Coffee and Croissants

Tom Peters

How can organizations overcome friction between adversarial factions within their staff? Many scholarly and case studies offer complex theories about ingrained stereotypical assumptions and resistance to change. But one of the most effective strategies I have observed is a manager at the local level taking the initiative and offering, in a nonthreatening way, to sit down and chat. It takes a while for any noticeable response. But with lots of patience, the results can be startling.

At a recent seminar I attended, several participants eagerly anticipated a presentation by a semiconductor company’s senior executive, who had turned around a $100 million business in that tough industry. His talk was an anticlimax for those who had expected the revelation of a sophisticated technique. Instead, he claimed that most of the success was due to a weekly breakfast with 20 of his people, randomly chosen for the meeting. Huh? He simply had wanted to hear what was on their minds, in a non-charged setting. At first, of course, there had been lots of skepticism. But after his staff noticed the executive actually started to fix problems brought up at the breakfasts the trickle of ideas became a torrent.

Three days earlier I had attended a different seminar and heard the same story, from a manager in the equally turbulent health care industry. During a hopelessly bogged-down debate about why doctors and administrators categorically seem unable to cooperate, a woman, who had crafted a brilliant turnaround of a troubled hospital in Boston, proclaimed: “Look, we just assume that doctors don’t want to cooperate and we treat them based on that assumption. I simply declared that I was going to be in my office on the same morning each week, with coffee and danish, and that I’d be pleased if any of the medical staff would stop buy and join me toward no particular end. It was slow to catch on, but now it’s the most important ‘staff meeting’ of the week.”

A young man chimed in with a less dramatic, but equally poignant anecdote. He said he held an informal staff meeting every two weeks with a group from his hospital, in a local pub with burgers, beer and shop talk. By accident, a year or so into the successful process, he invited some doctors to attend. They did. He was surprised, and asked them why they came. “Why not?” they replied. “You always have this luncheon, and no one ever invites us. Why do you think we wouldn’t want to attend whenever we can?” Decades of stereotyping was the reason.

Les Wexner, founder of The Limited stores, tops them all. After acquiring the Lerner store chain last year, he cut off a host of hard-nosed suppliers, in order to deal with bloated and outdated inventories. The suppliers responded with a passel of lawsuits.

The Limited’s Bob Grayson, who is now chief executive for Lerner, was tossed into a wolf pack of clamoring New York garment makers. Grayson, whom Wexner calls “a good Iowa farm kid” and a hell of a merchant, discovered the power of the coffee klatch. He said he’d show up at Lerner’s midtown Manhattan headquarters at the crack of dawn each morning to read Women’s Wear Daily and discuss the business with anyone who showed up. It started small and is growing to this day. The Limited’s once-sour relations with suppliers in the toughest environment imaginable has sweetened.

Finally, Buick and the United Auto Workers have engaged in some of the most dramatic Quality of Work Life (QWL) experiments in the country over the past decade. General Motors’ executives Dutch Landon and Howard Carlson explain how it started: “After about a half dozen off-site meetings between local management and labor leadership, [we] decided to [get) workers involved in some fashion. Since neither party was quite sure how the process might work or how people might react to the joint invitation, they agreed on the safe step of an open house.

“The voluntary participation of employees was sought in planning, organization and administration of a division-wide open house for [16,000] Buick families and friends. The open house was so successful that it was followed over the next two years by a bond drive, blood donor campaign, hospital fundraising and United Way of Michigan campaign.” Over the next ten years, quality circles were introduced and employee/union/management cooperation led to radical reorganization of Buick city.

Some variation of coffee and croissants marks each of these stories. Obviously, the missing ingredient is the will, integrity, beliefs, and patience of the individuals who undertook a wild, unorthodox leap. Each risked—and received—personal and professional rebuff at first, and were considered frivolous and naive by their management colleagues. And yet all prevailed.

There is but one method to overcome the stereotypical images that keep apart warring factions at all organizations. Managers take the lead to disarm, sit down, listen and accept rebuff. (After all, they’re often fighting decades of bruised feelings.) More important, they must wait it out until it becomes clear to their adversaries, not that they are “good guys,” but that they have the conviction to sit quietly to start a dialogue to salvage or enhance the organization on whose payroll both “sides” depend for bread, butter, and recognition.

The only danger, and it is a grim one, is badly damaged ego. Sitting and waiting for the first coffee and croissant attendee is the ultimate in passivity if John Wayne is your idol.

What are you doing for breakfast tomorrow morning?

(c)1986 Not Just Another Publishing Company.

All rights reserved.