Adventure Associates

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UES: The Hardy Organization

The Need

Founded in the early 80s, UES had ten employees and generated a million dollars in revenue. Now, two changes of ownership and 26 years later, UES employs 110 people and generates over 21 million in revenues. The same leadership team that formed over 18 years ago has successfully made the transition from a small family-owned business into a large and successful company.

Background

During a recent interview with Lesa Gary, Human Resources Manager for UES (quotes in italics), we uncovered some of their critical success factors: leadership training, innovation, good people, and superior systems.

In the early days of UES, employees operated in "silos," and avoided constructive conflict. This resulted in misalignment among departments, blaming and feelings of hopelessness. For the next several years, the leadership team worked hard to break down those silos...and committed to preventing them from being re-erected (a never-ending process).

Many of us had little to no formal leadership training when we started the transformation years ago. When we attended, we realized that leadership principles are simple...intuitive. However, applying leadership principles is neither simple nor quick. It took us years to "push down" leadership to the field staff, but we persisted, even when others told us that having two-way relationships with field personnel was impossible. One way we did this was by instituting "All-Hands-Meetings" which provided a forum to push our goals and values down, while letting solutions to problems rise up through the ranks.

Another way we sped the development of those relationships, was through "A-Day-in-the-Life," whereby employees would draw names and follow their chosen co-worker around for a day to see what it was like to perform his or her responsibilities. Over two-thirds of our employees participated and we believe this helps reinforce their social support system.

Probably the most memorable "a-ha" for me was when I realized that our lack of success wasn't due to a success-deficiency in our employees. These were good people who wanted to do good work. But our systems were broken, and until we removed barriers to success and implemented good processes, we'd never hit our goals.

This was a very liberating thought, because it gave our team a lot more control over our circumstances. Our role as leaders was to remove barriers so that our people could do those things for which they were hired.

What we called compassion in the early days, we soon learned was coddling. In order to have a hardy organization, you can't be afraid of "hurting people's feelings." If you lower your standards to make underperformers feel better, you're only punishing the great employees, and killing their motivation.

Another thing hardy organizations share is an appreciation for reality. Our business is constantly changing, and the formula for success that worked last year, probably won't work this year. We can't afford "happy talk," so we're careful to address the facts, seek improvement, but remain confident and optimistic in our ability to find the formula that will work today in these particular circumstances.

The Adventure Associates Process

UES' Dream Team further expanded and applied what they were learning in their leadership school during a team building exercise. However, mid-way through the workshop, the team (and the Adventure Associates facilitator) decided to alter the agenda and participate in Active Forum with a strategic focus on their desired business model to prepare the team for an upcoming organizational transformation.

One of the hallmarks of good leadership is the ability to get the team moving in a different direction, quickly, and with total alignment. Together Adventure Associates and UES were able to pull that off.

Results

Based on the plans the Dream Team developed during the workshop, their recent acquisition by Automated Logic and subsequent cultural realignment process are right on track.

During our acquisition in 1988, we practiced "tough love," and tried to combat our employees' fears by minimizing them or flat-out ignoring them. We've learned, though that we need to be empathic to people's fears, so when we hear concerns, we'll call a meeting of the Dream Team and figure out how to best address them.