These are brief glimpses into eight confidential client stories – no fiction, no amalgams, no manipulations.
Culture shift resisted
This client was an industry-leading but staid organization, operating in the education space for 40 years, which had relied on its blue-chip reputation for too long. Aggressive new competitors were entering the space and growing quickly, eroding market share, margins, and international influence. The organization’s bread-and-butter work in product design had come to a standstill.
Declining results provoked a sudden interest in renewal and innovation. That surfaced a major misalignment on the executive team, deeply rooted in direction and core philosophy. The culture was also protecting a cohort of long-time employees who were too comfortable doing things the same old way. This was a large, bulky ship to turn. A few key executives recognized the need for a significant intervention.
We worked with the large Board, executive team, and pivotal leaders regularly over three years. We helped to set a bold new direction, facilitated alignment of Board, executive, and staff, and built leadership capacity in new value creation, accountability, collaboration, and innovation. Together we shifted momentum, built confidence, established new leadership and Board operating systems, and repositioned the enterprise. This paved the way for new product development and true innovation.
Bricks and mortar not enough
This client was a market-leading national retailer whose results had flattened. High turnover, low engagement scores, and talent burnout were widespread. Store managers were moved and promoted rapidly, with or without the tools to develop people, deal with underperformers, and build team accountability. Results were inconsistent across the country.
For years, the organization had captured a buoyant market by building boxes – lots of dots on city maps. Geographic expansion trumped talent development. Inevitably, that strategy peaked. At the same time, a major American competitor announced its entry into the Canadian market. Now, top line results would rely on talent, and top talent would need to be protected.
Store managers were identified as the key point of leverage. We delivered a series of two-day leader development programs across the country, to upload readily-usable tools for coaching, feedback, difficult conversations, and accountability. This has become the leadership operating system, spreading throughout the enterprise, maximizing the contribution of people. It was a cost-effective solution for a large-scale challenge. Stickiness and traction are strong; business results have followed.
CEO not getting traction
This client was led by a newish-to-the-enterprise CEO with real leadership vision. He had industry experience and a strategy. He thought this strategy had been clearly articulated to his executive team, and he could not understand why the team wasn’t picking it up. Results were not what he expected. This is a common CEO narrative.
The executive team experienced a moving dartboard. Leaders had no clear line-of-sight to what the CEO was trying to accomplish. Some tried to give him what he wanted; effort and resources were wasted while people tried to deliver what they didn’t understand. Team members were not prepared or equipped to give real feedback. Frustration was high, silos and conflict prevailed, mutual support and trust were low. Results were falling short.
We spent a day with the CEO, facilitating his ability to articulate what he wanted, tell stories, and build clarity. We led a series of retreats with the executive team which included honest, open dialogue about the preferred future and how to get there together. We coached some key executives. All of this exposed a misaligned executive, a long-time senior employee who needed to leave. That was the turning point.
HR needs a new people strategy
This client had pursued dynamic growth for years, culminating in a high-stakes, once-in-a-lifetime international event. Employees experienced the focused pressure of a major capital investment and building phase. Then there was the all-hands-on-deck intensity of event preparation and successful execution. For years, the enterprise was focused on this outcome. Then it was over, and people were left with the seemingly boring process of running a great business.
HR leaders knew the hazards of stagnation. There was no dramatic, compelling story. It was time for cost containment, service orientation, operational excellence, and value creation. Talent was leaving, the employee cohort was aging, and the enterprise needed bright young stars. HR decided to engage key leaders and champions from across the enterprise, to tap best thinking in a new people strategy. They needed a process.
We led this group of leaders through Continuous Value Creation™. They envisioned a preferred future, grounded in the realities of diverse stakeholders, regulatory complexity, and competing client agendas. They defined new corporate values. They set a clear people strategy, focused on creativity, collaboration, and accountability. Then we delivered a series of learning experiences, equipping a broad group of leaders to reengage, and to reengage their people.
Leader development can be transformative
This leader was a junior executive who was largely invisible on the executive team. Although he had considerable responsibility, worked hard, and executed well, he lacked presence. His contribution to strategic decisions was limited, and he operated in the shadow of his boss. He was a founding employee of the enterprise, but after a decade he was questioning whether to stay.
The CEO of this enterprise was an exceptional public presenter and story-teller. The power of this talent was much recognized and valued. During a series of leader development initiatives, we introduced Story + Voice, an intensive, highly experiential program for small cohorts of high-potential leaders.
The junior executive was an early participant. At some point during the two-day intensive, he found his authentic leadership voice. He risked, stretched, went all-in, and emerged with new leadership capacity and confidence. With characteristic excellence in execution, he then put the tools and techniques to work. In a couple of large-group presentations with senior leaders in the room, he performed beyond all expectations and began his rise to real impact. He is a gifted leader, and is now being developed as a successor to the CEO. His is one of the most powerful shifts in executive behaviour we have ever seen.
Enterprise comp too high
This client’s success was closely tied to a cohort of high-performing sales leaders and their clients. But the compensation model was askew; the commission / expense / fee structure for sales leaders and their clients was individually profitable but organizationally unsustainable. A new model was needed to support the enterprise long-term, and to deliver required profit margins to stakeholders.
The enterprise was known for its culture of close-knit family, and that was a key talent attractor. Major change to compensation would be seen as callous rather than caring, threatening that culture. Many sales leaders were to earn less, while convincing their clients to stay and pay more. Enterprise leaders faced significant risks: loss of talent, loss of business, erosion of culture.
We designed and delivered a series of interventions, beginning with smaller sales advisory groups and building to large-scale, one-day communication and learning experiences. We used theatre and creative process to bring the business reality, and the preferred future, alive. We facilitated deep engagement, critical conversations, and transparency. The comp model was changed, sales people outperformed industry standards, and the company continually exceeds targets in market share and profitability. It is now building influence as an industry innovator.
Can this leader be CEO
This client had recruited a gifted technical expert from a large American industrial plant, to serve as COO and ultimately CEO of a smaller Canadian enterprise. He was hand-picked by the CEO for his subject matter expertise, big heart, and great attitude. The CEO was an astute, savvy, exceptionally skilled leader without technical expertise, and she had committed to a limited term.
With succession on the horizon, the Board became concerned. The COO did not bring political intelligence and polish anywhere close to the current CEO. The organization was a big presence in a small community, answering to massive stakeholders largely focused elsewhere. The local talent pool was small and people needed development. The operating environment was highly regulated and invited intense public attention. To say that political intelligence was essential to the enterprise would be to understate the obvious.
We were invited to coach the COO, as part of a larger leader development initiative. During that coaching, he made the leadership choice to change. We used our Design Next: Your Personal Leadership™ process to facilitate an important turning point. He was appointed CEO. He has become exceptional at reading terrain, honing the team, telling the story, securing projects and funding, and creating the conditions for success.
Executives must model the way
This client had been characterized by slow and steady growth, based on a philosophical orientation shared by long-time Board, staff, and clients. Although the pace was deliberate, the culture had become calcified. A new CEO understood that transformation was essential to survival. He brought laser focus, entrepreneurial drive, and a desire to move quickly. Initially, he was not winning.
We began to work with the CEO, facilitating executive team retreats and helping shift team composition. As we worked together, the question formed: once I get the right people off and on the bus, and I know the preferred future, what do I need from this group of leaders to get there? This CEO knew that his executives were the key to change. If he could get the executive team operating at its highest level, he believed they could model the way, and move the culture.
We led a collaborative process to define leadership, co-creating nine custom competencies that became the team’s guiding light. Then we defined the behaviours that demonstrated each competency, and used those to create a custom 360° leader feedback tool. Executives knew exactly what they needed to do, and how they would be measured. By committing to these behaviours, they would model the way to renewal. Based on industry metrics, this enterprise is now leading in its field.