Create working conditions and a culture that you would want your own children to be in or you would want for yourself. Don’t let the thin air of being at the top of the hierarchy make your mind have a distorted view of others’ daily experience of working in your organization.
As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Freebairn-Smith.
Laura Freebairn-Smith is a co-founder and partner at Organizational Performance Group (OPG). Laura helps leaders redesign their organizations and create strategic plans through organizational development guidance. Laura also teaches at Yale’s School of Drama and the Yale Office of International Affairs.
Prior to this work, Laura served as Yale’s Director of the Organizational Development and Learning Center, which she helped create in 1999. In addition to her work with OPG’s clients, Laura teaches leadership, diversity, and team building at Yale’s School of Drama.
Her work and career have three major foci:
- Leading the creation of extraordinary organizational cultures
- Guiding groups, large and small, to greater effectiveness and impact
- Consulting on organizational development issues with a special emphasis on strategic planning and organizational redesign
Laura’s background includes a BA from UC Berkeley (Philosophy and Political Science) and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. She holds a doctorate in Organizational Systems and has published articles and chapters on organizational development topics, most recently the impact of gender on inequity in compensation.
Prior to joining Yale, Laura founded Good Work Associates, a consulting firm providing strategic planning and organizational development services. Before that, she served as Managing Director for the Gesell Institute of Human Development, as Chief Operating Officer for Jobs for the Future, and as Education Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee on the Thai-Cambodian border.In addition to her teaching position at Yale, Laura has taught at the University of New Haven, Georgetown University, and Central Connecticut State University. She has received several leadership awards.
Laura is committed to being a catalyst for the planting of one million trees in her lifetime.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Iwas raised in San Francisco during the 60s and 70s, marching in anti-Vietnam war marches with my parents. I went on to UC Berkeley to study Philosophy and Political Science. I always share this when I’m teaching or giving a talk so people know my personal mental framework.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I do not have a most interesting story; that’s impossible to choose from the events and experiences of 40 years. I have had the honor and privilege of working with CEOs and front line staff on a wide range of challenges that mattered to them greatly. I’ve flown in helicopters to retreats, skied down a mountain at night with emerging leaders, and watched multiple staff grow and flourish. It sounds corny but it is true for me that every single day that I spend growing OPG is interesting and meaningful. At my core, I’m an entrepreneur. I love creating jobs and value through creating great organizations.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
“OPG is the first organization at which I’ve worked that inspires me to work to the highest possible standard for the benefit of both our clients and our team.” That’s a quote from one of our staff. Our recruitment brochure outlines our exceptionality in many ways.
Organizational Performance Group (OPG) is an organizational development, management, and leadership consulting firm that believes people and their ability to work together are critical to the success of organizations. We believe organizations that inspire and empower their employees have a competitive advantage. We help our clients achieve their best by aligning people and processes in support of a shared vision. All our clients are leaders in their organizations who have a commitment to improving their organization so their people can be more effective at achieving the organization’s mission while also creating an extraordinary work culture.
“If you want to work in an organization where you will constantly be challenged to be the best version of yourself, both professionally and personally, come work for OPG.”
OPG consultants also approach each project with fortitude, heart, creativity, and a strong internal locus of control that ensures success. OPG has a fast-paced and intense culture, typical of management consulting firms, requiring both mental and physical stamina. All team members self-manage and accomplish work at a rapid pace while maintaining the utmost commitment to OPG’s high quality standards.
“Leave your ego at the door and join our collaborative team.”
Candidates have an intellectual zing and charismatic gravitas, and they should be comfortable working as part of a small, collaborative team in a fast-paced, growing firm.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Our client projects are always meaningful since we are asked to help them change their organizations for the better and thus the world. But I’ll focus on an OPG project that is in its third year — our charrettes.
The organizational charrette is a new management practice in which the entire company closes shop for one week so every employee can focus on innovation and future planning. In my opinion, charrettes are magical. They provide time for deep intellectual exploration of matters significant to the success of the firm. They also provide the space and time for innovation. Charrettes allow people to work at their own pace on projects that matter to them, and nothing more. If only the charrette tone and pace could be replicated every day and the firm could still meet our clients’ needs!
To understand what the charrette week entails, it helps to understand the term being used. The word charrette is French for “cart” or “chariot,” referring to a common practice in 19th century French architectural firms in which student architects would work right up until a deadline, at which a charrette would be wheeled among them to collect up their scale models for final review. The word charrette has now taken on a larger meaning; companies all over the world use it to describe an innovative period in which a team or a group of individuals from a company creates pioneering solutions and tackles complicated problems during an established period. These periods are being shown to improve productivity, innovation, employee retention, and internal relationships within companies.
As a part of our mission to be a laboratory for organizational development, we undertook an experimental charrette in December 2017 in order to test its effectiveness on team creativity and innovation, productivity, and overall staff engagement. Here’s how our little “lab experiment” looked:
- Every person works alone or in groups to complete one new innovation for the firm. They formulate the idea far in advance, presenting the project first to the partners and then to the organization to ask for feedback on the idea, explain how they will approach working through the charrette, and what goals the idea will accomplish for the firm
- During the charrette week kickoff, the entire staff meets for lunch on Wednesday to check in and discuss problems and pain points that are being encountered.
- Finally, the week ends with each individual or group presenting their project and receiving questions and feedback from the entire organization.
The first charrette’s goal was to test the effectiveness of a charrette — does only focusing on one idea for an entire week facilitate a deeper, stronger innovation for the organization? How does the individual or group view their relationship with the project and with the company over the course of the week? How difficult will it be to follow through on each project after the charrette is finished?
To answer these questions, we suggest you collect data from every employee in the form of an initial survey at the start of the week, daily feedback forms, and a final debrief at the end of the week. Daily entries from each employee include:
- What went well, what could have been better, general reactions, and a 1–5 scale of how meaningful this experience has been so far.
- The responses are then categorized into qualitative data that show themes, trends, and potential pain points that the organization can address.
- After the charrette is long over, you should also track the progress of each project on a quarterly basis and reallocate resources for projects that are lagging in implementation. This way, projects are seen through fully and don’t only live and thrive for a week.
Here’s what staffers had to say about the two charrettes I’ve been a part of:
- Staff members on average rated the whole experience at 4.2 out of 5; in the second year, the average was 4.58.
- Going into the charrettes, people reported feeling excited, nervous, optimistic, positive, and energetic. Things that went well included “time to think,” “rich discussion,” and “sticking to a daily plan.”
- In both years, the experience improved over the week (3.63–4.75 in the first year and 4.00–5.00 in the second year).
- When asked what could have made things better, several staff members said they wished they had done more preparation or research ahead of time.
- Others noted frustration around “regular business” creeping into the charrette time.
- Finally, staff members commented on needing to give themselves more breaks to move around or take a walk to break up the day and keep their minds fresh.
As the meaningfulness ratings suggest, there was a palpable arc to people’s engagement and experience in the charrette. At the beginning, there were anxieties about not being prepared enough, not being sure where the work was going, etc. By midweek, people were feeling like progress was being made, but they were feeling tired. By Friday, most everyone was in good spirits and felt that they had really accomplished something. Because the experience was positive and fruitful overall, I highly suggest businesses decide to try to hold charrettes with a cyclical cadence.
If a leader’s goal is to cultivate creativity and innovation within his or her organization, the charrette may be the perfect tool to do so. Through this process, employees often find themselves energized and engaged with their work in new and different ways. Each person gets the time, resources, and support to make a personal contribution — this strengthens the bond between each team member and the organization for which they work.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Create working conditions and a culture that you would want your own children to be in or you would want for yourself. Don’t let the thin air of being at the top of the hierarchy make your mind have a distorted view of others’ daily experience of working in your organization. Pick generosity over hoarding. Pick transparency over cloaking. Pick humanity over depersonalization.
We as a species are at such a critical, painful turning point. Millennia of greed and fear have wreaked havoc on the planet and how we treat each other. We are hard-wired for greed and fear so this work of “coming around right” will be and is so hard. It goes against our core biological drivers. But like the science of medicine is discovering, I believe we can reprogram our psychological DNA. But we have to do it fast. There’s almost no time left to spare.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders about how to manage a large team?
Two habits I strongly recommend leaders focus on are transparency and relentless repetition in communication. For the first, transparency, we know from our own work and research that the more information you give people, and the education to understand that information, the better decisions people will make. They will feel more empowered and more engaged.
As to the second habit, relentless repetition in communication is based on the fact that human beings are fairly bad at communicating inside organizations. Research shows that people need to hear and see information up to six times to hear it, understand it, believe it, and use it. Leaders usually fall short in this need to repeat a message in multiple ways. Beyond repetition, communication has to be seen as one of the top three tasks of a leader.
Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Increase your markets and your effectiveness in advertising to those markets. People from diverse backgrounds bring a deeper and better understanding of the markets they grew up in.
- Improve the productivity of your staff. When people feel that they are accepted for who they are, they are more likely to bring their whole selves and energy to their work.
- Increase your applicant pool. The more diverse your staff, markets, and product lines, the more likely someone will see themselves in your organization.
- Decrease legal costs and risks. The more cross-culturally competent your organization is, the less likely the organization will have lawsuits and other legal and financial issues around discrimination.
- Making the world better. This is the best part of increasing diversity. You and your organization are not responsible for thousands of years of discrimination, but you are responsible for recognizing the negative results of that oppression and doing something to remedy it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to transfer the wealth and privilege I’ve been given to others in my community, at work, and at home. I do that in myriad ways throughout the year. One example is my monthly donation to GiveDirectly (www.givedirectly.com) which skips the middleman (aka nonprofit) and gives cash directly to those in need.
Here’s another example from the firm: every year the staff nominates a nonprofit to receive a donation from the firm. We send that list of nominees to our clients and colleagues. They all vote and the one with the most votes gets the donation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote?
I use the five rules of life in my teaching and my own life.
- Show up
- Be present
- Speak your truth
- Don’t be attached to an outcome
- Be open to all possibilities
For me, speaking my truth has been an ongoing practice — how to speak the truth without anger or sarcasm or fear. This is hard work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My godmother, Marilyn Burns. She was a very successful businesswoman back in the day (1960s onward) when women business owners were a rarity. She is smart, direct, unintimidated, and is a true role model.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Warren Buffett. I’m intrigued with his deep commitment to sharing the wealth. I’d love to talk to him about how capitalism can be changed to reduce income inequality, at a system level, not just individual by individual. How do we reduce greed? Increase ethics? Increase sharing? I think he’s worked hard on these issues his whole life.