Question: How can we keep employees motivated during ups and downs of a long transformation?

We are a group of utility companies going through the transformation needed to shift our base to alternative energy over next 5 years.

My objective as the transformation leader is two fold

- understand what speed of change is ideal for us (and align project milestones)
- keep key employees from becoming detractors

What is the best way to keep our employees engaged with this project, as they continue to serve our existing clients with current offerings?

8 Expert Insights

1. Ask them. Too often leaders think they need to come up with the answer and then message it out to the company. Crowdsourcing solutions has gained traction in many areas of business these days and engagement is a function of the level of inclusion in the solution. Ask them the very question you asked here and see what they come up with. Especially pose it to the COI (centers of influence) among the staff, who might not be the leadership team but the people who have other people's ears on the floor.

2. Gamify the transformation. In the context of a game, people naturally engage if the game is compelling enough, rewarding enough and has enough fun to make the challenge worth the play. Gamification is an approach that has handled many a sticky issue because it takes it out of the business frame and typical dialogue that often constrains innovation.

3. Have a context of time. Just remember that like a butterfly, there may well be a time of cocooning, that looks like nothing is going on. Some people will make the shift easier than others, some have a tougher time contingent on their identity and sense of safety being attached to 'the way it was.'  

4. And be willing to let people go. There is a phenomenon that sports knows all too well, is that sometimes, even top performers are better suited to moving on as the dynamic of the team going forward no longer suits their strengths or desires. It's better to get a new player who loves the direction than drag someone kicking and screaming into transformation they didn't want in the first place.

beyond that, kudos to you and your companies for seeing the future and initiating the 'energy' to have the transformation occur.

You're off to a great start by asking the right question!

As leader it will be important for you to keep the dialogue going about the big picture - why are we making a transformative change? When those setbacks and challenges occur, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture.

As far as motivating people... don't just tell them what to do, but invite them to participate in responding to challenges and solving dilemmas. Your key employees are no doubt key for a reason, and they should be considered a strategic resource and appreciated as such. You might also want to invite your employees to participate in project planning - timelines, milestones, resources required. They will be more likely to buy in to an ambitious plan if they've been asked to help make it ambitious, but still realistic.

With most change efforts there is a psychological transition that starts at uniformed confidence to informed doubt (Crap! We weren't expecting this!) to informed confidence. This is the typical reaction to a positive change! Leadership is critical for working your way through difficult times; perseverance is the key to getting through. Also remember there will be a learning curve with anything new. Learners will not be as proficient as with the new as they were with the familiar, so it helps greatly to manage expectations accordingly.

There's bound to be resistance. It's human nature. Your job as a leader is to get the resistance on the table; never let it go underground. Resistance that's out in the open can be managed. Start by listening - to everybody, but especially to those key employees. Who knows? They may have a point. Once the basis for the resistance is understood, ask "What can WE do about it?"

Last, but not least, be ever alert for wins - no matter how small. Celebrate your accomplishments and the people who made them happen. People are probably motivated most of all by seeing progress!

As in any corporate transformation process the most important thing is to keep the employees abreast of the changes and the reasons for it. Also it will be useful to offer employees training so they can become capable of taking the new jobs that will come with the new technology. This has to be an open offer, i.e. nobody should be forced to do it, but everybody needs to understand the consequences.

I always like to break a long project into a series of projects each with a specific goal, metric and deadline. As you complete each phase, you can celebrate your accomplishments and then declare a short "rest" period before embarking on the next phase. You want to keep the phases shorter rather than longer because you'll maintain more momentum. You can also break the entire project into say 3 large phases and then have milestones within each phase. The key to success is to push hard, win, celebrate and then rest. Each phase is equally important. It is the only way to keep everyone engaged and sharp over a long project.

The thing that keeps you going through the current and short-term ups and downs is a long-term view.  Not just the reason for the transformation from the CEO's point of view, but what's in it for the workforce that has to actually implement the transformation.  And by "what's in it for them" I don't mean more money, or job security, expanded market share, or higher stock price.  Generally what motivates everyone is the experience of making a difference, and that is the experience that is needed for a successful transformation.  That gets to the reason the organization exists, the difference it is committed to make in the world, e.g., "space enhances the human experience for all", "every child has a safe, loving, and permanent family", and "a safe and clean environment for all generations" (three visions of real organizations).  Once people are enrolled in that future, then how does the transformation support making that difference?  Then people take on the ups and downs with gusto, creativity, and, most important, with ownership.

Communicate.  Communicate.  Communicate.
Be open, direct, honest with good news and bad news
Treat people well throughout.  These are good people, but business may be bad.

In a phrase: "Employee engagement."  

One thing to remember is that the change process is not about the leader, but about successful transition to the new process and procedures. As that leader, you need to become a Servant Leader in which you are a communicator, listener, collaborator who is consistent throughout the process.

Take feedback, ask for feedback, involve everyone affected by the change process. As you know it takes the entire team to make changes. Everyone must "see" the advantage of the change in their particular position in the organization. The must be convinced that it is to everyone's advantage to transition in the change process and outcome.  

Additionally, those who serve other also need to be able to completely explain how the change will affect and be advantageous to the client base.

Good luck.