SoftBrands is a provider of enterprise-wide software solutions focused on the hospitality and manufacturing industries. For David Gahn, vice president of the Americas for Softbrands, building the success of the organization was a new assignment. But for Randy Tofteland, SoftBrands’ president, it was an unresolved challenge that had been delegated to two previous vice presidents. The U.K. division, which the organization had acquired through a merger many years ago, continued to be a drain on the corporation. Tofteland charged Gahn with the task of either quickly fixing the ailing division or divesting it.
Previously, Renee Conklin, vice president of human resources, had invested heavily in traditional types of leadership training that emphasized 360-degree competency feedback and learning about personality types. Though a few individual leaders may have found some of this knowledge personally useful, the training clearly had not impacted business results. Although the company’s leaders were highly seasoned, none of them had faced such a difficult and competitive market. Developing leaders who could face challenging assignments was central to the organization’s long-term success.
Leaders at SoftBrands required an alternative development process that would help them quickly improve business performance. Conklin shifted her leadership development approach to provide the top and middle management teams with toolbox training, which was specifically designed not to improve their individual leadership capabilities, but to teach the leadership groups how to address current organizational leadership challenges. The toolbox training provided specific leadership language, the leader’s map and the leadership tools to address the organization’s challenges.
Gahn gathered together the employees of the U.K. division. With them, he used the leadership change map and the tools to analyze the market, develop scenarios, determine the organization’s critical core competencies, and identify and balance the paradoxes that stood in their way. Through this process, he was able to gain employee commitment to a new strategic scenario. Tofteland was delighted with the newly crafted strategic plan and gave the U.K. division the permission, time and the resources needed to reframe its future.
In early 2002 Terry Peterson, who was responsible for the company’s service contract business, watched first-quarter revenues fall quickly. Prior to the leadership toolbox training, Peterson would have felt compelled to cut expenses and lay off employees. This time, however, he took a different route. He pulled out the leader’s map and applied the leadership tools to the task at hand. Rather than follow his usual practice of tightening up, Peterson openly shared the current business reality with the employees and invited them to participate in the process of reinventing their future.
The organizational results achieved by the use of the newly learned leadership tools were astounding. At the end of the first year, revenues of the U.K. division grew 30 percent, almost all of which fell to the bottom line. While the annual industry market growth rate for manufacturing software in the year following the training was 3 percent, the U.K. division delivered a whopping 23 percent increase in revenues. By the end of the second quarter of 2002, Peterson’s contract services group had erased the shortfall of the first quarter and exceeded the yearly budget revenue forecast as a result of the five new products that had been produced with the help of the leadership tools.
These two leaders learned that powerful results can be achieved by using the right leadership tools. They learned how to effectively involve employees in the process of analyzing the competitive environment and how to put in place an infrastructure for realizing financial success. Overwhelming market challenges could have led to the worst experiences of their long careers. Instead, Peterson and Gahn successfully navigated changes that led to both organizational success and high levels of personal satisfaction. Though it has been three years since their first and only formal leadership toolbox training, the leadership map and the tools remain central aspects of SoftBrands’ leadership strategies.
Ralph Jacobson is a principal of The Leader’s Toolbox. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.