Four Rules of Leadership for Tough Times

Thank You Cards

Thank you cards sent to leader Irene Brank after the division closed.

The leaders knew bad news was coming as early as 2002. As with many other companies, First Allmerica Financial had been damaged by the post-9/11 stock market plunge. After much consideration, the company decided to stop writing new life insurance policies, which caused the first round of layoffs.

In 2005, the inevitable occurred—the company sold its life policies. This created a unique challenge: The 250-plus remaining employees had to service existing business while transferring knowledge to the acquiring company. Managers needed to motivate and retain staff members, even though they had been given tentative lay-off dates up to 12 months into the future.

The potential for harm was great. Employees could decide to leave en masse, stop caring about their work and fail to accomplish what was needed, or even sabotage the business as retribution. To keep employees and transition the business successfully, First Allmerica Financial developed a robust learning strategy.

A Learning Strategy

The company needed to persuade long-term employees to share their knowledge. The challenge was that they felt as if they were losing their jobs, and this perception had truth to it—almost every current position would be eliminated.

To meet this challenge, the leaders of the life division decided to expand the learning effort. They would encourage knowledge-sharing between employees and the acquiring company, and they would also encourage learning about career changes and personal development.

The resulting learning strategy hinged on four rules of leadership for tough times.

Rule #1: Connected, Open Leadership

“People need to trust you for the organization to be successful,” said Marilyn Smith, Life Division President. “People are smart. Be direct, talk to them often and tell them the truth.”

She and the other division leaders let employees know exactly when individuals would be released; when dates changed, they informed them.

As a result, employees could rest assured that their leaders wouldn’t hide information from them, even when the truth was difficult to accept. Employees’ trust in the life division’s leadership made it possible for them to spend less time worrying and more time preparing themselves and the company for change.

Rule #2: Intimate Knowledge of Individual Employees

“It’s important to know employees personally and professionally,” said Irene Brank, Director of Life and Annuity Operations for the Life Division.

“I met with each of the 100 remaining employees to discuss their situation. I learned who was too emotional for humor. I also knew who responded well to light jokes. It was that knowledge that helped me connect with every staff member. It helped me encourage them to step outside their comfort zone and learn.”

She continually encouraged employees to take advantage of learning opportunities. Through the two-year transition process, Brank saw employees earn industry certifications, tackle stretch goals, and join cross-functional problem-solving teams.

Individually and collectively, people came to the conclusion that job security is a relic of the past for most Americans. Employment security (the ability to secure new and rewarding jobs easily) became their new goal. And, as Brank said, learning is the key to lifelong security because people can adapt to changing circumstances by learning new skills and abilities.

Rule #3: Employee Leadership

The division’s leaders created a cross-functional team to guide the learning strategy. The 10-member group was responsible for promoting development in the organization, overseeing knowledge management, and advocating for learning practices.

The team took unexpected and creative measures to engage employees in learning. One of its most successful initiatives was a series of seminars on themes such as “Coping with Change,” “2006: What’s In It for Me?” and “Be Your Personal Best.” As informal leadership spread within the organization, employees stepped up to moderate book groups, lead sessions on managing stress, and encourage their peers to take advantage of learning opportunities.

Rule #4: Knowledge-Sharing

Sharing knowledge about the life division’s practices and procedures was critically important to the sale of the business. But the division went beyond sharing just business knowledge—the leaders knew employees needed support for their own transitions to take good care of the company.

The list of knowledge-sharing activities was broad and included industry, personal interest, transitional and motivational activities – even humor seminars and “get fit” workshops.

A Happy Ending for All

The Life Division achieved its goals. The acquiring company received the business it had purchased, along with deep knowledge about how to best care for its new policies. Learning certainly helped create a smooth transition, and the strategy was also a success for employees.

“Our employees are, for the most part, transitioned,” Brank said soon after the closure. “Many of our employees have successfully moved on into new and exciting positions, some in the life insurance industry, some in different industries.”

Moreover, they left the company knowing the life division had treated them with respect and care.

On Brank’s desk, there is stack of cards from outgoing employees that express thanks to the life division for what many call “the best experience of their life.” These cards, and the words within them, are a testament to the great success of the learning strategy.

For more on this story, read the full article in Chief Learning Officer magazine.

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