Though the topic has never been back-burnered, business leadership seems to have heated up in the past few years, with books, columns, blog posts, and seminars on the subject popping up. Grayce Belvedere Young, president of the Prouty Project, an Eden Prairie–based leadership development consultancy, offers one theory. During the recession, companies trimmed budgets devoted to strengthening their executives’ leadership capabilities. With the economy improving (if slowly), “there’s been a bit of resurgence in the last year or so,” she says.
But there’s another factor, too. Businesses seem to be changing the way they lead, or at least seeing that the old ways don’t work quite as well as they need to. “You hear a lot of leaders rate the soft stuff lower than the hard stuff in business. But the soft stuff is what rallies people’s hearts and minds to want to follow a leader,” Belvedere Young says. “And if you as a leader don’t have that ability to inspire people, yes, you’ll get compliance and they’ll do what you ask them to do, they’ll do their job. But their discretionary effort won’t go much further. They’ll do what they need to do.
“Whereas if you think of someone who really captures people’s hearts and minds and treats people in a way that’s fair, straightforward, and respectful, people follow and they give their all,” she adds.
The Prouty Project was founded 25 years ago by Jeff Prouty, who’s now the company’s chairman. Early on, he consulted on strategic planning for entrepreneurs, and continues to do so today. The company focuses on three main areas: strategic planning, organizational development (which includes leadership and team development), and board director development. The Prouty Project’s clients range from nonprofits to small startups to divisions of Fortune 500s, mostly in Minnesota.
Belvedere Young joined the Prouty Project in 2007 from Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, where she was a senior director of leadership systems. Before that, she worked in sales, marketing, and business development at UnitedHealth and at Thomson West Group. She now directs the Prouty Project’s organization development practice.
Central to the Prouty Project’s modus operandi is what it calls “stretch,” which can be defined as moving out of one’s comfort zone to stimulate new thinking. The consultancy’s techniques include team simulations and other activities intended to help leaders see how they interact with their employees. Some of its customized programs include feedback from a psychologist.
According to Belvedere Young, many companies are looking to rev up their strategic plans. Previous plans may have resulted in satisfactory growth, she says, “but not ‘next-curve’ type of growth”—that is, looking beyond safe, standard practices such as product-line extensions to new markets and truly new products.
She offers this case study of a local company that had experienced some changes in leadership and wanted to re-energize its management team. Prouty created a leadership development program for this client based on a cohort model—bringing together 16 to 20 people three times for two to three days at a time. Prouty’s topics included creating a value proposition, improving customer experience and employee engagement, and developing emotional intelligence in the managers.
“The results from a revenue perspective have been amazing,” Belvedere Young says. “In a couple of regions, they went from a deficit of something like $500,000 to within a year, they were in a positive $250,000.”
Much of what Prouty teaches its clients is how to engage employees, which includes providing clear, constructive feedback and acknowledging work well done. “You get work done through people,” Belvedere Young notes. “If your people aren’t giving that extra effort, it doesn’t advance your business.”
Seems obvious enough. So why do companies need an outside leadership consultant such as the Prouty Project? Belvedere Young says that its clients often see that what it is teaching is largely common sense, “but it’s not common practice.” The stress of modern work life is one reason, she says—when people’s plates are loaded to overflowing, common courtesy often gets lost. In addition, there are cultural and societal norms in organizations that “prohibit people from being genuine.” In short, so-called soft skills aren’t valued as much as the “harder” analytical skills. But more and more, leaders need both.
Gayle Hayhurst, vice president of human resources for Bloomington-based Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., began working with the Prouty Project in April 2012 for help with strategic planning and building team effectiveness. The business unit’s leadership team was a mix of new and longer-tenured employees; it was also looking ahead to a coming brand transformation. Hayhurst touts a “good combination of realistic facilitation and experiential learning.” The results so far? An “increase in employee engagement,” faster decision making, and improved employee retention.
Belvedere Young sums up the Prouty Project’s key selling point this way: “ ‘Your leadership style is impacting the growth and profitability of your organization. Because you directly impact your employees, who directly impact your customers.’ When you look at it this way,” she adds, “the soft stuff is really the hard stuff.”