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25 Sep. 2018 | Comments (0)

In this “Executive Series,” Pat Stortz, head of internal communications at AT&T, shares experiences from her 16+ years developing and executing PR and employee communications strategies at AT&T.

How many times have you lived through this scenario? You’re sitting at your desk or in a meeting, and your laptop/mobile phone pings. The companywide “News Now” has landed: the company is restructuring. Again. You quickly scan the latest set of executive announcements and then realize, “My God. This is going to affect me.”  

Your phone is ringing. You take a breath and then mentally strap yourself in. Your new boss is calling—the communications “cascade” has begun.

“Embrace change.” 

“Reinvent yourself.”

“Pivot your skills.” 

These are great slogans, but let’s get real, change is hard. And most times, organizational change is REALLY hard, especially when it’s being done in the service of a big, hairy, audacious companywide vision for 2020.

Having lived through any number of restructurings during my career, I’d like to gently offer the following advice to all you supervisors out there (I know it seems really obvious, but you would be shocked at how often it doesn’t play out this way):

  • Communicate early and often
  • Speak with positive confidence about the change (if you can!)
  • Tell your folks everything you know
  • Be up front about what you don’t know.

Trust me, you don’t want to experience what I lived through years ago when rumblings of a restructure began rolling through the halls of Basking Ridge (realize I’m dating myself here!). No one was saying anything to anyone. Then, those of us in the trenches heard an organization notice was coming out on Friday. I waited for my boss (let’s call him John) to reach out to me. What I heard—crickets.

So, I did what I believed at the time any stressed-out manager would do: an hour before the org notice was being issued, I marched into John’s office and demanded to know what job I was being given in the new organization.

John couldn’t have been nicer. He told me I was getting job A, and described it at great length to me. As he continued speaking, I noticed job A didn’t have any global responsibility, which was odd, since back then I was in charge of supporting AT&T’s international business.  I loved doing global PR, so I asked John about this.  

Suddenly, he looked uncertain.

“Well,” he said. “Let’s take a look at the org notice.” A few seconds later, we’re scanning the org notice and behold, I am NOT getting job A. Astonishingly, I am actually slotted to take job B, supporting the domestic consumer market. John has just spent the last 15 minutes describing to me a job meant for someone else. We look at each other for a long moment, and John starts talking. Quickly. 

“We all need to be flexible, Pat.”

“We’ll figure out exact responsibilities later.”

“Welcome to the team!”  

And the best one: ”I want you to know that you’re highly valued.”

How valued do you think I felt that day? 

If you’re on the receiving end of an organizational shift, I would urge the following:

  • Try not to engage in catastrophic thinking—and if you can’t help yourself, keep it to yourself!
  • Don’t rush to judgment—change is messy and can take time to sort itself out
  • Let go of the “way we’ve always done things around here” mentality—no-one will want to hear it nd it likely won’t serve you well in the new world order.
  • Find the opportunity in the turmoil that is sure to follow.

This last point is important. Business units, divisions and groups are put together by people. Most often, the leaders involved in crafting them are trying their best to serve the needs of the business and their people. But organizations often come together under crushing time constraints, and in the rush, issues and people can be overlooked or misplaced. It happens more often than you think. The good news: orgs evolve constantly. If the right issues are surfaced to trustworthy leadership, chances are good they can and will be addressed.

What to do in the meantime? Find the opportunity. I’ve seen people take terrific jobs with great potential and make them so much smaller than they could be. I’ve also seen people take modestly focused jobs and grow them into something new, wonderful, and unexpected—because the manager in question saw the potential, could articulate a vision and then manage both people and resources to make the vision real. If the business case is strong and strategically sound, most often a person will get what he or she needs—and be rewarded in the process. It can happen at any level. I’ve seen it go both ways at all levels.  

Disruption makes a strong argument for bringing your best self to work and for realizing that change brings stress, for sure, but it also brings opportunity. Despite John’s terrible handling of my own job change—way back when—I wish I had had the guidance and maturity to embrace what he was offering. I ended up keeping my old job, but in the process, I missed the opportunity to do something new and different, and made John feel stupid. Not a great career move when you’re dealing with a powerful officer. 

I never made that mistake again. When AT&T formed a 50/50 joint venture with BT in 2000, I was the first one to sign up for the gig—even though it meant leaving AT&T and moving into uncharted waters to work for a start-up. It was a wildly chaotic, demanding and stressful experience. Guess what? I loved every minute of it—right up until the venture was shut down just 22 months later. But during those 22 months, I grew tremendously, gained a host of new skills and confirmed that my existing skills and global experience were great strengths that continued to set me apart from my peers. Not only that, the relationships and contacts that I gained during this brief period served me for years after I returned to AT&T.  

So when the org notice hits, rather than hit the panic button, ask yourself: “Am I ready for this?”

If you can make this first mental pivot, odds are that you’ll do just fine, in spite of the chaos to come.

Anybody out there with an org change or “new job jitters” story they’d like to share?  Good or bad, I’d love to hear it.  I’m sure we could all learn something.

  • About the Author:Pat Stortz

    Pat Stortz

    As the head of employee communications, Pat Stortz leads a core team of 40 professionals responsible for engaging 280,000-plus employees worldwide with the company’s corporate and business unit …

    Full Bio | More from Pat Stortz


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