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Center Holds Up a Looking Glass for Executives

February 18, 1988|ELLIOT KING

SAN DIEGO — Steve Haines has seen the seamy side of the business world. Haines, the former executive vice president of Imperial Corp. of America, parent company of Imperial Bank, has no illusions about the role of truth and honesty in corporate America.

One time, for example, Haines observed "a situation in which management told one group of executives they were not planning to sell a certain subsidiary," then turned right around and worked out a sale with another group.

"The bad rap that businesses get for ethics and morality was right there in front of you," he said.

Haines did not witness that "Dallas"-like scenario in some plush board room--though he could have. Instead, the episode was played out during a business simulation exercise sponsored by the Center for Creative Leadership. An 18-year-old research and training firm based in Greensboro, N.C., the center opened a branch in San Diego last year and offers a wide range of seminars to help mid-level and senior executives improve their performances.

While the idea of executive training is not new, CCL's approach is. Instead of simply exhorting executives to do it their way, the center conducts its own original research on corporate America, then uses those findings as the basis of its seminars.

Participants say the center's approach provides invaluable insights directly applicable to life in the business world. For example, when David Knight, manager of management and organizational development at San Diego Gas & Electric, attended a CCL seminar in San Diego last year, he learned about the experiences--both positive and negative--top managers in Fortune 100 companies believed were the most important to them on their road to the top.

Knight, a human resources professional for 35 years, said that experience "made me rethink how we select developmental assignments" for managers.

"We never really analyzed what we wanted somebody to get from an assignment (and how we) communicate that to the individual and measure their progress," Knight said. Now he does.

Founded in 1970

The Center for Creative Leadership was founded in 1970 by H. Smith Richardson Jr., grandson of the founder of Vicks Chemical Corp., best known for Vicks Vaporub and Formula 44. The local branch opened last March across from University Towne Centre in La Jolla.

Its mission is to develop creative leadership and effective management in the American business community. Toward that goal, the center has developed a series of seminars and training programs on executive development, creativity and leadership. In 1987, more than 15,000 managers attended programs at its three centers (the third CCL center is in Colorado Springs).

The center's management philosophy is deceptively simple: "We try to help managers see themselves as others see them," said Ann Morrison, director of the San Diego office. "The ability to pick up cues as to what effect managers are having on the people they work with is crucial. But in our society, getting valuable, reliable feedback is a luxury."

CCL's centerpiece is the Looking Glass, a 6-hour simulation game, where 20 participants play the roles of top management positions, from president on down to plant manager of a mythical company with annual sales of $200 million. During the daylong exercise, the executive team is confronted with a series of difficult business decisions.

The game can be eerily realistic. There's a mock office suite, with the players ensconced in offices fully equipped with all the trappings of their respective positions.

Fired Subordinate

And the way participants play their parts--with die-hard commitment--would make Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka proud. Many stay up half the night reviewing the financial data CCL supplies. In the middle of one simulation, the acting president fired a subordinate. During another, a chief executive officer disappeared into the woods to prepare a speech he theoretically would have to deliver to the Kiwanis Club the next day.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the simulations are the communication and negotiation among staff members, processes often riddled with the kind of dishonesty, skulduggery and deceit frequently found in the everyday business world. Haines' experience with the double-dealing managers was an example of this.

At the end of the simulation, the various management decisions made by participants are fed into a computer to assess their effect on the company's bottom line. "You can see that right or wrong answers have a positive or negative impact," Haines said.

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