Leading employees through major organizational change

I took over as CEO of Sanofi Canada in May 2012 when the healthcare organization was preparing for major change. We were about to move hundreds of employees to a new corporate headquarters, a challenging operation at the best of times, while also getting set to transition to an open-plan workspace, a first in our history.

The shift to a state-of-the-art office space, with employees working side-by-side in a collaborative environment, required a complete transformation in work culture. Many of our senior staff had spent several decades working in a closed environment. As a result, apprehensions ran high. Making sure the appropriate level of consideration was given to employee concerns, while ensuring a major shift in our corporate culture was successfully implemented, proved to be a massive job. Indeed, it turned out to be the challenge of my career, perhaps even a bigger challenge than I’d bargained for when signing on.

To successfully meet the challenges of our corporate relocation, and bring about a fundamental transition in work culture, we initiated a 12-month change management campaign in the fall of 2012. In this article, I share key lessons and personal insights gained from that experience that I hope will prove invaluable to fellow executives embarking on a similar journey.



Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Sanofi Canada built a very successful business around a portfolio of “blockbuster” drugs. By 2005, however, the company (along with its pharmaceutical peers) was forced to rethink its prevailing business model due to the industry-wide revenue losses that stemmed from the expiration of exclusive rights to drugs serving a broad base of the population.

In July 2011, a strategic shift to new “growth platforms” prompted Sanofi Canada to sell one of its divisions, a deal which included the transfer of our former head office. After a new location search, the company decided to move operations and employees to a new, purpose-built building in Laval Quebec’s Biotech City, a dedicated technology park and life science cluster in Greater Montreal. The new HQ was to be a state-of-the-art open office space that would stir innovation. But the new environment required the company to change how it set up teams as well as changes in the way employees worked together physically. The move was set to take place in early 2013.

After arriving as CEO in the spring of 2012, I found a group of employees that (after years spent working in closed office “silos”) lacked the collaborative and communicative style of work required to drive innovation and competitiveness. As a result, a primary objective of the relocation and move to open-plan offices was to bring about a transformational change in our culture to embrace collaboration, transparency and innovation. Simply put, while the relocation promised to be a major challenge, senior management recognized it as a rare opportunity to completely overhaul the company’s corporate culture and reposition the organization to respond to its changing needs.



Sanofi Canada developed a comprehensive, year-long change management campaign with a steering committee comprised of executive team members and personnel from Human Resources and Communications. The campaign featured a variety of innovative tactics (expanded upon below) and had three objectives:

  1. Ensure a smooth transition to our new offices;
  2. Transform our corporate culture into one reflecting greater collaboration, transparency and innovation; and,
  3. Minimize turnover.

The roll out aimed to empower employees as active players in the change process from the very beginning. As executive leader, I assumed the role of the campaign’s “driver” and catalyst in its execution.

Following the completion of the campaign, a formal company-wide survey was conducted to gauge employee satisfaction in their new work space, as well as its effect on collaboration, transparency and innovation. Overall, 88 per cent of employees polled were “satisfied” with the new environment, and 61 per cent reported seeing “a positive impact on engagement.”  Furthermore, after having peaked at 15 per cent in January 2012, company attrition rates dropped to 0 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, so we succeeded in retaining all employees during the relocation.

In short, we had achieved our key objectives. The following is a list of key lessons to be followed by anyone hoping to replicate our success:


LESSON ONE: Communication is crucial

During a period of change, a leader must ensure that his or her organization maintains strong, regular and transparent communications with its employees before, during and after a change management campaign. Not only does this form the cornerstone of a transparent corporate culture, it is also crucial to developing a bond of trust with employees. If you promise employees information, you must deliver on that promise.

Communications, of course, runs on a two-way street. Many employees have an in-depth knowledge of the way their company operates, so it is important to welcome ideas from all organizational levels. And when feedback arrives during a change management program, leaders must make sure they actively listen to ensure that the process is an inclusive group activity.

Keep in mind that conversations with employees serve as an important barometer. What are employees thinking? What do they fear? Where do they see themselves in the company’s future? Listening is the only way to find answers to some very important questions and what you discover will influence key decision-making right up to the highest level.

With significant change, of course, comes a huge opportunity to shift your organizational mind-set and re-engage employees for the future. To take advantage of this opportunity, however, you must be upfront. When addressing employees, frame change within the context of a new chapter for the company. But don’t expect immediate acceptance. You must be prepared for a period of upheaval, uncertainty and stress. And during that time, messaging must focus on the shared challenge that will jointly faced for the benefit of all.


LESSON TWO: Convert employees into change agents

As a change leader, you can’t simply tell employees about change and expect them to get on with it. Maintaining good morale and ensuring the retention of key team members in periods of uncertainty requires a proactive approach that prevents employees from feeling change is just “happening” to them or seeing it presented to them as a simple fait accompli.

We selected three groups of 10 employees to form sub-groups of what we called “Change Ambassadors.” Each group served a different function. One was tasked with managing behavioural change. Another group managed technological issues. And the final group managed environmental change and the move toward becoming a paperless organization.

Each group was tasked with sharing information about the move with their peers, while providing feedback to management to ensure all employee concerns and questions were addressed. This process engaged employees as active players in the cultural change management process. Before the move, our Change Ambassadors visited the new building site and examined key features, including the cafeteria, future workstations and community areas and innovation rooms. This initiative also proved instrumental in helping to turn apprehension into excitement.

The selection process was particularly important. Our Change Ambassadors came from across the organization, selected on the basis of their networks, credibility, influence and ability to communicate. We also strategically included some employees who might not otherwise have been first adopters of the proposed changes to our culture. The combination of these qualities was pivotal to the success of our change program.

What if our selected Change Ambassadors did not want the job? What if they questioned the good faith of the appointment? These possibilities weighed upon my mind. To address them, and ensure a genuine dialogue between employees and senior management, the executive team made sure that everybody understood that they were not required to “sell” the changes that were taking place to their colleagues. We emphasized the value of their participation and highlighted the opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process as the change program progressed. In the end, everyone approached for the role embraced the opportunity and took the job very seriously.

Once in place, the teams met every two weeks to discuss the company’s vision and flag any issues requiring attention. This regular dialogue helped address the widest possible spectrum of our employees’ preoccupations and ensured that change messages reached the most diverse segment of Sanofi Canada’s internal audience. In securing the buy-in of our Change Ambassadors, we made them critical contributors to the success of our campaign.


LESSON THREE: Deploy cultural and behavioural training

When change significantly alters long-established work habits, you can’t expect employees to modify behaviours or learn new skills overnight. This was a big concern during the course of our change management campaign, because our new office environment was very different and the company had less than 10 months to secure the fundamental shift in corporate culture required to operate smoothly and efficiently after the move.

We quickly learned that small victories motivate bigger ones while helping to maintain the pace of change, and that training initiatives, big or small, must be a cornerstone of any change management program. During our campaign, we put in place a series of behaviour-focused initiatives aimed at giving employees the skills they needed to hit the ground running as we entered our new office space. These initiatives included an “Open Door” challenge that moved employees with closed offices to commit to keeping their doors open for a full month.  To observe work habits, employees produced weekly job reports, which allowed issues to be addressed and discussed openly. To simulate the small work spaces that the new open-plan office would provide, empty offices were converted into alcoves for ad hoc conference calls or private conversations. To include employees in the decision-making process regarding aesthetic changes, we set up sample work stations for everyone to view and polled employees on their preferences for things such as work station modules, chairs, carpets and lighting. Two months prior to our move, we initiated “Getting to Know You” sessions (think 30-second speed dates) during morning and lunch breaks. This enabled employees who would be seated together in the new office to interact and break the ice, encouraging the development of the collaborative relationships that would be necessary when working side-by-side in the new space.

In addition to this culture-based training, we prepared employees for new tools. For example, our new workstations were equipped with wireless telephony and laptops to allow employees to take full advantage of the flexibility of the open-plan space. So prior to the move, the “Change Ambassador” group concerned with technology offered training sessions to ensure the maximum use of these tools upon arrival in the new office.

Finally, to mitigate the culture shock of the move, particularly for those who had been working in closed offices for many years, we produced etiquette guidelines for working in an open-plan environment. The guidelines communicated suggested behaviours for working in close proximity, addressing noise, distracting behaviour, clutter, food and odours, along with the proper use of community areas, to pave the way for greater comfort and a more productive and harmonious environment.


LESSON FOUR: Surround yourself with the right people

Assembling a great team is crucial to a successful change management program. As a leader, you can’t do everything, so you must leverage external expertise. To steward our campaign, I recognized the need to combine elements of Leadership, Human Resources and Communications. None of what we achieved would have been possible without the combined efforts of all concerned.



When taking stock at the end of a campaign, it is tempting to cherry pick statistics to support a rose-tinted view of what happened. But no campaign will achieve 100-per-cent success. At the end, there is often work still left to do. Keep in mind that there is no magic formula for managing large-scale change. It is different for every organization, and each experience will present its own peculiar challenges.

Nevertheless, as a leader faced with major change, you must:

  • Ensure that your company seizes the opportunity when senior management is open to organizational change;
  • Take a proactive approach to employee engagement, and be open and transparent in all your communications; and,
  • Work in tandem with other key corporate departments, particularly with human resources and communications, to achieve your objectives.

At Sanofi Canada, by engaging a total audience of over 425 employees we were able to seize upon a required facility change to precipitate a fundamental shift in organizational culture. By leveraging the opportunity presented by the move to an open-plan space, we have built an open culture at Sanofi Canada, one that is higher performing, while repositioning us for a bright future.

We may have started the change process at a place of common apprehension, but we are now far from that place. Today, our employees work in a beautiful open-space environment that makes collaboration and transparency second-nature. We are working better and are showing unprecedented enthusiasm in our approach to our jobs. We have never been more engaged.


About the Author

Mark DesJardine is a PhD candidate in Strategy and Sustainability at Western University’s Ivey Business School in London, Ontario. His research intersects finance and management. Drawing on….Read Mark DesJardine's full bio