Leaders need to listen to employees in times of change

In 1985, I took a job as the training manager at BorgWarner Chemicals’ Woodmar plant south of Parkersburg. This work experience was one of my most exciting and valuable. I was immediately impressed with the plant’s culture. Every meeting began with the topic of safety, quite a change from the adversarial approach I experienced in the coal mine.

The plant manager gave me a great deal of leeway to invent a process to improve the solicitation and reception of employee input across this plant of 1,000 people. We set up organization redesign sessions followed by teambuilding and communication meetings across the plant. These sessions were followed by technical training and extended entry-level training. As a result, I was extremely busy and I loved every minute of it.

In 1986, BorgWarner was plunged into crisis when a couple of investors, or raiders as they were called in the media, began buying up the company’s stock. It seems BorgWarner, a very conservative company financially, held very little debt. The raiders hoped to take control of the company, sell off the various sites individually, and realize a significant profit.

Late in 1986, the top 100 managers of BorgWarner countered by buying most of the stock available, creating a controlling position and thwarting the raiders. In order to accomplish this transaction, these leaders incurred a million dollars of interest a day. Merrill Lynch purchased the company in April of 1987 and began seeking buyers, tire kickers as we called them.

As you can imagine, everything changed in the culture when we were put on the auction block. Efforts to reduce waste gained a higher profile and the once secure plant was submerged in uncertainty. People huddled in offices trying to figure out what would happen and how it might impact them personally. Amazingly, productivity remained high and even increased. Everyone put a shoulder to the wheel and did his/her part.

One Friday in June of 1988, I had a four-hour training session scheduled when rippling down the hallway news flowed that GE had bought BorgWarner Chemicals. Employee responses varied from shock to excitement for the future.

Of course, the agenda for my training program was discarded. I allowed the people who showed up to express their feelings, cry, and vent. Then we talked about what our next steps would be. In the following months, sessions were held with all employees to accomplish the same objectives of venting and planning.

Today, many of us have gone through similar stressful changes. Change is more ever-present. However, I still believe the best leaders create the most successful change events by giving people time to process the situation with open dialogue.

In the midst of change, leaders don’t need to have all the answers, but they should listen.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.