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How to make ‘change’ work for your business

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

As in life, the only constant in a fast-moving business is change – mergers, acquisitions, partnerships, new lines of business. Organizations will do almost anything if it makes good financial sense but, while they carefully consider the strategy behind each big move, too often they forget those tasked with moving the company forward.

People matter. Your culture matters. And both are essential to making 'change' work for your business. Being no stranger to change here at AOL over the past five-plus years as we shifted our strategic focus to content brands and ad technology, here are three tips to help you lead through transition:

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Be overly open and communicative

When a big deal goes down, transparency can be tricky. As a leader, you rarely have all the answers your employees are looking for, and you're not always sure what details you're allowed to divulge. It's also hard to gauge how certain people will react to the news. After all, it's human nature for people to anticipate the worst.

To calm fears and alleviate anxiety, you need to err on the side of openness. Give employees the benefit of the doubt and trust they can deal with whatever information you have on hand. Conduct open forums, share as much as possible and don't be afraid to answer questions with "I don't know." As someone who has led a team through a series of acquisitions over the years, I can tell you firsthand that communicating properly will lead to a smooth transition process.

Keep everyone's eyes on the prize

As a leader, it's important to get ahead of change before you fall victim to it. You can't let change become the thing your employees become fixated on. Will I have a new boss? Will there be job duplication? Will I have to move desks? Will I get a promotion?

Your job here is to refocus employees on matters they can actually control, setting a clear and simple north star to guide them in the right direction. When dealing with ambiguity, one of the things that can really derail a person is a lack of meaning in their work, so it's essential to remind employees why their jobs matter. Go over goals and expectations and draw a direct line to show them how their effort and hard work will benefit both the company and themselves.

One positive side effect of leading through change is it quickly helps you identify top performers who can rise above the fray. Those employees who focus on things they can control, raise their hands when called upon, and show both a sense of achievement and sense of ownership. These are the people you can count on moving forward.

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Protect your culture fiercely

During an acquisition or merger, leaders must ensure their people and culture receive the same level of attention as their process and business strategy. You can't treat employees as one line item and move on. If you have a champion for your products/services and a champion for you go-to-market strategy, why shouldn't you also have a champion for your culture?

When we're hiring at AOL, candidates have to go through a separate interview with a cultural ambassador to ensure they're the right fit, but acquisitions open our doors to new people and new personalities. That's why we always have an executive sponsor at the leadership table during acquisitions; someone involved in the change management process at a high level who is championing the entire integration process. This year, we also instituted a quarterly employee pulse survey to track and measure the health of our culture, and identify and solve any issues that pop up.

So, while a series of acquisitions have helped us grow into a major player in Canada's media space, protecting our culture through all this change has allowed us to preserve the hungry, challenger mindset that's been integral to our success.

When leading an organization through change, it's important to remember that a great culture beats a sound strategy every time. This starts with putting people first, being open and forthcoming, and creating a workplace environment where employees are doing meaningful work and having fun.

As they say, change is good – but communication is key.

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Brad Cressman is managing director, AOL Canada

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