Center Holds Up a Looking Glass for Executives

Steve Haines has seen the seamy side of the business world. Haines, the former executive vice president of Imperial Corp. of America, parent company of Imperial Bank, has no illusions about the role of truth and honesty in corporate America.

One time, for example, Haines observed "a situation in which management told one group of executives they were not planning to sell a certain subsidiary," then turned right around and worked out a sale with another group.

"The bad rap that businesses get for ethics and morality was right there in front of you," he said.

Haines did not witness that "Dallas"-like scenario in some plush board room--though he could have. Instead, the episode was played out during a business simulation exercise sponsored by the Center for Creative Leadership. An 18-year-old research and training firm based in Greensboro, N.C., the center opened a branch in San Diego last year and offers a wide range of seminars to help mid-level and senior executives improve their performances.

While the idea of executive training is not new, CCL's approach is. Instead of simply exhorting executives to do it their way, the center conducts its own original research on corporate America, then uses those findings as the basis of its seminars.

Participants say the center's approach provides invaluable insights directly applicable to life in the business world. For example, when David Knight, manager of management and organizational development at San Diego Gas & Electric, attended a CCL seminar in San Diego last year, he learned about the experiences--both positive and negative--top managers in Fortune 100 companies believed were the most important to them on their road to the top.

Knight, a human resources professional for 35 years, said that experience "made me rethink how we select developmental assignments" for managers.

"We never really analyzed what we wanted somebody to get from an assignment (and how we) communicate that to the individual and measure their progress," Knight said. Now he does.

Founded in 1970

The Center for Creative Leadership was founded in 1970 by H. Smith Richardson Jr., grandson of the founder of Vicks Chemical Corp., best known for Vicks Vaporub and Formula 44. The local branch opened last March across from University Towne Centre in La Jolla.

Its mission is to develop creative leadership and effective management in the American business community. Toward that goal, the center has developed a series of seminars and training programs on executive development, creativity and leadership. In 1987, more than 15,000 managers attended programs at its three centers (the third CCL center is in Colorado Springs).

The center's management philosophy is deceptively simple: "We try to help managers see themselves as others see them," said Ann Morrison, director of the San Diego office. "The ability to pick up cues as to what effect managers are having on the people they work with is crucial. But in our society, getting valuable, reliable feedback is a luxury."

CCL's centerpiece is the Looking Glass, a 6-hour simulation game, where 20 participants play the roles of top management positions, from president on down to plant manager of a mythical company with annual sales of $200 million. During the daylong exercise, the executive team is confronted with a series of difficult business decisions.

The game can be eerily realistic. There's a mock office suite, with the players ensconced in offices fully equipped with all the trappings of their respective positions.

Fired Subordinate

And the way participants play their parts--with die-hard commitment--would make Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka proud. Many stay up half the night reviewing the financial data CCL supplies. In the middle of one simulation, the acting president fired a subordinate. During another, a chief executive officer disappeared into the woods to prepare a speech he theoretically would have to deliver to the Kiwanis Club the next day.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the simulations are the communication and negotiation among staff members, processes often riddled with the kind of dishonesty, skulduggery and deceit frequently found in the everyday business world. Haines' experience with the double-dealing managers was an example of this.

At the end of the simulation, the various management decisions made by participants are fed into a computer to assess their effect on the company's bottom line. "You can see that right or wrong answers have a positive or negative impact," Haines said.

The balance of the seminar is devoted to a painstaking review of how decisions were made as well as which communication strategies worked and which led the managers astray. The participants and the trainers provide brutally honest feedback and assessments: "Were they swayed because a presentation was better prepared? Because somebody appeared to have more technical expertise? Because they liked somebody?" Morrison said, describing some of the issues debated. "Is that the way that they want to make decisions?"

Not a Mirror Image

But as Morrison realizes, the way people make decisions during Looking Glass may not mirror their habits in the real world. There is a large body of research indicating that the way people act in artificially created environments does not accurately reflect what they would do in the real world. The consequences of their behavior in each case are just too different.

To compensate for that shortcoming, CCL solicits anonymous job performance evaluations from the co-workers of participants before the simulation program begins. When that feedback--garnered both from bosses and subordinates--corresponds to the feedback managers receive through the Looking Glass, which is also confidential, it forms a powerful combination.

"Using that feedback can make the difference between moving up in an organization and having your career derailed," Morrison said. Often, she added, managers simply cannot sense how people respond to them and consequently do not know what they are doing wrong in a new position.

Sensitivity Important

Greg Larson, vice president of corporate training and development for Imperial Corp. of America, agrees. Larson has sent a handful of top executives to CCL programs and he believes managers' ability to be sensitive to how others react to them is extremely important for employees assuming increased responsibilities in an organization.

"Some managers rely on the skills that got them to their current position," Larson said. "They take charge and are assertive. They think they have it made."

Morrison calls this phenomenon the "arrogance of success" and notes that techniques that are effective in managing 10 people may not be appropriate for managing 100. Without honest feedback, many managers fail to make the transition and their fast-track careers are sidetracked.

For at least one of CCL's graduates, the stakes were much higher. As part of its training program, the U.S. Army routinely sends all new brigadier generals to Looking Glass. In 1981, James Dozier received his general's star and signed up for the seminar. Through the program, Dozier learned he was intimidating, blunt and did not tolerate fools lightly. He was a military man's military man, and his civilian colleagues didn't much care for it. In short, Dozier learned that he put people off in a serious way.

The general remembered that lesson six months later, when, while serving as deputy chief of staff of NATO in Italy, Dozier was kidnaped by the Red Brigades. "Some perspectives I gained at the center helped me understand how the Red Brigades' people were viewing me," Dozier said at a press conference some time after his release. "It gave me better insight into myself--insight through the eyes of others."

Instead of behaving normally, Dozier consciously tried to present himself as a disciplined, mature person. "The main thing was to get them to see me as an individual and not a prisoner," he said, and to "not do anything dumb, like having a macho attitude." He credits that strategy, in part, with keeping him alive.

The James Dozier lesson, Morrison said, is "that you can change your behavior and what people think of you. How people see you is an important part in success and failure. The people who succeed are those who are willing to listen to others and act on what they hear."

Pressures on Women

That was one of the issues Morrison investigated in a three-year study she conducted concerning the progress of women up the corporate ladder. Her results, however, were quite discouraging.

Morrison found that, by and large, women are still excluded from top management in most large corporations. Even those women who break into the inner sanctum of the executive suite are seldom candidates for the No. 1 job. And the reason that women are falling short, Morrison said, has little to do with a lack of managerial skills or experience.

The problem, she said, is that more is expected from women executives than men at the highest levels. Women have to be tough but feminine. They have to take risks yet always succeed. They have to take responsibility but follow the advice of others.

To help women walk that tightrope and overcome those barriers, CCL has developed a special program geared to executive development for women. Unfortunately, Morrison said, "a company's willingness to invest in the development of leadership potential is still geared towards men." CCL programs range from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the program's length and complexity.

Consequently, the response to CCL programs aimed at women executives has not yet lived up to expectations.

The center's final major area of concern is fostering creativity in the work place. In 1979, it founded the Assn. of Managers of Innovation to explore ways to increase the flow of ideas up and down an organization. General Electric, Kodak, IBM and 3M are among companies that have joined.

"Creativity," said Morrison, "is any new idea that is useful. And though there is a myth that there is little creativity in business, a lot of what leaders do is creative. It is just that it is written off."

The center's objective is to aid managers in matching appropriate problem-solving techniques to the right problems. The center teaches brainstorming, "brainwriting" (in which people free associate but must write down their thoughts instead of just blurting them out), and a technique it calls "excursion," which encourages people to express their most wacky, far-out ideas. Then group members try to find the practical aspects of those ideas.

Excursion may sound a little flaky. But as Morrison pointed out, "the idea for Velcro came from a man who was sick of getting burrs in his clothing from walking and riding in the woods."

Using What Is Learned

While lauded by many participants, CCL's approach to management development and creativity is not the only tack on the topic. Indeed, competitors say that because the center's seminars are mixers for executives from several companies it's hard for each participant to act on the ideas once they return to work. Those colleagues back at the office who did not attend the seminar still adhere to their old routines and may be resistant to change.

Moreover, even Morrison admits the center's real clients are the individuals and not their companies, meaning that sending an employee to a seminar may not always be a boon for a given corporation. At least one participant, for example, has changed jobs as a direct result of his participation in a CCL program.

On the other hand, CCL advocates say that because the center's programs are based on research in the real corporate world, they are more substantial than the new wave, New Age approaches to management that become fads from year to year. Morrison has harsh words for these in-vogue approaches.

"Too often managers are looking for a quick fix," she said. "A quick fix has to fail."

For example, many companies adapted the concept of "quality circles"--widely used in Japan--even though it was often inappropriate for their own corporate cultures.

"The impulse to succeed by imitation is dangerous on the individual and the corporate level," Morrison said. "You have to take into account who you are."

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