We design collaborative systems which enable leaders and workers to jointly construct a company both profitable and worthy of pride. Some have called our practices “organizational barn raising” because the focus and energy shown by participants reminds them of the old-time, community barn raisings, in which neighbors would erect a sturdy building in a weekend. We like that comparison.
When a company is focused, and its people work within a system that includes spirited involvement, remarkable things can occur.
Dick and Emily Axelrod come from a long line of entrepreneurs. Dick’s grandfather was a tailor; Emily’s dad was a lawyer who never practiced law because he had to take over the family dry goods business, and Dick’s dad manufactured model airplanes. Included in the mix are aunts and uncles who were artists, pianists, university professors, and a hardware store owner. So it was no surprise when in 1981 Dick left a promising career at General Foods to form The Axelrod Group. At the time Emily was studying to get her second Masters, a Masters 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. For many years they worked together at companies like Ford and General Telephone (the forerunner of today’s Verizon) by implementing Quality of Work Life and Employee Involvement processes that created new union management partnerships while increasing quality and productivity. 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, working with disturbed children and their families as well as working to resettle Russian immigrants in Chicago. 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–be it a new strategic plan, a new product development system, or improving organizational processes. 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. She gave up her therapy practice and made her family systems skills, which were so instrumental in the development of the Conference Model®, available to The Axelrod Group a on a full-time basis.
Along the way, colleagues have joined The Axelrod Group, and this worldwide network provides a range of skills that enriches The Axelrod Group’s offerings.