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Consultants challenge company mandate and raise the bar

***This article is part of a series on employee engagement called Capitalizing on Culture. The series follows Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Trimark Sportswear Group and its quest to improve company culture.

Week four: Identifying priorities and communicating them to staff

Will Andrew hadn't really hired consultants at Managerial Design to help him rethink the culture at Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Trimark Sportswear Group when he took over as president on June 1.

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He'd done work with facilitators in the past for help with longer-range planning. But Mr. Andrew wanted the management team to know his expectations were even higher than his predecessor's. "I didn't want to get by with things being fine," he explains. "I wanted to go to the next level."

He wanted to solicit employees for their ideas but he recognized that demanding the bar be raised could feel threatening to some. "I didn't want people to be scared they wouldn't be able to achieve it," Mr. Andrew says. "It was more 'we as a group are going to set higher standards, work together.'"

To start the process, Managerial Design performed a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. That not only involves looking at how the individuals in a management team function and how the group functions as a team but also at how competitors are doing in relation to Trimark.

See more from the Capitalizing on Culture series:

One of the interesting tools the consultants used to determine the dynamics among senior management at Trimark was a visual diagram of the conversation flow in a meeting. When a person would speak, the consultant would put a dot in front of him or her. By the end of the meeting, it was more clear, by the number of dots each person had, whether one or two people were dominating the conversation — and perhaps not listening as much — whether someone was weaker and needed more training, and so on.

Similarly, the consultants socialized with the group and observed meetings — occasionally selecting someone to sit out of a session to determine how their absence changed the conversation. "We did pull someone out of the room," says Mr. Andrew, "and the dynamics completely changed. We learned a lot as a group."

In addition, the entire company compiled a list of goals, thresholds, awards they'd like to win, and more, and then started to prioritize.

"They'll say, 'Is inventory management tied to the number of styles in the line?' Of course. 'Which one is more important?' Then you start to push one above the other," Mr. Andrew explains. "I had 'Being open and honest; dealing with the elephant in the room.' That led to much more dialogue around culture and how we go about things as opposed to what we do."

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The next step was to narrow the initiatives into categories — in Trimark's case, customer-experience, financial metrics, inventory control, sales, culture, and continuous improvement.

Those, in turn, were prioritized using another visual exercise called a decision tree. Items are put in a circle like a clock, then the group took two — say, inventory control and customer experience — and determined which drove which. An arrow is put from one driver — in this case, inventory control — to the other.

"As you go around the clock, everything starts pointing to customer experience, which tells you it's the last thing," Mr. Andrew explains. At the end of Trimark's exercise, the most important initiative: culture.

"Managerial Design's mandate is not to give you information but to hold the mirror up," he adds. "They're not coming to tell you how to run your business. They're there to challenge what you're saying and make sure everyone agrees about it. They're trying to get you aligned."

Much of the process for moving forward was decided during the first two days off-site. Then consultants spent a couple of days in Trimark's office, helping management figure out which person was going to be responsible for which priority.

To do that, they made a resource chart. It was another visual exercise to help clarify company dynamics. "You start to see who everybody's relying on," says Mr. Andrew. "You see people who are not taking on a lot."

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By the time the consultants were finished at Trimark, the staff fully understood both what the objectives are and the steps needed to reach them.

At the moment, employees are riding the enthusiasm for the changes that developed during those meeting with Managerial Design. "It's going to slow down for sure, but we can periodically say 'let's get them back in, revitalize this stuff and move forward,'" says Mr. Andrew. "But right now, we're knee-deep in phase one."

See more from the Capitalizing on Culture series:

Through stories and video, The Globe and Mail will be checking in with Trimark's new president Will Andrew and his team as they go through the process of identifying and implementing the steps toward achieving a winning culture. Experts will offer their insights about the importance of such a process and the things a company should – and should not – do along the way. Mr. Andrew will contribute a regular diary about his experiences, good and bad.

Video introduction to the Capitalizing on Culture series Meet Trimark president Will Andrew as he explains how and why he wants to improve his sportswear company's culture

Introduction: Company culture in the crosshairs Week one: Trimark president Will Andrew embarks on a quest to improve his firm, starting with a winning corporate atmosphere

Leadership diary - week one: Preparing for a cultural sea change? Take a deep breath It's not all about management, or just employees; it will be a group effort, Will Andrew writes in his first diary

Preparing for a cultural sea change? Take a deep breath It's not all about management, or just employees; it will be a group effort, Will Andrew writes in his first leadership diary

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