Dick and Emily Axelrod: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris


Dick 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).

* * *

When and why did you decide to write Terms of Engagement?

Dick: It was in 1998 when we were working with Peter Block in what he called the School for Managing and Leading Change. The school brought together teams from the for-profit and not-for-profit world in a series of workshops to learn about organizational change. Each team came with a change project in mind that they worked on during the school. If a team from a for-profit organization wanted to come to the school, they had to fund a not-for-profit team’s tuition. It was in the school where Emily and I learned that our ideas had currency in a larger context than our own consulting clients. People were always asking, “When are you going to write your book?” Finally, I got the courage to do so.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

The first was that I was a terrible writer and needed help. Our son, who is a very good writer, read the first chapter and said it was awful, he was bored to death, and many other not so positive compliments which I probably have repressed. I had a conversation with Richard Heckler one day about my frustration with writing and he said, “You are not a professional writer; what you need is a writing coach.” So I went out and found one and have continued to use a writing coach for every book I have written.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

I think it shifted from a tool book to a book of core principles because core principles are the most powerful tool anyone can have. Every organization is different and there is not a one-size-fits-all change process. But if you have a set of core principles to follow, you can approach any situation with confidence. This was driven home to me when we worked with Boeing Engineering following the strike in 2000. The goal was to increase what we now would call employee engagement following the strike. Actually it was to renew the culture and heal the wounds following the strike. I had a great client in Hank Queen, to whom I could say, “I don’t know how to do this, but here are some principles I think we should follow.” Hank got it and his story is in the second edition of Terms of Engagement.

You assert that this “is the first book to challenge the widely accepted change management paradigm.” What are that paradigm’s core principles and values?

Here’s a graphic:


Most of the companies annually ranked among the most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those that are most profitable and have the great cap value in their industry. Presumably you agree with me that that is not a coincidence.

How right you are. What these companies are doing is unleashing the power of their intellectual capital. This occurs when people experience meaning, challenge, learning, autonomy, and feedback in their work. When they know their voice counts and they are proud of what the company stands for and its place in the community.

I’m currently working with an American manufacturing company in Turkey to improve employee engagement. One of the things the company has going for it is people are proud to work for an American company. When they need a loan at the bank, they get a better rate because they are seen as being less likely to default on the loan, and their neighbors and family think more highly of them because they are working for an American company. Additionally, because the company’s product is used in pharmaceuticals and making baby formula, they feel proud to be helping improve people’s health.

As you already know, major research conducted by reputable firms such as Gallup and Towers Watson indicate that, on average, less than 30% of the workforce in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged; the others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the company’s success. In your opinion, what’s the problem?

I think there are several reasons:

First, I would go back to meaning, challenge, autonomy, learning, and feedback. The extent to which these are missing in a job or the work environment, the more disengaged people become. Many people feel under-utilized at work. They feel confined, with little opportunity to use their full talents, and that in many ways they have to leave the best part of themselves at home.

Second is the breakdown of the old contract between the employee and the employer. When people experience that the company owes them no allegiance, they put less energy into the work. There are also employees who fell entitled and that they don’t owe the company anything for their paycheck. They act as independent contractors where their first allegiance is to themselves and they owe little or nothing to their employer.

Third is the “engagement industry” of which I guess I am a part. Many organizations are touting the benefits of employee engagement, increased productivity, customer satisfaction, safety, and even health. However, they approach employee engagement as something to be done to people.

I believe engagement is a choice that both leaders and employees make. Leaders choose to create the kind of work environment where people may choose a higher level of engagement. Employees choose the level at which they engage in their work. Once leaders recognize that authentic engagement is a choice everyone makes, that leaders can create conditions where engagement can flourish, but in the end people will choose to engage or not, that changes everything. It’s the difference between ordering people to join you and inviting people to join you, knowing that some will not accept your invitation.

Finally, what I learned in working with Hank Queen at Boeing was that when you ask people what they care about at work and why, and then help them find ways to have more of what they care about show up at work on a regular basis, both the organization and people benefit. In his case, there were productivity improvements of more than 25%.

To what extent are supervisors responsible for the problem?

What the research says is that leaders have a great deal of influence, but I think it is easy to blame supervisors for the lack of engagement. The way a supervisor treats the people who work for him or her does influence their engagement, but its more complex than that.
Supervisors work within a system and culture where they may or may not feel engaged. They may feel constrained by the culture and system in the way they would like to operate.

Which strategies and tactics do you recommend to improve the percentages?

These seem to be especially effective:

1. Involve people in change that impacts them.

2. Design jobs and teams where there is meaning, autonomy, challenge, learning. and feedback.

3. Go beyond the numbers. The goal should not be to improve the numbers. Rather the goal is to create an engaging work environment and the numbers are measures of how well you are doing. Be careful with surveys and look for other results and unintended consequences. As a PhD scientist once told me, when you decide the measures ahead of time, that is all you will see, and significant findings and learning’s may go unnoticed.

4. If you are a leader at any level, engage people in a mutual conversation about what you care about at work and why. Also ask this question in a team environment. Then ask what people can do to bring more of what people care about at work into work on a daily basis. You will be glad you did.

Most M&As either fail or fall far short of the original “high hopes and expectations.” In your opinion, what is the primary cause?

What I have seen is that the acquiring company falls in love with the idea of the acquisition, maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks. When you merge two companies, the key task is to integrate the two cultures. A lot of emphasis is put on integrating business systems, and little emphasis is placed on integrating cultures.

Which strategies and tactics do you recommend to improve an M&A’s chances for success?

As the organizations begin to integrate business systems of the two organizations, leadership must create a compelling purpose for the new organization that employees in both organizations can support. As the work to integrate business systems goes forward, this work should examine the culture of both organizations and how “the way we do things around here” in each organization supports and hinders the success of the new organization. They should examine their current beliefs and behaviors, and the new beliefs and behaviors that will be required for success. They can then begin to explore how to operate in a way that is consistent with those beliefs and behaviors.

In my opinion, the exit interview is potentially one of the most valuable learning opportunities an organization can make possible and yet one of the least successful when conducted, if indeed is it conducted. What do you think?

The loss of a good employee often represents a failure on either the organization’s part or leadership’s part. It is often difficult for people to examine failures and treat this as a learning experience.

An abundance of research data generated by employees and customers clearly indicates that feeling appreciated [end italics] is ranked wither #1 0r #2 in terms of what is most important to them. What do you make of that?

We were working with an organization that had tried to improve employee engagement by using an engagement survey. In looking at the results of their previous engagement survey, the appreciation scores were low. The leadership decided to initiate a recognition program complete with company clothing and trinkets. A year later the appreciation scores were still low. We suggested that leadership talk with employees and discuss the results to understand why people responded the way they did. Overwhelmingly, people said they wanted to be appreciated for the long hours they were working and be thanked for their work. They wanted leaders to appreciate the problems they were having with a software system that did not work as designed, and their support in getting the system to work correctly.

With new insights about what appreciation meant to people, the appreciation scores improved.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which civility is most likely to thrive?

Here are my three, not necessarily in the order of importance.

Fairness: There needs to be a belief that the processes, the way people are treated, and the outcomes in the company are fair to both employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Honesty: A sense that all transactions in the company are conducted in an honest and straightforward manner.

Trust: What is absolutely essential between leaders and employees. Employees trust leaders and leaders trust employees to do the right thing and work in a way that has the best interests of the organization at heart. There is a reciprocal trust that occurs.

Now please shift your attention to Let’s Stop Meeting Like This. When and why did you decide to write it, and do so in collaboration?

Emily: We decided to do so as many of our clients had been using the main idea of the Meeting Canoe™ and were asking for more. We had some time as I was ill and had to rest and stay home, so we decided to write it. We found it a fun way to think together. We enjoy batting around ideas.

Dick: We wrote this book because we thought we had something different to say about meetings. Namely that meetings are the factory floor of knowledge work and it’s important to think about meetings as productive work experiences. We believe that meetings transform when you design them to be productive work experiences, when they carry the electric charge of meaning, autonomy, feedback, challenge, and learning. We thought more was needed than the conventional wisdom that says the way to improve meetings is to shorten them. Our clients love our Meeting Canoe™ model and we wanted to make that available to all.

We decided to write the book together because we think differently, and we are much better together than we are alone.

You introduced the concept of the Meeting Canoe in 2004, in You Don’t Have to Do It Alone. What is it and what are its primary functions?

Dick: The Meeting Canoe™ is our template for a successful meeting, be it a meeting of two or two hundred. Its purpose is to provide a guide for a successful gathering when people meet. The Welcome and Connect People to Each Other and The Task sections build a foundation for the meeting by creating a safe-enough environment between people, and creating a focus on the task of the meeting. Discover the Way Things Are helps people learn about the way things are. The operative word is “discover.” Here people engage in activities and conversations to make sense of the current situation. Elicit People’s Dreams is where people talk about their hopes and possibilities for their preferred future. Decide on Next Steps is where people make decisions about what they want to do based on their understanding of where they are now and what they want for the future. Attend to The End puts closure on the work. A good ending reviews the decisions made, identifies next steps, and provides an opportunity for the group to examine how they worked together and how they can learn from this meeting experience.

Emily: The Meeting Canoe™ was the way we had been designing meetings for a long time. And we put it into You Don’t Have to do It Alone as we thought it would help people think about designing large meetings. It provides a structure for meeting design, and stresses the importance of beginning to create psychological safety and begin to build trust. It also focuses on endings, which many meetings tend to leave out.


Why a canoe rather than, for example, an ATV?

Emily: The canoe concept came from our designer, Bob von Elgg. Bob knows our work and helped us come up with this idea. Dick had it as a complicated cube, which I could not understand.

The idea of a canoe to me is that it is moving though the waters—the movement of business. It is wider between the reality and dream segment—more open to possibilities—and has a beginning and end (bow and stern). For me, it goes along with planning a canoe trip. There is preparation for the trip and all that we know might occur, then debrief and the planning for the next trip. It is a good metaphor. For example, if a meeting might be a rough go, you could speak of rough waters and what first-aid or life-saving devices you need. Do we need to portage? I could go on.

Dick: The canoe began as a cube, because I have an engineering background. People hated it and our publisher couldn’t make sense of it in 2004. We asked our graphic artist, Bob von Elgg, to come up with a graphic that worked. He developed the Meeting Canoe,™ which we loved and found that our clients readily accepted. Because it was love at first sight for so many people, we didn’t really consider other alternatives.

Who or what is Clockman”?

Clockman_200Dick: Golly, I thought you would never ask about me. I’m Clockman, protector of the precious minute. My role in the book is to keep Dick and Emily honest. You know sometimes they are just too idealistic, especially Dick. Emily is much more practical. I’m here to give voice to the objections people have to what Dick and Emily are saying in their book. After all, someone has to be realistic.

People have a love-hate relationship with me. Fortunately, the majority of early reviewers loved me more than hated me (80% loved me, 20% hated me). So, I got to stay in the book. It was touch and go there for a while, but I’m so glad I made it through the reviews, and if I do say so myself, I make a valuable contribution to Let’s Stop Meeting Like This.

Emily: Clockman is the cynical voice of those like myself who want to get down to business, do the work and move on, not thinking of the psychological preparation a team needs to get work done, especially a new group. Time is of the essence and just do it. This usually leads to a lot of lost knowledge, having to redo the work, and not getting all the input that is needed.

Over the years, I’ve chaired at least 250-300 meetings and attended at least another 500. As I think about them, I realize now that a majority of them were unnecessary, except to serve cosmetic (i.e. political) or legal purposes. Is that true of meetings in general? Please explain.

Dick: Many meetings are held without a clear purpose, for example: a team that always meets on Wednesday at 2:00 pm. They become a habit, and like many habits we do them without thinking about them. Whenever we meet it is important to know why we are meeting and what you want to be different because this group of people met. If you can’t answer these questions, then your meeting is probably unnecessary.

Emily: Nowadays with people living and working in organizations that are a matrix design, global, and more complex, there is the need for more coordination and decision-making together. Thus a need to meet.
Personally, I still believe the first question to ask is, “Is this meeting necessary?” as we advocate in Meeting Basics.

Since there are more meetings, many more people are wondering what their role is. That is why we are advocating for people to ask why they need to be in a meeting if they don’t know, and to consider the meeting’s work. It is still true in some systems that people consider they need to be there to be politic. I don’t think this will go away, but perhaps we can help people make that explicit for themselves.

Thus ask, if necessary, get clear on purpose, and if I am a participant, ask what I can contribute and what I can get to help my work.

Paraphrasing Sun Tzu’s assertion that every battle is won or lost before it is fought, I think the success or failure of a meeting is determined before it occurs. What do you think?

Emily: Well, I think the planning is key. And I have seen many redesigns get decided in the meeting. This does not mean that conversations don’t occur outside of the formal meeting structure. In fact I want them to as they bring that into the conversation in the meeting. I have seen a design for a department turn on one vote.
It depends entirely on the culture of the system one is working in.
When you bring many people together, you do not know until they get started with the conversation what the outcome may be. I now know the elements of the outcomes typically in the first half of most meeting, of a day in length.

Dick: Absolutely. The keys to successful planning include:

o Identifying the meeting’s purpose.
o Having clear boundaries, including what is open for discussion, not open for discussion, and where and how long you will meet.
o Selection of those to include in the meeting.
o The decision-making process that will be used in the meeting.
o Preparing the room so it supports the work of the meeting.
o Involving a microcosm of the participants in the meeting’s design.

Are there some general guidelines that apply to all meetings, whatever their size and nature may be? Please explain.

Dick: In addition to the above points, I would design the meeting with as many of these key features as possible:

o Autonomy: The ability to influence the meeting’s design and its outcome
o Challenge: The prospect of stretching your skills
o Learning: The opportunity to learn and grow
o Meaning: The chance to work on something that is important
o Feedback: The capability of measuring the meeting’s progress

Emily: For me, there is preparation no matter how many are involved. The beginning, which is welcome and connect, the issues (realities), then the possibilities of next steps or strategies or solutions, deciding and responsibilities, and ending, which is usually a summary and review of the decisions made as well as an answer to whether the meeting was time well spent. Some meetings might be spent in realities over a period of time before they reach possibilities. I am thinking staff meeting of an hour with an ongoing project.

The purpose must be clear to everyone.

I also want everyone to have an opportunity to contribute in whatever way they can.

If decisions are going to be made, the decision-making process must be transparent before the meeting starts.

Most groups have some ground rules.

In the book you focus on six components of a meeting. For those who have not as yet read the book, what is the single worst mistake to make? First, Welcome

Emily: I think the greatest mistake in a welcome is to go on too long and not state the purpose and boundaries of the meeting. Not to understand that this is the transition into this meeting space and use it wisely.

Dick: Leaving this part out or doing it in a perfunctory way. It takes more than the leader saying, “Welcome to this meeting,” for people to feel welcome in the meeting and create enough safety to do the work.


Dick: In trying to connect people to each other in the work, people often use frivolous icebreakers that, while they may be fun, leave people wondering why they just wasted their time on this. Good icebreakers build connections between people and the work. For example, in our work with an organization to improve employee engagement, we asked people to discuss why they joined the company and why they stay. These discussions connected people to each other and the work at hand.

Emily: To do nothing around this and miss an opportunity to build psychological safety. Secondly, if you use an icebreaker that has no relevance to the work of the meeting.

This is the opportunity to begin to set psychological safety, which the more you have, the better the group will work together.


Emily: This is the opportunity to build and discover the reality from all of the people in the room, as well as develop ownership. Thus the worst mistake is when a leader controls so only their perspective rules.

Dick: Believing that people will discover the way things are by listening to a presentation that contains 50 excruciatingly detailed, mind-numbing PowerPoints. The key here is people need the opportunity to learn for themselves the way things are. If there is information to be presented, then people need time to discuss it and make sense of it. Leaders who have already made sense of the current state and discussed it extensively should not expect meeting participants to reach the same conclusions without the opportunity to digest it and make sense of it for themselves. A second mistake is to exclude outside stakeholders from your meeting. This could be people from other departments and/or customers and suppliers, depending on the meeting’s purpose. When you get “the whole system” in the room, you discover a different reality than if you just talk about it amongst yourselves.


Emily: Putting too many boundaries on the future.

Dick: Here the biggest mistake is to eliminate it and try to solve the issue once you Discover the Way Things Are. Creating a viable future means creating what Robert Fritz calls structural tension. The tension between the way things are and the way you would like them to be. If you only work on the way things are, people tend to get depressed. If you only work on the future, you can become Pollyannaish. Powerful change occurs when you create the tension between the way things are and the way you would like them to be.


Dick: Not being clear on the decision process you will be using. Knowing how you decide is as important as how you decide. Nothing frustrates people more than thinking they were in a participatory process only to find out that the only person whose voice counted was that of the boss. In his review of Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, Ilan Mochari put it this way: “If you’re holding a meeting to canvas the opinions of your staff—but you know there’s a strong chance you’ll disregard those opinions—let them know early on. The deception of democracy bothers them more than the transparent absence of it.”

Emily: Not stating clear decision rules up front.


Emily: Omit this part, which is often done. Also, not reviewing decisions. Everyone walks out with a different idea of what was decided.

Dick: This the part that often gets rushed or eliminated. In doing so, you run the risk of leaving the meeting with participants being unclear about what was decided, and the direction following the meeting. In addition, you lose the opportunity to learn from the experience and continually improve your meetings.

To what extent does a brainstorming session differ significantly from, let’s say, a weekly staff meeting or when a team’s members collaborate on a formal proposal?

Emily: All the stages of the Meeting Canoe™ apply. The focus is mostly on the possibilities/brainstorming and building on each other’s ideas. If this is only brainstorming to give someone ideas to choose from, great. If it is to brainstorm and decide on which to choose, then deciding would take some time also.

What are the defining characteristics of a great meeting facilitator? That is, someone who is wholly unrelated to the given organization and retained to conduct an especially important meeting of key people in that organization?

Emily: Ability to partner and contract with leaders around their wants and needs, and in this work create some psychological safety with the group. The facilitator has to be able to help the group create psychological safety so meaningful work gets done. This allows people to be more honest with each other in the meeting as opposed to the hallway conversation. They also need to agree to a good plan with the team. The best skills of a good facilitator are to listen for understanding, allow folks to be in the room of confusion and not try to fix it for them, to be able to recover from a mistake, and to adapt in the moment.

Of all the great business thinkers throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Dick: I would like to talk with Kurt Lewin. I think his experiences and insights about the nature of organizational change and groups are still relevant today. I would love to talk with him about current issues facing organizations today. He is quoted as saying, “There is nothing as useful as a good theory, and the way to really understand an organization is to try and change it.” I would love to discuss the issues organizations and people within them are facing, and how he would apply his theories to these issues, and also what new theories we should apply to today’s issues.

Emily: Peter Drucker

Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Emily: Agree at first and know that if visions are put out there, someone, sometime, somewhere might pick them up and implement them. I think about science fiction and all the visions that are in those books that have come true. They were put in the atmosphere and someone else agreed and figured how to implement them.

Dick: I’m not sure if it’s hallucination, but it is certainly an unmet dream. I really like Peter Koestenbaum’s Leadership Diamond® that talks about vision, reality, ethics, and courage. Vision without a sense of reality is Pollyannaish, ethics speak to the kind of vision you will have and how you will work with people as you execute the vision, and courage speaks to the choices leaders make as they execute the vision.

Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read your books and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Dick: I would begin with “widening the circle of involvement” by involving people in decisions that impact them, and as I did that, I would follow the practices of honesty (being honest and expecting honesty), transparency (making sure there is two-way information flow), and trust (being trustworthy and trusting people in the organization to do the right thing).

Emily: All successful changes must be connected to a business issue. Thus identifying and understanding why, why now, what business issue is leading them to this decision would be first.

Then, creating a plan of how to create this culture where personal growth and professional development thrive with a multi-stakeholder group would be next. What is the best way in this workplace to do that. We come with some knowledge of how to do this, but the client knows best in his system the minefields and the way to get things done. Next is the execution of the plan and tweak it as we go.

For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in your books, which insight do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Emily: To not only adapt to the changing environment, but to invest in their people and listen to them. I think of all this as engaging the workforce. Treat people as you would want to be treated. Be honest and listen for understanding, not agreement. Too many leaders use the words “our people are our business” glibly. Ask what the people need to get the work done in a timely manner. Ask the folks who deal with customers how to be better, and listen and support them in putting those ideas to work. Develop the skills of their people when needed. Let their people know what the organization is doing and why, and give them time to make meaning of this. Leaders are at the head of a marathon, and others need the time to make meaning and catch up on new strategies and ideas.

Dick: I would give them the same advice as I did the CEO in the previous question. I would add one thing. Invest in the training of your people, help them learn new skills, and challenge them to learn new things.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Dick: “How do meetings impact an organization’s culture?” Since we wrote Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, we have been working on the idea that changing the way we meet is a fast-track way to change an organization’s culture. For us, meetings represent a snapshot of the organization’s culture. The way people communicate, the way they make decisions, who gets to attend, and the way people relate to authority tell us a great deal about the culture in an organization. We believe that applying the concepts in Let’s Stop Meeting Like This—creating a welcoming environment, connecting people to each other and the task, engaging people in discovering the way things are, eliciting their hopes and dreams for the future, how you decide, and creating a good ending by attending to the end—begins to shift an organization’s culture. In doing so, you begin to change your organization one meeting at a time.

* * *

To read Part 1, please click here.

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

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.