The point is not to encourage employees to join the circus but to teach them how to mentor.
Mentoring is just one piece of the training that the employee owners of S&W are undergoing as they work with Cook Miller Associates Ltd. to integrate shared values as a means of improving their profitability, bringing forth ideas and taking ownership of decisions. In the mentoring exercise, two S&W employees teach 12 other “informal leaders,” who return to their workplace with skills in mentoring and new appreciation of the importance of breaking out of old, limiting mind-sets that say the custodian cannot be as much a teacher as the CEO.
Integrating shared values into the workplace is a key focus for Cook Miller, a 10-employee coaching organization that aims to reduce suffering, awaken the power of commitment in the workplace, and create a foundation for lasting results. That power–say co-founders Mike Cook, 49, and Terry Miller, 48–allows clients to achieve the measurable results and breakthroughs that shareholders demand.
Joseph Miller, president of S&W (and no relation to Terry), says he fully expects Cook Miller’s work with shared values to pay off in long-term profitability. And he is leaving it up to the 130 employees of S&W, an ESOP company with branches across New York and Pennsylvania, to judge how effective the human-development aspects have been.
“Cook Miller’s personnel brings things out of people that employees ordinarily can’t do on their own, whether it’s contributing to a discussion, committing to changes or constantly encouraging us to look forward,” Joe Miller says. The shared-values process will “help us continue to grow at an aggressive pace, with a more refined plan.”
The firm’s ability to tap into unrealized power in the workplace is a common theme among Cook Miller clients.
“Cook Miller does a very good job helping leaders reach their potential,” says Jeremiah Carr, president of Frontier Corp.’s Telephone Group, where some 40 leaders are involved in a one-year program to “make good people better.”
“We think the difference in telecommunications will be made by having leaders (who,) by valuing and caring for employees, can create a team environment that accomplishes miracles,” Carr says. He defines “miracles” as financial, service and process results that “people said couldn’t be done.” Dating back to 1989, Cook Miller has helped produce just those results for Frontier.
Terry Miller and Mike Cook’s vision for unleashing workers’ full potential was born of their own business experiences. Long frustrated by the strangled communication, authoritarianism and deadened spirits in many workplaces, Cook and Miller now talk enthusiastically about the profound changes sweeping business and American society, how the microchip is fueling democratization in the workplace, and how resisting change–while natural for humans–only exacerbates the pain by delaying the inevitable and jeopardizing survival.
“I see (change) as a river flowing in a particular direction,” Cook says.
He and Miller view their role as helping clients stop trying to swim upstream–to let go of the authoritarian organizational model that is breaking down–and get into the flow early enough to capitalize on the inevitable changes.
“Our democratic society has tolerated autocracy in business for over 100 years,” Cook says.
Rather than question the inherited model, Americans have justified the pain this has caused by accepting it as the price of progress, he adds. He is quick to point out that managers are not to blame; workers at all levels have contributed to the inadvertent conspiracy.
With the development of the microchip, Cook says, it has become possible to design organizations that match the American ideal of freedom and to foster, rather than squash, creativity. Less than two decades after its invention, the personal computer is reshaping business, he adds, putting power into individuals’ hands, breaking down the importance of the organization and forcing leaders to face the question: How do we operate in an environment we can’t control?
Miller and Cook frequently quote Tom Peters and W. Edwards Deming. American business, they contend, has been slow to act on the changes that those pioneers espoused. Rather than dismiss movements such as total quality as a fad, Miller and Cook say the growing concept of shared values is not a substitute for TQM but a fulfillment of it.
Cook and Miller prefer to call them- selves not consultants but strategic partners with clients. Their active client list numbers roughly a dozen, they say, and most of that is repeat business.
S&W first hired Cook Miller a year ago to help the distributor of medical imaging products create a vision and to help key people make better decisions. Inside Frontier, Cook Miller has worked with RCI Corp., Rotelcom Inc. and Rochester Telephone Corp.
“Our power is in being more committed to what (clients are) trying to achieve than they are,” Miller adds.
While many workers still cling to the old contract, he says, “people less and less work for security” these days. Many are willing to trade security for the ability to work in “a place where I can make a contribution consistent with my values.”
Operating from a set of shared values and aligned commitments, then, unleashes powerful potential, and it is management’s job, they say, to create that climate.
Yet, “there’s been no groundswell,” Cook says.
If change–and shared values–are so good for business, why have so many companies resisted?
“Why don’t people listen to Tom Peters and take action (to change)?” Cook asks. “People don’t know how to operate without controlling. … Most people don’t consider change until the pain level becomes intolerable for the decision makers.”
Even then, most expect the action to begin elsewhere.
“Everybody’s all for (change) until they see it has to start with them,” Miller says.
Taking responsibility for changing oneself, then, and being willing to articulate and align one’s commitments are vital factors in Cook Miller’s work.
“Many people don’t see commitment as a tool, or know the potency of it,” Miller says. “If we work on aligning commitments, it becomes a different world. You become a resource to my commitment.
“Everyone knows that producing something involves risk,” he continues. Minimizing the damage that risk creates “enables an organization to be willing to take more risk once they see it’s exciting and fun.”
“When you can count on others,” Cook says, “you can take more risk.”
For Cook Miller’s clients, the results of that approach have “been off the charts,” Cook says.
“If we’d gotten 1 percent of what we gained for companies,” Miller says, “we’d be having this interview in St. Martin.”
Cook declines to disclose revenue figures, except to say that income has grown by 50 percent over the past year.
When Cook and Miller first worked together, they were tapping into a different kind of energy. In 1980, they and a third partner founded Douglas Oil & Gas Inc. in Pittsburgh, an exploration and contract-drilling firm that today does some $15 million in business.
At Douglas, Miller says, they often found it difficult to address pertinent business issues and question the status quo because the dialogue it would require was too challenging for many to handle.
Believing that “there must be more to the adult work experience” than such frustration, Cook says, they began to experiment with the idea of creating an “authentic, alive” business around values.
In the mid-1980s, both left Douglas to found their own consulting firms–Miller formed Contextual Consulting Inc. in Toronto, and Cook created Laughlin Frederick Inc. in Pittsburgh. Cook has a degree in industrial relations but considers it irrelevant–“I found people weren’t interested in what I knew; they were interested in results”–and Miller has no college degree.
Building on the project-management skills they developed at Douglas, they became very successful in creating short-term results.
“We were enchanted that we could make stuff happen by reducing cycles sustainably by 40 (percent) to 50 percent, without altering business process,” Cook says.
Nevertheless, they saw that, to unleash the greatest potential, they would need to broaden the training to encompass entire organizations.
Motivated to spend less time traveling and more time with their families, Cook and Miller consolidated their activities in Rochester in 1989. They maintain clients in southern Ontario, Western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Miller, an Ohio native, has two children with his wife, Pamela. Cook, from Michigan, has one son, Jackson, with his wife, Jan, and two grown sons from a previous marriage.
Always looking to sharpen their focus, and trying to create a systemwide approach to developing shared values, the partners stumbled upon a well-developed process that would enable them to help clients create a structure to which positive change would stick.
In Seattle this spring for the NCAA basketball tournament, Cook and Miller took the opportunity to meet with Rob Lebow, developer of the Shared Values Process Operating System. In June, Cook Miller became licensed to sell the Lebow system, and the firm is installing it internally. So far, S&W is the only Cook Miller client using it.
Practicing at home what they preach to clients is one way to ensure empathy for those they’re trying to help.
“Mike and Terry run Cook Miller as a lab (to test) what they do with clients,” says Kathryn Gallant, marketing consultant for Cook Miller. “They’re experiencing everything the client is going through.”
The Lebow system integrates eight cross-cultural human values and the client’s business values into a structure that people at every level of the organization have a hand in creating. According to Lebow, these human values are based on surveys of 17 million people.
The system puts forth eight principles that Lebow maintains all cultures value: mentoring, honesty, truthfulness, trust, openness to new ideas, encouraging risk, giving credit and putting others’ interests first.
Simultaneously, the process guides senior and middle managers to develop a list of business values, which are unique to each company. One value, for example, might be consistently exceeding customers’ expectations.
The case studies analyzed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in “Built to Last,” they say, show that firms with an emphasis on values perform well financially over the long haul.
While nothing is new about either the human or the business values, Gallant says, “the brilliance is in the details”–Lebow’s explicit instructions for integrating the system throughout a company, in ways that allow for maximum employee participation and, thus, sustainability. Rank-and-file employees are nominated by their managers to train their co-workers and to assume responsibility for sustaining the system.
Because the Lebow process aims not at the management model but the entire system, Cook says, many managers are frightened–even as they are freed from the need to have all the answers. It is consistent with the democratic ideal as well as what is happening in microtechnology, and eliminates dependence on a guru or consultant, he adds.
The Shared Values Process Operating System is the “first process approach to building an organization that works as things are going to work,” Cook says. “It puts a motor on the rowboat going the direction the river is flowing.”
According to Lebow material, “People at all levels within an organization take ownership, responsibility and pride in the organization’s success once everyone understands, accepts and applies the highly usable principles and strategies.” The process “offers no quick fix nor panacea to every challenge, but it does offer a framework in which individuals, groups and teams can more clearly see the issues and opportunities before them.”
Another tool that Cook Miller aims to use to help workers envision individual and corporate opportunities involves sponsoring poet David Whyte, author of “The Heart Aroused,” and a popular speaker on awakening the latent passion and creativity in work. Plans call for Whyte to work with Frontier’s people as well as offer a public presentation on Dec. 8. (See sidebar.)
“You start listening to this guy,” Cook says, “and all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of this emotional swirl. Everything inside of you is turned completely upside-down. All of what he’s doing is tapping into the pent-up emotion that people have around their work experience.”
Given all of the pain in corporate America, it would seem that Cook and Miller have their work cut out for them. But finding clients, Cook says, has a “needle-in-the-haystack quality. Despite (the work of) Peters, Deming and (Stephen) Covey, there’s not a ready market for what we’re doing.”
Nonetheless, their enthusiasm and commitment shine through. Given the workplace changes Cook and Miller see as inevitable, embracing shared values will be just as important as having a good snow shovel this winter.
“We’ve seen enough changes over 30 years,” Miller says, “and this one is even more predictable than quality and re-engineering were.”
“What impresses me,” Gallant says, “is how committed Mike and Terry are to the mission of reducing suffering in the workplace.” Regardless of which approaches they find most effective, she says, their desire and ability to help people remains constant.
“Those who want to participate in the future will go this way or get swallowed up,” Cook says. Whether one is happy about the changes is irrelevant. “This is not Rob Lebow foisting his morality on anyone. This is 17 million people (saying what matters to them).”
“We’re not Einstein,” Cook adds. “We’re just watching the river flow.”
(Rose Ericson is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.)
Information on David Whyte’s visit:
Cook Miller Associates Ltd. and St. John Fisher College are sponsoring a public presentation by David Whyte, author of “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America,” at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 8, in the college’s Kearney Hall Auditorium. Whyte, whose book earned a place on the Business Week Best-Seller List, is well-known for his views on rediscovering passion and creativity in work.
For more information, call Cook Miller at 442-8120 or the college’s continuing education department at 385-8317.