel like the message is coming from somebody with the power to make things happen or make change occur.”

Facts first

When it comes to keeping stakeholders informed during times of change, especially in a family business, it is helpful to identify what is the most important information to keep them up to date while recognizing that some workers and customers just want the bare minimum and not a deep dive on the details of the situation.

“Some of them don’t need that much, they don’t want that much and don’t want to read three emails a week,” Dartt said. “So, you need to identify, what is it they really want to know. Within any company’s employee base, you’re going to have different needs for information.”

She said those needs might be bare bones for some employees and more detailed for others. And depending on the audience, the channels used to communicate details about changes can make a significant difference.

“I’ve got some clients who won’t read more than three bullet points in an email,” she said. “But for some people, video is really important; can you do short videos that appeal to a segment?” she said.

She added that depending on the demographics of the employees or customers receiving the message, a longer email with more detail might be more effective for some. She warns though that depending on the company and the person delivering the message, sometimes written updates by email or other means leads people to misread the true meaning of that message. Knowing your audience and appealing to their preferences is most often the successful tact to take.

“People can draw a lot of assumptions and can freak themselves out with that written word sometimes,” she said. “Lean on the established structure you’ve put in place,” which might be the product of decision-making processes that involve board members or trusted and established advisors.

Another key to implementing change is to intentionally communicate and do so as much as is needed. She advised to err on the side of over-communicating.

“Often that is not the first skill of leaders in an ag-based business, so intentionally communicating as much as you need to, and that might mean you need help to do that well because it may not be natural to do that more than you think you need to.”

Some companies opt for using PR consultants to help them develop, but not necessarily execute, broader communications strategies that can be implemented by family and non-family members of the company.

Many company leaders realize they have people who have worked together as teams in the past and have successfully made decisions on other projects before, and that same team approach can apply in the communications arena.

“That way, we’re not pulling them together for the first time when we’ve got a message to send, when we’re facing a crisis,” Dartt said.

Setting the tone

Craig Aronoff, PhD, co-founder and principal consultant with FBCG, said he tells family-owned business operators that a consensus among leaders is critical.

“We start with families and say, ‘look, you really need to be on the same page; you really need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. You need to talk these things through, and you need to have a clearer view of how you relate with each other,’” Aronoff said.

“I’d say one of the great things about family businesses that have been passed from generation to generation is that they have had experiences with all sorts of circumstances in the course of their history,” he said.

When it comes to executing change and communicating what that is, Dartt agreed with Aronoff’s premise that a predetermined direction is key. She made the comparison to a well-orchestrated rowing team and ensuring the people in the boat share the same mindset and vision of success. This vision for success is something the company’s family-bound leaders need to agree on and share.

“We’ve got to talk about that,” Dartt said. “Where are we headed and why are we making these decisions? I’ve seen people assume that it’s the same direction but I’ve also seen people assume that somebody else has got a really different agenda and they’re afraid to talk to each other because if what you want isn’t what I want, what the hell are we going to do about this; are we going to break this up? What are we gonna do? So, in some cases they just quit.”

To avoid that she said family leaders should get aligned on where they are heading and anticipate the decisions that are likely coming.

Additionally, she said when it comes to making a specific decision about a change, the family leaders need to negotiate the details of implementing that change as a family and when they walk away from that discussion, there must be a united front.

“When they walk out of that room, they have to be unequivocal in their support for each other. I don’t care if it’s a knock-down-drag-out behind the closed door, but when they walk out of there, they need to have nothing but support for each other. If anyone sees a crack in that support, it scares them and they’ll wiggle into that crack and make it bigger,” she said.