Dick and Emily Axelrod: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

AxelrodsDick and Emily Axelrod come from a long line of entrepreneurs. So it was no surprise when in 1981 Dick left General Foods to form The Axelrod Group. At the time Emily was studying to get her second masters degree, in Social Work.

At the same time as Dick was leaving General Foods, his friend and colleague Jim Shonk landed a huge contract with Ford and needed help. This kickstart from Jim was just what the fledgling Axelrod Group needed to get started. Emily in the meantime was honing her skills as a family therapist. Periodically, Emily would work with Dick to conduct communication skills training programs.

During the early 1990’s, Dick was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the approach most consulting firms were using to bring about organizational change. You know the process: it consists of sponsor groups, steering teams, and project groups, all organized to create the change. When these groups finished their work, they then faced the arduous task of “selling” their solution to the organization. This need to sell the solution brought many a change process to its knees.

Out of this dissatisfaction, Dick and Emily developed the Conference Model®–a process for involving the “whole system” in creating organizational change. Every new idea needs someone who is willing to try something that is unproven, and Ken Goldstien, who at the time was Director of Organization Development at R.R. Donnelley and Sons, was willing to give this untested idea a chance when no one else would. Because of the early success at R.R. Donnelley, companies like Boeing, British Airways, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, INOVA Health System, Weyerhauser, and the Canadian and UK health systems were able to benefit.

At the height of this innovation, Dick had triple bypass surgery, and that is when Emily jumped into The Axelrod Group with both feet. Along the way, colleagues have joined the Axelrod team, and this worldwide network provides a range of skills that enrich The Axelrod Group’s offerings.

Dick wrote Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations, published by Berrett-Koehler (May 2000) with a paperbound edition published in 2010. He and Emily then co-authored Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done, also published by Berrett-Koehler (August 2014).

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Before discussing Terms of Engagement and then Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Dick: This is a hard question. I’ve had many professional teachers from whom I’ve learned a lot about people and change, but as I reflect on this I believe the roots of who I am took place with my father.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from my dad that I carry with me today.

o Do what you love: My father manufactured model airplanes. He took his hobby and made it into a successful business. His work was an extension of who he was.

o Work is dignified: No matter what anyone does, their work should be treated with respect.

o Treat everyone with respect: This is a companion to work is dignified. Both the work and the person doing the work deserve respect.

o Stand up for what you believe: My father single-handedly stopped a race riot by saying no to a group of organizers who came to our house to enlist his support for creating the riot.

o Take care of your family: My father’s will had provisions for the care of his mother-in-law, something he didn’t have to do.

o It’s possible to be a friendly competitor—this is an abundant world where everyone can make a living: My dad had personal relationships with his biggest competitors. In fact his biggest competitor came to Emily’s and my wedding.

o Honesty: Be ethical and honest in all your personal and business relationships.

o It pays to be ignorant: Today it might be stated as, “Have an inquiring mindset.” What he meant was you don’t have to have all the answers, and you can learn a lot by listening to others.

o Personal responsibility: When I was a teenager, my dad told me that if I got a girl pregnant he would not support my family. That was his way of saying that you have to take personal responsibility for what you do.

o Support your friends: If you were my dad’s friend, he would be there for you no matter what. If a widow in Toledo, Ohio needed help, our whole family took a trip to Toledo. If a friend was sick or dying, Dad would drop what he was doing to be with them. If a friend were out of work, he would find a job for him in his company or help that person make connections so they could find work.

o Stick-to-it-iveness: My father spent ten years developing a product called monokote that revolutionized how people covered and painted airplanes. Instead of covering your airplane with paper and then applying many coats of “dope” to get a shiny finish, with monokote (a mylar material) and a heat gun you could put a finish on your plane in a matter of minutes instead of hours. You also didn’t smell up the house, which my mother hated. Dad also invented a heat gun to apply the product because none existed in the market place. There is another lesson here, which is to find out the problems customers have when they use your products and then invent new ways to help them resolve those problems. In this case, time and disgruntled family members who didn’t like the house smelling like a paint factory.

Emily: Besides my parents, one of the first teachers to mention human relations to me was a ninth-grade English teacher: Ms. Fanny Burnett. Every week we had a human relations lesson. This stuck with me through the years and was reinforced through the youth group advisors at church, volunteers in the girl scouts, and other teachers along the way. Another important teacher was Sandra Hammond who is a therapist and Buddhist teacher with whom I studied for 10 years learning her Character Work method and being in a study group with her. She combined the study of Buddhism and family therapy. Also, Dick Axelrod probably has been the greatest influence. We have worked and grown together for 35 years. He is completely honest with me and I trust his feedback.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Emily: At first, my family, then the girl scouts as they taught me I could do anything I worked hard to do and really wanted. A chemistry teacher in high school turned me on to science. The women’s college I attended in NC added to that with leadership training and confidence building. Dick Axelrod, Peter Block, Marv Weisbord, Kathy Dannemiller, Peter Koestenbaum, Barbara Bunker, Billie Alban, and my own curiosity built on this foundation.

Dick: Richard Heckler. Years ago Emily and I studied body therapy for two years in a group of people with Richard. This group was so strong that it stayed together for many years following the completion of our formal studies. In this group I learned the connection between mind and body, and how what is happening with the body is as important as what is happening with the mind and emotions. While we were there to learn the mechanics of doing body therapy—how to help people access different thoughts and emotions through touch—I also learned a more important lesson: the power of presence. By this I mean what it means to be with another person so they know they have your undivided attention. Can you see the world through their eyes? Can you experience what they might be experience? Can you attend to their breathing out and breathing in, the rush of color to their face, the nervous movement of their feet? Can you absorb this information in a non-judgmental way and just be with the person? This ability to be with another person in a non-judgmental way, recognizing they are doing the very best they can is something I use everyday whether I’m consulting to individuals, teams, or organizations.

I learned that paying attention is an act of leadership. What and how you pay attention matters.

The other big lesson was that you access different information through the body. One time we were working with a group of about 100 people using our Conference Model® process to redesign the organization. There were three different alternatives that people were trying to evaluate. We had the participants create living organization charts. What we did was outline the organization charts on the floor and then had people stand in the various configurations to look at who they were working with and who they needed to work with. We did this for each configuration and then asked folks to identify the chart where they felt most comfortable. I remember one person who was in a matrix standing there with her arms outstretched caught between two organizations, talking about how painful it was to be in this place in the organization. In actuality the group developed a fourth option as a result of their discussion. Identifying the pain and actually trying out what it might be like to be in the various organizational structures could not occur through talking; people had to experience it. I doubt if the group would have ever come up with the fourth option had they not experienced it.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Dick: I was a line manager for Illinois Bell, in a fast-track management development program, responsible for repair service for one part of Chicago. My group was the pilot organization development group for the company. The consultants did basic team-building with us and as a result, our group rose to be 1st or 2nd in every measurable category. The thing I felt proudest about was that every day we put 85 trucks on the street and we went a year without a vehicle accident. We didn’t do any special safety training. All we did was change the relationship between the telephone workers and their supervisors.

Shortly afterwards, the company started an internal organization development consulting group and I volunteered to be part of that group. I was also getting my MBA at the University of Chicago and decided to take up Organization Behavior as my area of concentration. From Illinois Bell I went to General Foods and became the OD manager for Chicago where I worked on implementing self-directed work teams. In 1981 I left General Foods to start the Axelrod Group.

Had my group at Illinois Bell not been chosen as the pilot group, my career as it is today may not have happened.

Parallel to this story is the decision not to join my father’s business. All my life I was groomed as the heir apparent. In fact, working at Illinois Bell was part of my father’s management training program for me. He wanted me to go out and work for big companies and learn how they did things so that when I took over his company, I could bring that learning to the world of model airplane manufacturing.

I took seriously my father’s admonition to do what I loved, and when I found out that organization development consulting is what I love, he never had a problem with that. Even though it meant I would not take over the business he built.

Emily: I don’t recall an epiphany as I have always looked for better ways of doing things no matter what we were doing, from parenting to ways of working. If there was a turning point, it was Dick’s heart surgery. I then had to take over the business side of our company as I was in charge. That a commitment to learning and working more much more determination.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Emily: My formal education gave me a wonderful foundation. My social work and family systems work certainly helped in understanding systems and the communication needed to have a successfully functioning system. The concept of emotional safety in order for people to be honest and learning how to language things positively all help. The two things I believe in strongly are learning and choice. This work is about both of these.

Dick: I was lucky enough to go to the University of Chicago on the GI bill. Much of what I learned at the UofC is now obsolete. But what is not obsolete is that at the University of Chicago I learned how to learn. I learned how to think critically about ideas and not to accept that just because someone wrote a book it was true. What was great about a UofC education was that in every course you didn’t just have one text, you had several, and most of the time the authors espoused different theories. It is this learning how to learn that I think has allowed me to continue to stay relevant in our fast-changing world.

At our graduation, in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, our commencement speaker said, “You think you are getting your business degree today that will allow you to become leaders in the world of business and that you will do. But UofC graduates do more than that, they teach.” He went on to say, “I predict that most of you will at some point in your career teach either informally in your work setting or formally at schools and universities.”

One of the biggest thrills of my life has been to teach Crisis Leadership at the University of Chicago.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Emily: The business world is not always a friendly place to humans. Who you work for is very important! Listening to others is a key skill for a while before you chime in so you get the lay of the land.

You need to work with a leader who can nurture his people around change, and adapt and protect them enough to get it done without too many other things disturbing the change.

Most importantly, you need to do work you believe in and like to do.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Dick: I think Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society teaches valuable leadership principles. The most important are the ability to think for yourself and not swallow things whole without questioning, as well as speaking out in word and deed. He helps the boys find courage within themselves to not take the easy way out. In the business setting, I think one of the most courageous things you can do is speak out. There are countless examples of tragedies that occurred because people did not have the courage to speak out or they were ignored when they did. The Columbia and Challenger disasters are two that come to mind. The important thing is that in the moment, you do not know the impact of speaking out or not speaking out. It is only in retrospect that we know the consequences. Had the shuttles returned safely, not speaking out would have no consequence. It is only because they didn’t return safely do we understand the consequence of not speaking out. The problem is that in the moment you don’t know what will happen because you did or didn’t speak out.

From which nonbusiness book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Dick: I love the quote from Bernhard Schlink’s book The Reader: “The truth in what one says lies in what one does.” This is another important leadership lesson; how many times have we seen high-sounding corporate vision and values statements only to see leaders operating on a daily basis in complete contradiction to what they say they stand for. What we see on a daily basis is what we believe.

Emily: Marv Weisbord’s Productive Workplaces. I probably learned more from this book as I share the values it espouses, and it has lots of stories to illustrate the ideas. I believe in learning and experimenting and finding folks to learn from. Marv illustrates this in his book as well as gives us historical prospective.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Emily: That speaks to what I believe. The people have the knowledge of how the work is done, start where they are, and go from there. That is what family therapy is all about. When they have reached a healthy point, they think they have done it themselves. They have, as they do most of the work. It is just the questioning, observations, and thinking that lead to insight and actions.

Dick: I’m currently reading Teaming by Amy Edmondson. I love this book because it provides the research behind much of what I’ve learned through trial and error as a consultant. It speaks to the power of learning and involvement as the keys to developing ownership for ideas in an organization. What Amy talks about and I strongly agree with is that the role of the leader is to pose important questions to their organization, and then join with the organization in discovering the answers. In that way, you get more than ownership; you get an organization that learns and is able to adapt rapidly to a turbulent environment.

From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Dick: This reminds me of our early experience with the Conference Model®, our process for involving large groups of people in process and organizational design. Most people were sure it wouldn’t work and that the results would not be as good as the work done by small groups led by expert consultants. We had to persist with the idea until Ken Goldstein (head of training and organization development at RR Donnelley and Sons, the largest printer in North America) was willing to try it. I wouldn’t say we had to ram it down Ken’s throat as he got the concept immediately; rather we had to persist with an idea until someone believed in it.

Emily: I disagree with that one. My experience is if they are good, people use them and think they are their own or don’t remember where they got them from.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Emily: Yes, the world moves very fast and new ideas spring up all the time. Flavor-of-the-month comes to mind. It is the underpinnings of those ideas or essence that I think are important.

It is like the Conference Model® — involve people in the work they do — that is now beginning to take hold (stakeholders). I think many of the ideas are like buying new clothes: it is fashion, but we still need the covering, which is the essence. When the essence changes, that is real change.

We are now dealing with complexity and speed. We haven’t yet figured out the best ways to do these two together, but we are working on it.

Dick: When I first started doing OD consulting, team-building was seen as a revolutionary process. Today when you talk to people about team-building, the response is, “Been there, done that.”

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Dick: What I love about this quote is it encapsulates the idea that what is important is learning and discovery. It’s looking at something new and unexpected not as the answer, but as the point of new discovery. For example, going back to our experience with the Conference Model®, the greatest thing for us was not that it worked, but continually to ask why it worked and under what conditions, and what is necessary for success, or what could we do differently?

Emily: I like that one. What is odd, curious, not clear but there. In an exercise we do on design, we call it the interesting idea.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Emily: Great one. Thinking things through and planning as effectively and lean as we can is certainly best. I have found that simple is best. One needs to work hard to get to simple.

In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision-making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Dick: Today’s organizations are so complex that the answers to the issues facing them do not reside in any one person. What is necessary is to bring diversity of thought and experience to the issue so that innovative responses can be developed to address the complexity facing the organization.

Emily: I think it depends. What is the time limit, who has information, who is impacted, who is responsible, who is the expert, who thinks differently—I prefer a team of all of the above, but if it is crisis then I can phone a friend, pick the best, confer, and go for it. I think there are few times when only one person has to make the decision.

I also believe that many smart leaders today have a close group of people they trust to advise them and confer with. They usually leave out the bottom part of the organization and that is a mistake. They know how the business works in a different way and have a different point of view.

The world is too complex and moves too fast for one person to keep up. We need more than one mind doing the decision-making.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Emily: If companies could be so wise as to choose their mistakes that would be great. All of them have mistakes and need to learn from them. The learning from them is what we need to emphasize, and the ability to make mistakes needs to be supported and not punished. That is how we learn. I would say choose their best guess for a mistake. “What do we want to be blamed for?” comes to mind.

In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Dick: At one level they know they can’t control everything and if that fear takes over, the desire to control takes over. They face enormous pressure to deliver results and know they will be held accountable. The C level executives I have known who delegate well do not subscribe to “the great man” theory; they set clear aspirational goals, provide necessary support, and trust their people to act in the best interests of the organization. They are not naïve, and when that trust is violated, they deal with it immediately.

Emily: Many of them have gotten to this position because they think they have controlled things below them. Letting go of that control is difficult. Many feel responsible and think they can do it better themselves as their experience has shown them through the years. Ego is another reason.

Some founders get to a point where the business they build has outgrown them and they need to broaden their mindset. This can wreak havoc with one’s identity and that is a challenge for most of us. We have to work really hard and have good coaches to understand and change on that one.

The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Emily: People learn through story. I remember sitting around the campfire telling stories. The Bible is full of stories. Tell me a good story and I remember and think about it. I repeat it and learn from it. I apply the learning. I understand why we are doing what we are doing in my organization.

Stories are in our DNA.

Dick: The stories get the point across in a way that no PowerPoint presentation ever will. Powerful stories live long after the storyteller. Good stories communicate what is important in a way that connects the heart and the mind. Authenticity is the key to good storytelling.

In working with leaders to create a compelling purpose for their change process. Leaders usually start out with what is often called management speak. They give us all the logical reasons why its good for the business, why its good for the customers, etc, etc, and everyone’s eyes glaze over. However, when we ask them to talk about why this change is important to them at personal level, why they are willing to address their own time and energy in this project, what difference it will make to them at a personal and professional level, everything changes. There is excitement in their voice, they sit up, color comes to their face, their eyes get brighter. That is when we know they have a good story. We are not asking them to become orators or actors, we are asking them to speak from the heart about what is important to them. Not everyone can be a Dr. Martin Luther King but everyone can speak from the heart, if they choose and with that comes a good story.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Dick: The short answer is to recognize that any serious change initiative will run smack into the current culture. You ignore culture at your own peril. The old saying, “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” is true. Any serious change initiative must seek to understand the current culture, its assumptions and beliefs, and how this culture will support or hinder your change effort. Then you must design your change initiative so that it reflects the culture you are trying to create as a result of this change. The answer to this question could be a whole book. I heartily recommend Ed Schein’s The Manager’s Corporate Culture Survival Guide.

Emily: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Involve the people in the change and let them build it. The resistance is normal. Work with those who are willing to change. Let people have time and place to make meaning of the change for themselves. We don’t eat a meal in one bite. We have many bites and digestion takes hours. Those who just cannot change will limp along or leave.

In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Emily: In working with people around emotional intelligence and neuroscience. Put some emphasis on people and don’t just emphasize the technical. That is the most easily learned. Have them work in groups and debrief the experience. Many MBAs today are working in groups, but never debrief their experience and learn from it. Also know yourself and your blind spots and then ask how you can compensate for those.

Dick: Some schools are beginning to recognize that in addition to the traditional business courses, they have to teach leadership and how to work within as well as lead teams.

In my leadership class, the biggest challenge I face is teaching students that if we are to become an effective learning community, the old behaviors of showing the teacher you are the smartest one in the class do not work. You have to be willing to learn from others and contribute to others learning if you are going to get the most learning from the class.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Dick: I think it’s figuring out how to lead organizations that are increasingly complex. Organizations will continue to become diverse along almost every dimension imaginable: culture, geography, time, expertise, and customers, to name a few.

Emily: I think it will be speed of change and increased complexity. People will not have the skills and emotional intelligence to deal with these changes. We are experiencing this now. It will also be dealing with different cultures across large companies and figuring this out. We have only begun to do this. What I would advise is to have the leadership do personal growth where they look at themselves and what is holding them back. Check out the book Immunity to Change.

When was The Axelrod Group founded? To what extent (if any) has its mission changed since then? Please explain.

Emily: The Axelrod Group was founded in 1981. We help organizations transform successfully by engaging the ‘whole system’ to build the change. The mission has become clearer, but the essence has not changed.

Dick: At a personal level, I wanted to be my own boss. At another level, it was to make the world a better place by changing the experience people have at work so they don’t feel dehumanized as a result of their work experience. While I admire the issues social activists take on, like the environment, those issues felt too big for me. I wanted to do something at a local level that would make a difference in people’s lives. I used to say, not so facetiously, that our goal was to make organizations safe for people.

The goal has recently changed to getting our ideas about people, organizations, and how they change out into the world so that others can use them and improve upon them.

What is the Conference Model® process and what are its unique capabilities?

Emily: The Conference Model® process is created so that many people can participate in a high-level redesign of a process or system. It originally consisted of an offering of vision, customer, technical, design, and implementation conference. It has since been combined in multiple ways to fit client needs. Each conference has a core group of stakeholders who stay the course, and others who are impacted, have special information, have authority, or think differently are invited to participate. People typically are given questions or tasks to accomplish in timeframes, and then share their ideas with the total group. The activities are designed so they build one upon another. Thus the vision conference’s output is a vison, the technical is the top 10 gaps in the process or service as well as the wanted norms of the organization, and the design is a new framework design. The customer conference is to get customer input into the design or service. This has been folded into the vision conference. Customers are usually included in places where their input is useful. After each conference, the results are shared with all of the group or organization and their input is taken into the next conference.

What is unique is the number of people that can input into a design, and thus the implementation is faster as people own what they help to create.

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Dick and Emily cordially invite you to check out the resources at this website.

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