How White-Water Rafting Illustrates Leadership Alignment

My son, grandson and I recently had the opportunity to enjoy white water rafting on Colorado’s Poudre River. It was a great experience – one we enjoyed a great deal.

There were six of us in our raft, guided by a young man named Dakota. Clearly Dakota knew what he was doing as he almost effortlessly guided us down the rocky waters.

As we began our journey, Dakota spent about 10 minutes educating us on our upcoming experience, and the various commands he would use to tell us how to navigate. “Back two” means to back paddle twice. “Right forward three” tells the people on the right side of the raft to paddle three times forward while us on the left do nothing. It was clear that Dakota understood clearly that how action on one side of the raft would affect the motion of the entire raft, and how it would impact the actions of folks on the other side of the raft.

As we floated rapidly down the rock infested Poudre, it occurred to me that this was a perfect example of aligning leaders to execute transformational change.

  1. It’s essential that everyone understand the purpose and outcomes related to the transformation. In our case it was a safe and enjoyable rafting experience where we all stayed relatively dry. Dakota made this clear.
  2. Your leadership team needs to know your expectations of them. Clear and simple direction about how to navigate through the transformation is required. Of course, in a business setting, you will more than likely collaborate to determine the course of action.
  3. Your leadership team needs to understand how change in one area of the organization will impact work in other parts of the organization. In this way they can course correct as necessary as you proceed through the transformation.
  4. Involve everyone. When you proceed through an organizational transformation, your entire leadership team must have a role. There’s no one on the sidelines. This extends to your full organization. To reach a sustainable outcome, everyone is involved.

I am happy to report that our rafting experience was 100% successful and 200% fun! There were no overturned rafts, or any injuries. I was a little sore the next day from all the paddling. It was clearly worth it.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


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How to lead transformational change when you have no formal leadership

Bill and Greta Hurst are the owners of Tabula Rasa Gallery in Baroda, Michigan. The community of Baroda is experiencing a moderately paced and purposeful transformation. In the last seven years, the village has enjoyed the addition of two wine tasting rooms (with a third on the way), a café, a restaurant, a brew pub, a B&B, and the Hurst’s art gallery. In the nearby countryside several wineries and other agri-tourism businesses have opened. Greta is a mosaicist and yoga teacher; Bill is an IT professional and photographer. While a member of the business community with their gallery, this couple were early contributors to the transformation of the area to an agri-tourism destination.

Steve: What does it mean to be a transformational leader?

Bill: The leader has a vision and can translate it to align people, resources, and actions to move that vision forward. Sometimes it’s looking at an old problem with new eyes and being adaptable to changes in the macro economy. In our case, we love Baroda and the rich history of the town. We wanted to leverage the legacy and bring more attention to the growth the area has enjoyed and continues to experience.

Steve: Tell me about a time when this was particularly challenging or rewarding for you. What was the situation, what did you do, how did it work out?

Greta: We focused our initial efforts on wayfinding to leverage the area’s historical focus on agri-tourism. We wanted signage to promote the area. To move this forward, we resurrected the Baroda Business Association (BBA) which had been dormant for a decade. We linked this with the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to figure out ways to promote the area. We wanted to produce a video. To gain buy-in and commitment, we wanted community business and government leaders to support the project. This was our foray into the community, and it took nearly four years to build trust and gain support. In the end we were successful.

Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of the transformation?

Bill: Between the area’s agricultural history, and the village’s focus on tool and die shops, there were competing interests about where to take the community. Greta had many meetings with the DDA, helped initiate the Baroda Area Business Association (BABA), and attempted to hold a Harvest Feast Street Festival to celebrate Baroda area agri-tourism. While the Harvest Feast ran into roadblocks, BABA’s “Party on The Pavers” is now held annually on the vintage bricks of our downtown main street.

Steve: In what ways did you experience cross-functional dysfunction, and how did you address this?

Bill Greta: We had some of this early on. For the Wayfinding and Harvest Feasts, there were competing factions. We had to figure out how to pay for these projects and keep it equitable among the various sized entities. We wanted to include three communities; others wanted only to focus on two. Finally, we had all three aligned and ready to go, but because of these competing factions, we lost one of the communities. This also ultimately cost us a very important sponsor hence the morphing of Harvest Feast into Party on the Pavers.

Steve: How did you enroll others in the transformation?

Greta: We found early on that we needed to create an environment to attract businesses that brings in tourists. The new streetscape project was intended to help do this. We went door to door to speak with both business owners and elected officials about supporting this. We had to show them the math to win over their minds and share the rationale to win their hearts. One key business owner was resistant, but after we showed him a neighboring village’s streetscape and the benefits it brought to their community, we won him over.

Steve: Please comment on organizational challenges you faced, both structural and behavioral.

Greta: Structurally, we had to pull together the BBA, DDA and BABA into a cohesive group with a clear transformational purpose – agri-tourism. We were able to do this early on. Behaviorally, because most of us were volunteers, some of those who were paid participants didn’t realize the legitimacy of our leadership. With time and persistence, we established credibility.

Steve: How did you become more of a coach?

Bill: In this case, it is all about networking and alliance building. We knew where our support came from, and we knew where we needed to apply more finesse. We were also an example by owning several downtown properties. It’s easier to sell the idea of transformation if you have skin in the game.

Steve: If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Greta: First, make sure your purpose is clear, and that the execution supports the achievement of that purpose. Identify the stakeholders up-front and enroll them by addressing their needs and concerns. Finally, make sure there is room to organically and dynamically modify the purpose as you embark on your journey.

Steve: Thank you for taking the time to share your story. Having been a resident of the community off and on across multiple decades, I’m impressed with what you’ve done, and look forward to seeing more productive growth and change in the area. Thank you also for all you have done for the community.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


Note: In 2016, Bill published a photo book about Baroda’s dynamic businesses, “A Portrait of Baroda, Michigan Businesses”.  For more information about the book, go to

How focus on purpose enables transformational change

This is personal. In the 1960’s growing up in Chicago’s suburbs, my parents furnished their home with just about everything from Sears. My mother and I frequented the big Sears store in the Loop. After we moved to Michigan, my father offered several shares of Sears’ stock as collateral for a loan for my first business (Salisbury’s Apiaries, another story for another day). We watched in 1973 as the world’s tallest building, the Sears Tower, opened in Chicago’s loop.

By then the winds of change had already started to blow. In 1977, I started my career at Whirlpool Corporation. Whirlpool was Sears’ largest supplier and Sears its biggest customer. One year later, I attended a company quarterly meeting where a senior leader told us that the executive team was concerned about Sears’ future, and Whirlpool would put greater focus on their own brands and marketing strategy. That was 40 years ago. Sadly, their predictions proved true. Sears is now all but gone.

What happened? Walmart entered the national marketplace in the 1970’s. Sears could not fulfill product commitments. Sears went into the insurance and real estate businesses which diluted their focus. With the rise of the internet, they were late to the party. They stopped investing in their stores.

They lost their way. They did not remain true to their purpose. They became complacent and distracted. They lost touch with their employees. These issues caused them to lose touch with their marketplace.

Over and over I see successful leaders do one thing quite well. They define and stay true to their purpose. Whatever the scale of the transformation they:

  • Define a clear purpose, and state it in terms of tangible outcomes.
  • Ensure their leadership team is aligned to these outcomes.
  • Work to eliminate cross-functional dysfunction that hampers realization of the outcomes.
  • Communicate frequently and repetitively about the value of the transformation and its outcomes.
  • Seek real time feedback from all levels of the organization to assess progress and potentially modify the course of action required to implement their transformation.
  • Enroll employees to drive the transformation. Managers define processes and measures; front-line employees determine how the changes will impact them and their peers and act accordingly.

As a leader driving transformational change in your organization, ask yourself the questions posed  above.

Having worked with executives driving successful transformational change, I am uniquely qualified to help you achieve the value you expect from your program. Contact me today to learn more about how I can help you.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How to enroll middle managers in your transformation

At one point in my corporate career, I was a middle manager responsible for large teams. I was heads down executing the day-to-day work of the organization. There were substantial changes looming around me, and I had an idea that at some point, these would impact me, but I didn’t have the time to think about all this and keep the day-to-day operations moving forward.

I’ve noticed this condition in my consulting career. We sometimes do not pay enough attention to the needs of middle managers when organizations go through a major transformation. There is both a challenge and opportunity here.

The challenge is that, like me in my corporate career, middle managers tend to be so focused on running the day-to-day business that they don’t have time to think about the implications of transformation on their area. The opportunity is that when properly enrolled in driving the transformation, they are instrumental to long-term sustainability.

How do we enroll middle managers, and do we do it in a way that makes sense? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Assign them to lead business readiness teams. One effective way of enrolling front line employees is to assign them to teams which lead the implementation of the transformation in a given area of the business. These teams need leaders. Who better than middle managers associated with a function within the organization.
  2. Ask them to develop new metrics. Every transformation in which I have been involved has required new business measures to monitor performance. Once middle managers understand the nature of the transformation, they are among those most likely to be able to define relevant new measures.
  3. Have them rationalize process improvements. Because they are on the front-line, middle managers are well equipped to validate, adjust, or even discard proposed process improvements.
  4. Culture monitors. Gather their input on how they see the transformation will impact the culture; they have probably the best handle on how the transformation will impact the folks on the front line, how they interact with one another, and implications for the broader organization.

These are a few ways you can enroll middle managers in your transformation. The bottom line – this is not optional for long term, sustainable success.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,