Fabulous and 40: BlessingWhite turns the big 4-OH!
A message from Tod White, co-founder of BlessingWhite
BlessingWhite was incorporated in January 1973, making this month our 40th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone, we invited company co-founder Tod White to share some insights from the early days of the company and the philosophy behind MPG, BlessingWhite’s inaugural and groundbreaking development solution.
The social environment at the start
The early 1970s were a time of tremendous social upheaval. Students and others were protesting the war in Vietnam. The National Organization of Women was founded to seek equality for women. African Americans were rioting in Newark and Watts and elsewhere. Watergate investigations were further adding to the mistrust of government. Affirmative action suits were challenging corporations. It was all adding up to a culture of “Anti-authority” and “Do your own thing.”
This spirit of the times created contradictions: a desire for greater personal freedom and a general distrust of large organizations on one side, and on the other the reality of needing a job, often provided by a large and, most typically, paternal organization.
Identifying the need
Buck and I were driven to create a program to help individuals meet their personal needs at work. Our primary concern was with people, not with organizations. However, from a business point of view, we wanted our buyers not to be individuals but to be corporations. Clearly, the program we developed had to meet important needs of both individual workers and their employers. It didn’t take us long to illustrate this relationship with the X model of employee engagement.
It was a somewhat radical idea at the time to acknowledge that the reasons an individual chooses to take a job are not the same reasons the employer chooses to offer the job to the individual. Furthermore, an even more novel idea at the time was our contention that responsibility for the success of the relationship between the individual and the job belonged as much, if not more, to the individual as it did to the individual’s manager. Individual responsibility is the most basic, foundational belief supporting MPG.
BlessingWhite’s two biggest clients in 1974 (our second year in business) were Western Union and Container Corporation of America. CCA planned to have all managers attend MPG and asked if we had a video demonstrating a Development Discussion. We didn’t but said we’d make one right away. We put a rented video camera in the hands of Jim Spadotto, our first hire as a salesman/instructor, while Buck and I had two Development Discussions. No rehearsal, no do-overs and no editing — and it shows, but CCA got it on time, was happy and remained a good client for many years.
The MPG breakthrough
“You are responsible for your own job satisfaction, your own development, your own career” — this idea appealed to the great number of people seeking control over their own lives. It also appealed to their managers who thought it was a great idea to delegate these tasks to their subordinates.
This basic premise of MPG closed the deal with one of our first clients: Michigan Bell Telephone. AT&T had been ordered by the court to settle an affirmative action suit by developing more women for managerial responsibility. Michigan Bell was given the job to do this. A member of the Michigan Bell project team attended the first Open Session MPG workshop we conducted, in the spring of ’73, and immediately signed-up.
1973 – 2013
MPG prepared these high-potential women to take responsibility for their own development as candidates for promotion and also gave their managers the tools to play a focused supportive role. This was the start of a long relationship with the many units of AT&T. In the aggregate, AT&T was BlessingWhite’s largest client throughout our first 15 years.
Unfortunately, not every corporation in America was as enlightened and farsighted as Michigan Bell. A senior Human Resource manager at Kodak expressed a view held at other companies when he said, “We don’t want our employees to be in charge of their own development. We (HR) do the manpower planning.” (In January 2012, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Today its stock price trades at 8% of its early 1970s price.) This “management knows best” attitude had been the norm throughout corporate America forever and wasn’t about to change overnight without good reason.
Because American companies were not falling over themselves to do business with us, we looked outside the box — the box being the USA. Buck had good contacts with the Singapore Institute of Management, the Thai Management Institute, the Malaysian Institute of Management, and others in Hong Kong and Indonesia. Each of these Institutes sponsored 3-5 workshops for us in ’73 and ’74. Each trip would be 4-5 weeks. We’d teach a couple of open sessions, perhaps an in-house program, and make lots of sales calls to set up the next trip. Our biggest client was General Electric, which had 5 plants in Singapore. We rapidly trained 24 instructors.
On the home front, new clients were teaching us how to market MPG. Scott Paper, for example, internally billed MPG as a career-planning program despite our protests that careers couldn’t be planned or, at least, rarely happened as planned. We gave in. Kinney Shoes and Chase Manhattan used MPG to accelerate the development of “high potentials.” Several companies used MPG to add a development component to their performance appraisal system. Bell Labs used MPG to reduce turnover of its “best and brightest” by helping them find more satisfaction within their present assignment. In fact, this use of MPG to address the career concerns of what management guru Peter Drucker called “Knowledge Workers” was turning into a major reason MPG sales were accelerating.
Knowledge Workers included the highly educated engineers and other experts commonly found in the finance, technology, marketing and other staff departments where loyalty to one’s profession was often stronger than loyalty to one’s employer. The MPG assertion that “your best, most immediate opportunity for a better job is in your current position,” if you take the initiative, resonated with Knowledge Workers.
The growth of BlessingWhite can be credited to a product that met the needs of people in all sorts of jobs in all sorts of industries. Our dream was to train employees of our client organizations to teach MPG and to become internal advocates. For this dream to come true being an MPG instructor had to be a fun and personally rewarding experience. Buck and I spent a lot of time designing and redesigning our Instructor Training Program and hosting various events to reinforce the bond between our Client Instructors and BlessingWhite.
BlessingWhite and MPG continue to get the job done
A lot has changed since BlessingWhite began 40 years ago. Until about that time, people tended to join an organization early in their career and remain with that organization for the rest of their work-life. Job-hopping and layoffs were both rare. This began to change in the early ’70s. In addition to the cultural reasons mentioned earlier, the ’70s brought increased globalization, more frequent mergers and reorganizations, many technological changes affecting how work is done, and a lot more competition. All of these trends continue today. One consequence has been a change in the relationship between individuals and their work. Lifetime employment is rare. Companies are much less paternalistic. Employees are less loyal. But the reasons why companies bought MPG 30 and 40 years ago and why MPG was so popular then are just as relevant today. Maybe more so.
Today, people frequently change jobs, employers, and even careers. Relationships with supervisors, subordinates and co-workers are often in the process of forming. Job security can’t be assumed. These are all barriers that prevent people from being fully engaged and totally committed to their work. More than ever, in times of change and uncertainty, people need a process, a structure, to help them initiate discussions with their manager about what the manager expects of them and what they expect of their manager. Managers need a process to help get their team up to speed every time someone new joins or leaves the team and whenever changes affect the jobs to be done. The MPG concept of the X is fundamental. It directs the most important conversation that takes place at work, a conversation between a worker, at any level, and his or her manager: What are we trying to accomplish? How are we to measure success? What am I looking for from this job for my own development and motivation? How can we keep communication open and productive between the two of us?
In this era of little cubicles, narrow specializations, pervasive social media and for a host of other reasons, straightforward talk between people is both harder to achieve and more important to achieve. Tried and true for 40 years, MPG is a proven process for doing the job.
For forty years BlessingWhite has heard from many MPG ‘graduates’ on how attending this session changed their lives and/or their careers. In celebration of our 40th Birthday we want to hear from you!
Email us at BlessingWhite@gpstrategies.com to tell us when you took MPG and how it changed your life and/or career. You may see your story in a future issue of eNews.