As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Cook and Roxanne Brown.
Roxanne has 25 years of change experience with Capital One and other companies, focused on leader and team transformation coaching, large-scale change initiatives, culture strategy, communications, and training. During her tenure, she established their Change Leadership Community of Practice, helped implement the first change management practices for the organization, and set the current program change management methodology and tools. She teaches change management courses, leads discussion groups on the subject, and mentors practitioners. Today, Roxanne is a partner in The Change Decision, a consulting firm focused on guiding change to bring Joy at Work. Her specialty is in creating high-performing teams through engaging the unique abilities of leaders and team members. Roxanne received her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts, with a focus in Leadership Studies, from the University of Richmond. She has several advanced certifications and is currently the President of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP), an international professional association of over 5000 members.
Ed has 30 years of leadership and analytical experience with companies such as Capital One and Corning as well as experience as a Navy pilot. He has led groups large and small covering operations, IT, analysis, and several corporate mergers. Ed was mobilized by the US Navy and sent to Baghdad, Iraq where, as CDR Ed Cook, he worked in the Green Zone on the Commanding General’s Staff, at the time Gen. David Petraeus. Ed worked extensively on employment initiatives for the people of Iraq bridging across the US military, the US Embassy, and the Government of Iraq. For his efforts, Ed was awarded the Bronze Star. Ed has implemented large process, technology, and infrastructure changes. The culminating effort was in leading the program where Capital One built coffee houses (Capital One Cafés) across the country instead of traditional branches. Today, Ed is a partner in The Change Decision, a consulting firm focused on guiding change to bring Joy at Work. Ed has a BS in Aerospace Engineering, an MBA, and a Ph.D. in Systems Modeling and Analysis. Ed is a Visiting Professor at the University of Richmond teaching analytics in the MBA and undergraduate programs.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
We have two very different backgrounds that came together in the corporate world. Roxanne’s background was in real estate, partly in insurance and partly in corporate relocation. Ed was a Naval Aviator flying the C-2A Greyhound, the Navy’s cargo plane that lands on the aircraft carrier. We came together at Capital One where Ed was a program leader and Roxanne worked in change management. We first worked together on a large multimillion-dollar technology, process, and policy implementation which, over a year into the work, was not going well. In fact, the CEO, in a very public meeting with thousands of managers present, called out the program as a “disappointment.” We were in the pit of despair!
Fortunately, Roxanne was able to get us moving in a new direction by suggesting we try something completely different. We ignored what was going on outside the program and focused on empowering the 250 people working within the program. Ed in particular changed how he led the team. With Roxanne’s guidance, we changed how we communicated becoming much more transparent but also much more deliberate. We would map the emotional arc of a meeting and plan how we wanted people to move through the meeting so that it would be useful to them. We did fun things but with a strict purpose and outcome so that when we changed a typical all-hands meeting with tall 250 people, we set up the meeting as a late-night talk show with a band and an interview-style of delivery. It was funny and entertaining but also highly effective in conveying the information and motivating the team. We finished the program as one of the greatest turnarounds in the company. Ed spent the next two months on the “talk show” circuit attending meetings to tell everyone how he and Roxanne had managed the change. This was the beginning of the idea for The Change Decision and the kernel of the idea for us to drive Joy at Work which is the vision of The Change Decision.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The first piece of work we did together in The Change Decision was to facilitate a three-day retreat for a round table of 10 CEOs from a group called the Virginia Council of CEOs. We prepared as we would have to do a multi-day meeting in our past Fortune 200 lives. We had flip charts and guides. We had exercises figured out. But what we didn’t have was much knowledge of the group. The retreat was at a beach house on the North Carolina coast owned by one of the CEOs. Everyone, including us, was staying at the house. In our Fortune 200 world, a set up like this would never happen.
We had only met one of the CEOs so we didn’t even know what the other people looked like. With some trepidation, we knocked at the front door and went in. At the top of the stairs, we were greeted by a woman who turned out to be the caterer. She told us everyone was at the beach and that we had to “bring your own alcohol because they do not have enough for you.” Boom! That was our introduction. Within a few hours, we were at the dinner table together telling stories and sharing wine. There soon became a significant amount of joking about how we should get married. (They knew we were a couple as well as business partners, but the continual refrain to “get a ring!” was…unusual for us.)
Here we were expecting overly serious CEOs but found something much more complicated. The group would laugh and joke but as soon as we started any of the content portions of the retreat, they became laser-focused on the content. We had never been with a group that was both so rambunctious and fun as well as focused and serious. It was an amazing entry in the world of business outside of where we had been.
What we learned was a very different way of being: having clients as friends. In the three and a half years since that retreat, we have continued to have this experience of clients and friendships mixing. The value of having this mixing is a depth of connection that was rare to get in the corporate world.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
We have gotten tremendous inspiration from the podcast “How I Built This” on NPR. Many stories about successful company origins omit the near-death experiences that these companies have on their way to success. The biggest lesson we got out of listening to these is that there is no singular recipe for success, but there is an ingredient. The ingredient is persistence. Every story spotlights at least one time, often many, where the founders had to put their heads down and just keep plugging at it. Even when it looked like there was little or even no chance of success. We are experiencing that feeling that today with a global pandemic and civil unrest literally right outside our office door. We just have to put our heads down and keep pushing through.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
The vision of The Change Decisions is: To Bring Joy at Work
We mean this in the most deep sense of the word joy which is far beyond personal happiness. We would say, in fact, that it is possible to be temporarily unhappy but still find Joy at Work. We see joy happening when a person’s internally held purpose is fulfilled at work. Attaining that purpose does not always generate happiness along the way. We have certainly experienced the lack of happiness in our previous corporate lives particularly in our founding story for The Change Decision, but we still had joy. Ed experienced unhappiness in his time in the Navy particularly the year he worked in Baghdad during the surge in 2007 but even there he found joy in the work he did to improve healthcare and strengthen the economy.
We are conducting joy research through interviews with CEOs of all kinds of different companies. That has helped in the development of a Joy Assessment which w developed to help leaders understand the impact of the ten-components of joy that we have identified. This assessment stands apart from typical employee engagement surveys which focus on what the employee feels is coming from the company to them. Instead, our Joy Assessment focuses on the back and forth of employee to their team.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Our Number One Principle: Only one of us can be down at any one time. We rely on each other to pull the other up when one of us is down. We actively talk about it and look to each other for support. It is amazingly strengthening to go through this process of building a company knowing that you have a partner who will make it better for you. In addition to being business partners, we are a couple. Even more, we will be married in just a couple of weeks! There is much to navigate around in such a relationship but we have found that we have gained much more because of our relationship.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
About three months ago, Ed’s 79-year old father fell and did significant damage to his knee. He needed to have surgery, so he was taken to the hospital. With COVID-19 gaining ground daily, hospitals were closed to visitors. This was distressing for Ed and his family. It became even more so the day after surgery when Ed’s Dad suffered a heart attack in the hospital. This started a cascading saga of dealing with fragments of information coming from first from the hospital that had taken care of the knee surgery to the next hospital where Ed’s Dad was treated for the heart attack. From there, two rehabilitation hospitals have been involved. All of this with COVID-19 preventing all visits. Trying to understand what is happening to him and what progress, if any, he was making was incredibly challenging.
We dealt with the stress of all of this by trying to focus on helping Ed’s Mom who was working mightily to chase down information at the hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Fortunately, we live only 120 miles away so it was possible for Ed to drive to his parents’ home to help out, but with so little information coming through there was not much to do except be there to support Ed’s Mom. Just a few days ago Ed’s Dad was able to come home, but he will need significant in-home care which starts now another chapter in his recovery. We will now work on helping make that recovery happen.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
All the work that we had done until the pandemic hit was based on in-person delivery. We were used to using video conferencing from our corporate experience but mostly we delivered the consulting work we did face to face. That ability rapidly closed off in March. Additionally, most companies were very inwardly focused as they tried to wrestle with how to handle the impact of COVID-19. We had lost the ability to talk readily to our clients and even worse we lost their attention.
Fortunately, we had begun a workshop series that was readymade to move to virtual. At the same time, Ed also had to convert his University of Richmond classes to virtual delivery. We rapidly improved our ability to deliver virtually first with equipment (microphones, lights, and software) then we reached out to companies to let them know that we had the ability to do the change workshop virtually. With so many other interactions shutdown, The Change Decision could immediately offer something that could be delivered virtually and with high quality. That saved the company.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Just like in our corporate experience, lack of information tends to make the imagination run to the bad place. We have helped our family and friends focus on what they know and what they can do with that knowledge. There is a distinction in information that we often highlight, the difference between what is interesting and what is useful. It may be interesting to know what is happening on the far side of the country, but what is happening nearby is more useful when making decisions about how to act in a pandemic. This is far from a panacea for anxiety, but it often helps and is certainly much more focusing.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
What has become clear to us is that we need to start with the idea that all services we offer have to be able to be delivered with great quality virtually. This does not mean simply converting what we do in-person to be virtual. It means building with the intent of delivering virtually and having that experience be awesome. This means a complete rearchitecting of what we do. We have gone back to our corporate experience of defining the emotional arc that we want people to go through as part of our events and workshops and consulting engagements. This has meant rethinking everything about what we say and how we consult so that we contemplate an interaction that needs to happen primarily through a laptop screen but not exclusively. We have examined what we can mail to people’s homes to enhance the experience. We have thought through the before and after event interactions as part of the emotional arc. We have looked at what we can ask our clients to do that would be unique and impactful over a video connection. But mostly we have changed what we do and how we use the tools of video conferencing to create an engaging experience that creates Joy at Work.
Ed is taking the same approach for his University of Richmond classes. Thinking first how they can be awesome as a virtual delivery and then what would be even better if it was possible to have the students in person. We are doing this for The Change Decision as well and the results of what we are creating are fantastically better.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We have two massive experiments going on right now. One about how to do work from home and one about how to get educated from home. As a company, we are learning a tremendous amount about what works and what does not for both education and work from home. As a global society, we are learning as well. Just the scope of those two forced experiments will have to yield insights into how to do business and education differently in the future…better in the future. We don’t think we know what those insights will be, but we have our guesses. We think that companies will look to provide more opportunities for blended settings of doing work from an office and from a home. That means even more work happening via video in order to bring people together. This will highlight the cracks in processes such as meetings and performance evaluations and generally in how organizations are led which are often executed without much thought. In the post COVID-19 world of business, the flaws in those systems will be revealed and produce significant damage if they are not improved. If they are taken on as opportunities, we think there can be more Joy at Work.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We will create everything with a virtual-first mentality. This will be helpful for not only making better connections to companies that will have both in-office and in-home workers but also companies to which we cannot easily travel. Our addressable market opens up dramatically if we can deliver what we do virtually, so virtual will be the center around which we build.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
This idea applies to most businesses. Even something like in-person food service. Why do we need to hand credit cards to servers when technology exists to allow us to pay from a portable terminal brought to the table or even from our phones? That would both speed up service, reduce the possibility of fraud, and increase hygiene by reducing contact. Many industries will be able to benefit from a virtual first mentality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Every person’s point of view is valid even if I don’t understand it or agree with it.” This has been a powerful guide in our lives and our consulting work. It helps us to approach another person with curiosity instead of judgment. As we stand here in the midst of protests highlighting racial strife, this quote is all the more valuable. It is not so easy to do, but that only underlines why it is worth the effort. If it was easy, we wouldn’t have so many problems with ignorance (in the true sense of that word) at the core.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Joy at work is not a pie-in-the-sky aspiration. It is a reality that can be created. We know because we have done it for ourselves and have helped others do it in their companies. This is not only the right thing to do for people from a moral stance but also from an economic one. People that feel joy (engagement, belong, trust) create more profitable companies that deliver better goods and services so everyone benefits. Our hope for the world is that everyone can go to work expecting to feel joy as part of what they do. We are working towards a movement that expects joy not drudgery at work. We would invite everyone to come along with us. It will be amazing!!