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).

Here is an excerpt from Part 2.

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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.

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Here is a link to all of Part 2.

To read Part 1, please click here.

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

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