Consulting firm gives others a reality check

Karen McIsaac was working as an independent consultant advising companies on change 10 years ago when she saw a television program featuring former Bank of America Corp. chief executive Hugh McColl.

She'd been thinking about starting her own consulting firm, and what she heard from McColl helped convince her to take the plunge.

“They asked him what kind of people would you choose to hire,” she recalled, “and he said the top people who know how to manage change products. That helped to solidify what I wanted to do.”

While McIsaac never met McColl personally, her firm, Project Managers Inc., now works with his former bank, along with other agencies and Fortune 1,000 firms including Wachovia Securities, Lowe's, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, Duke Energy and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

She and her 14 employees advise clients on managing events such as new product launches, technology changeovers and mergers.

While her clients and their industries vary, much of what McIsaac sees about how people react to change, and the mistakes they make, remains constant. Change is also more common than it was years ago, she said.“Ten years ago we had to sell the value of managing projects and managing change,” she said. “We don't have to do that anymore.”

She spoke to the Observer about the challenges of managing change and shared tips on how companies can navigate the current economic downturn.

Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. What are the common mistakes you see people make?

One of the biggest things people forget today is doing a risk assessment. They don't know the scope of what they're doing. People underestimate what it's going to take. Nobody's doing a reality check.

Q. Really? That seems like a big thing to forget.

A lot of people are focused on the schedule, the budget, the people, but they don't think outside the box for what could happen after the change is done. We feel very strongly people have to do risk assessments along the way, particularly before you implement the change.

One client who rolled out a new information tool … they didn't think about the risk and got a lot of phone calls from their customers and totally jammed up their call system. If you don't think it through, your helpline might get jammed up and customers may get turned away.

Q. You've worked with many banks undergoing mergers. Talk about how a company might guide employees through such a change.

Get people engaged early. Get them to understand the reasoning behind the change. This comes from the top down. You've got to get people comfortable with what's ongoing, with why we're asking you to do this. Why it's going to benefit the organization and why it's going to benefit you.

Q. What about when it's not clear how the change is going to affect employees?

Management needs to be upfront, honest with everyone about what the situation is and what they know and don't know. You can't make any promises; you can't make any commitments. I think being in touch with all the people will at least help them to understand where they can go or won't be able to go.

Q. Talk about a time you underwent change, and your key strategy.

We're changing our business now. We're changing in terms of our messaging; we have a new Web site. We're changing the type of people we bring on board. We're spreading out a little more with our clients to get those who will gain the biggest value from us. We changed the clients we were going after as we saw things evolve at the beginning of this year.

We're doing risk assessments. Constantly. You've got to do that.

Q. Given the current economic uncertainty, what should companies be doing now to prepare for possible changes?

This is a time when organizations need to look inward. When they need to look and see what can we improve in terms of people processes, maybe technology. You can do a lot of self-improvements during this time or when things pick up.