Leaders need a special touch to bring a company through major change without dissatisfied workers: From communication to hard financial decisions, leaders must be assertive, compassionate and direct.

That's the message from top managers at the four Minnesota companies that made the Star Tribune Top Workplaces list for all 15 years of the program. And, of course, it's easier said than done.

But the four companies — Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, Mortenson, Right at Home and UCare — have been through trying periods during those 15 years. In 2009, the recession was still hitting hard. In 2014, they were in the middle of a slow, yearslong recovery. In 2019, the economy was finally beginning to pick up again, and the pandemic hit the next year, with the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis soon following.

The key, leaders said, was to remain faithful to the company's mission when you're growing, and especially so during a crisis. You need to listen to employees and, even more, communicate.

"It also takes adaptability and mindset and, as builders, we believe those are traits of the industry and the people who work in it that we've been able to lean into," said Robin Ritter, chief human resources officer for Mortenson. "What we know is that at the end of the day, our team members are the backbone of our business, and supporting them is vital to our success."

As CEO of a home health care business, Paul Blom of Right at Home — No. 1 on the Top Workplaces list of small firms — has always needed to keep employees' needs front and center. So solutions during the hardest times, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, start with making sure workers are safe and supported. That meant even stronger communication about changing protocols, schedules and patient mix.

During times of growth, it's making sure the company doesn't expand too quickly to lose that connection and support. And during hard times, as much transparency as possible is key.

Nine years ago, a business setback for UCare tested the character of the organization, said Hilary Marden-Resnik, the health insurer's CEO who was chief administrative officer at a time. UCare, 13th this year on the list of large companies, temporarily lost market share and had to lay off employees, among other cuts.

"We leveraged our culture of commitment to members, providers and employees to keep our mission strong even as we faced significant headwinds that required downsizing," she said. "We have tremendous pride in how we handled it: with transparency, integrity and respect for impacted employees."

That year, which was 2015, UCare ranked eighth among large companies. And the organization was able to restore the lost business in less than a year.

"Perhaps the biggest lesson is that the way we treat and value our employees during times of adversity allowed us to sustain incredibly low turnover rates over the years," Marden-Resnik said.

Jasmine Jirele, CEO of Allianz Life, said having buy-in in the company's mission of helping people work through uncertainty to devise a secure retirement plan means making sure employees feel the company is taking care of them.

The pandemic "reinforced that we need to be an employee-centric organization in order to succeed," she said. It might be easy to see on-site child care, fitness centers and health clinics as places to cut in hard times, but Allianz has found doubling down on these types of benefits has worked to create a culture of achievement. It recently added an on-site mental health practitioner.

Erika Andersen, founding partner of Proteus International, a coaching and training firm, said change is inevitable at work and in life. It's important for leaders to understand how employees will react, though, and help them through an "arc" that leads from thinking of the changes as "difficult, costly and weird" to "easy, rewarding and normal."

Helping workers get there takes strategic planning like transparent communication, for example, not just saying many things will stay the same but giving specific examples, she said. Explain the timeline. Acknowledge it will take work, and it could be difficult for employees. And explain why the change is necessary, laying out what employee goals will stay the same, what will change and how those fit into the mission of the company.

"Like physical levers, change levers are force multipliers that help accelerate people through their mindset shift around change," she wrote in an essay in Harvard Business Review.

The change can take part through restructuring or layoffs. But it also can happen through growth. Mortenson has grown both in specialties and geographic areas throughout its 15 years on the Top Workplaces list. The business expansion allows for career opportunities, and the company tries to work those into every blueprint.

"One of the main current and future needs of our industry is having enough workers to meet business demand, so we've put a lot of emphasis on attracting and retaining team members," Ritter said.

In 2015, Mortenson formally put a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy in place to both retain and recruit more workers. Like every other strategy, DEI talk needs to start with "clear articulation with the what and why," said Joffrey Wilson, vice president of DEI.

Like many companies in the Twin Cities and around the nation, after Floyd's death, the company sharpened its strategy both because it aligns with company values and because Mortenson believes "there is better performance as a team when all voices can be heard. Research shows that people perform better, and [there is] less turnover when people feel a sense of belonging," Wilson said.

That inclusive environment not only helps all employees thrive, but it has also resulted in some workers looking at construction as a potential field who never considered it before, he said.

The DEI commitment is not only about internal growth, though that is an important component, Marden-Resnik said.

UCare serves diverse and underserved communities and must identify and then work to close gaps in health equity for its members, she said.

"We hire employees who come from the communities we serve, and their insights help us deliver more culturally appropriate services to our members," she said.

That input, in turn, will serve to strengthen and change UCare as a whole, she said.

Companies need to integrate DEI needs into their fabric so leaders consider it at every time of change, whether it's a crisis or a period of growth, said Jirele of Allianz Life.

"There are short-term initiatives that companies can take on during times of high turnover, but putting in the work on building a solid employee-centric foundation ahead of a time of change or crisis or turnover is what I credit our low employee turnover to," she said.