How to lead your company through change

Radhika Sivadi

4 min read ·


Your employees will react differently to change. However they feel about a new situation, you can help all of them adjust.

Charles Darwin said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

The business world is just like the natural world. In 30 years of leadership training, I have seen giant companies that were considered invulnerable turn into dead dinosaurs. I've seen small start-ups with bright ideas fail to navigate sharp turns ahead. And I've seen companies survive, even when confronted with problems beyond their control, because leaders adapted and stayed one step ahead.

Things never stay the same, so the ability to lead in times of change is vital. We often resist change because it takes us out of our comfort zone, but change can be exciting, healthy, and profitable.

There is no bigger change for an entrepreneur than being bought out. You, like the founders of Ben & Jerry's Homemade, may someday be faced with the biggest question of all: stay independent, or sell?

In 1978, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened for business in a renovated old gas station. With no business plan, they learned banks were reluctant to lend hippies money, and bootstrapped it, sleeping on top of the freezers and eating leftover sundaes for dinner. "When you're the boss, you have no one to blame but yourself," said Ben Cohen recalled in The Guru Guide to Entrepreneurship.

Sales took off, but in the winter, business plummeted. Ben and Jerry innovated by continuing to make ice cream, packing it into pints, and selling it to local restaurants and grocers. They vowed if they were still in business, they would give everyone a free cone on their one-year anniversary. As it turned out, they were still in business, they gave out those free cones–and Ben & Jerry's still does.

It's a miracle that two men with so little conventional business knowledge could build an ice cream empire. They opened the first of many franchise companies in Vermont, the first of many Ben & Jerry's stores out-of-state, the first of many out of the country. They developed the first of a long and ever-changing list of quirky flavors.

They eventually realized they were no longer "ice cream guys" but "business guys." They decided to create a company they could be proud of. "We decided to redefine the bottom line," Ben said, in the Guru Guide. "We measured our success not just by how much money we made, but by how much we contributed to the community."

For the next 20 years, Ben & Jerry's kept innovating. They also kept that culture, ensured employees were happy and continually produced unmistakable marketing. But by 1997, Ben had innovated himself out of a job. He stepped down as CEO so someone with more business experience could take over. But both Ben and Jerry remained active with the company and, with another partner, held majority ownership.

By 2000, they had two major buyout offers–from Unilever and Dreyer's–on the table, and a decision: stay or sell. Change was unavoidable. No one was happy. Employees were fearful. Franchise owners were appalled. Fans of Ben & Jerry's ice cream held demonstrations and rallies.

As they navigate change is the crucial time when I typically notice people's natural "tendencies" rise. How they respond to change depends on their unique behavioral attributes. Of course they react according to personal levels of expressiveness or assertiveness, but flexibility is the characteristic that matters most. Among the population as a whole, my research shows, 33% will be open-minded, 33% can go either way, and 33% will prefer to keep things the same.

A good leader will:

  • Mobilize the 33% who naturally welcome change to keep them excited and positive, and enlist them as change allies.
  • Persuade the 33% who are on the fence about the brilliant solution that will benefit everyone.
  • Prove to the 33% who resist change that the situation is not as terrible as they fear by showing the many ways in which change is necessary and beneficial.

Eventually, Ben and Jerry agreed to sell the company. The press release noted: "Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc., and Unilever have agreed to a unique and ground-breaking combination in which [the companies] will join forces to create an even more dynamic, socially positive ice cream business with global reach."

As people navigate a big change, any flexible behavior (or lack of it) works in conjunction with thinking styles.

Analytical brains will want to know if the best financial decision is being made. In this case, Ben & Jerry's was acquired by Unilever for $326 million, and the buyout assured that key initiatives would be financed and shareholders rewarded.

People with a structural preference think: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." They need reassurance that the new company will not ruin good products. As it happened, under the terms of the buyout, Unilever agreed not to alter the way the ice cream was made.

Social thinkers worry about their fellow employees as well as corporate social responsibility. They were relieved when Unilever promised to protect Ben & Jerry's employees.

Conceptual staffers want to know that coming change will not dampen innovation. Fortunately for those impacted by the Ben & Jerry's sale, "the deal seems to pave the way for Ben & Jerry's to continue its maverick ways," noted The New York Times.

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Radhika Sivadi