The Executive-Vice President of Freedom One tipped his horn-rimmed bifocals and stared down across the large reception room. His wistful glance at the management team gathered before him said it all. The team— comprised of 80 senior executives from every region of the globe had come together for their annual meeting in a state of depression and disarray.
The recession had gutted their ranks and reduced revenues to their worst position in 15 years. Sales were down; clients were complaining; and perhaps worse, the executives had begun the age-old rite of finger-pointing, name-calling, and blaming. No one was safe from accusation and judgment. Everyone was a target, and any shortcoming was inflated to help explain the current drought in sales and profits.
It was into this morass—a team of international executives in a state of spiraling down—that CCL was called recently to perform its signature endeavor of leadership regeneration: giving hope to the hopeless, helping leaders find new ways to stretch resources, and helping them communicate with an authenticity and assertiveness seldom found in the corporate boardroom.
Into this perfect scenario for boundary-spanning “high drama,” the CCL team brought entry points and exercises that appeared, over time, to magically levitate the pallor of despair and discontent. What happened in six hours on a Wednesday afternoon in NYC is somewhat difficult to explain, much less envision for those who were not present. Yet the miracle was real, and the transformation palpable.
It started with a suggestion of the EVP (who had been coached by CCL senior partners) for the members of the different global teams to sit down, not with their colleagues and peers, but with individuals from other parts of the Freedom One world team who they seldom had a chance to speak with, much less get to know in depth. In small groups of 3 and 4, the executives struggled awkwardly to make conversation.
At moments, the silence in some groups was deafening. You could’ve heard a pin drop, as colleagues—in the same company—wrestled with what to say beyond polite small talk and frequent references to the weather or vicissitudes in the market. It was, for the most part, all “shop talk.” Yet beneath the splendor of these all too courteous conversations lie a blanket of unexpressed resentments and pain.
The outward agenda of the meeting was familiar: Review portfolio funds status, consider options for stopping clients from “jumping ship” to another financial institution. But the inward agenda, which had festered and grown during many months of recessionary lay-offs, was filled with suspicion for the other departments in the organization, and a lack of trust in leadership which failed to predict the crash.
The first exercise was designed to tease out feelings and impressions regarding the barriers that lay between various groups in the organization. A single set of “Boundary Explorer” cards was laid out on an open table for the executives to examine. Each one, in turn, selected a card which they felt they could use to describe the bridges and barriers that lay between them and other leaders in the company.
The comments which emerged from this projective-intuitive exercise ranged from whimsical to no-holds-barred: Some executives were skeptical; several laughed nervously as they attempted to share what they “saw” in the cards; but several, including Freedom One’s CEO, took the opportunity to open up at length about the divisions and distance they felt had become normative at the company.
In the next exercise, a custom Four-Box designed by CCL senior partners was used to explore “paralysis and possibilities” at Freedom One. Rats, Rainbows, Elephants, and Pots of Gold was designed to bring up the hidden obstacles (rats) and unspoken issues (elephants) that block many a team’s progress, as well as hopes and dreams (rainbows) and tangible assets (e.g. profits, people) fueling its upward trajectory.
Continuing the intentional drive towards boundary-spanning and interdependence, Freedom One’s executive team was re-configured again into groups of 4, with each group drawing from members across the globe, and different levels within senior management. Each group created a grid of rats, rainbows, elephants and pots of gold (RREP), and then proceeded to share their grid with one other small group.
This lighthearted “tongue in cheek” exercise created a safe haven for the executives of Freedom One to engage openly in some bald truth-telling about their organization. Avoiding thoughtfully the use of personal names and incriminating labels, the executives managed nonetheless to “lay some rats on the table” and call out the heretofore unspeakable, tough-to-talk-about topics and issues (elephants).
The output of this exercise—especially when conducted in group encounter format with boundary-spanning sets of individuals—was nothing short of mind-blowing for the Freedom One senior management team. Contrary to the “touchy-feely” kinds of exercise for which many had expressed initial concern and aversion, RREP managed, according to many execs, to get the “crap” out in the open.
The beauty was in the balance, however: Groups of execs, representing different divisions and layers within the organization, managed to assist one another in perspective-making and perspective-taking. Rats were balanced by rainbows, and the calling out of elephants balanced by the requests for identifying clear “pots of gold” that existed in every department and division of Freedom One.
As the executives came to experience new freedom and form in their communication, both assertive statements AND empathic reflection became the order of the day. “Listening with a third ear” became necessary—even a requirement– as you conversed, for the first time, with senior leadership from other parts of the company, and with leaders from within your own department, whom you never knew.
Boundary-spanning groups facilitated vulnerability and learning between leaders who had previously never held a true discussion with someone outside their “silo.” By the last half of the day, when Free- dom One executives were engaged in another custom CCL exercise—MVP (Mission, Values & Purpose)—the degree of open authenticity had catapulted to a level “never experienced” by most in the company.
The last hour at Freedom One showcased 10 executives at the platform sharing their impressions of the day. Among these executives, four global divisions were represented and three distinct layers of management. As the stories unfolded, each narrative was distinct, but all were held together by a common thread of excitement and discovery, and of new commitment to a “never-ending dialogue.”
Along the circle gauntlet of handshakes which closed out that day in NYC could be seen bright eyes of hope—shining–some actually brimming with brave tears. Among the words which were spoken, softly…then strongly…and then repeated by executive after executive in an increasing chorus: “We have to do this again…sometime soon…let’s find our way back to one another…”