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).

Here is an excerpt from my interview of the Axelsons.

* * *

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.

* * *

To read all of Part 1, please click here.

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






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