While "survivor sickness" advisers have shown up in past downturns, they're getting different requests these days. Recognizing that upset employees are less productive and more averse to risk, a growing number of companies are asking consultants to design vent sessions and retention bonuses to ensure that high-priority employees stick around.
Richard Davis, a consultant with management-psychology firm RHR International, says he's being asked more often to counsel managers who have to fire people. "It is incredibly stressful and exhausting for leaders," says Davis. "And companies that downsize once are likely to do it again soon." The quest to turn efficiency-minded managers into growth-generating creatives has yielded everything from innovation gyms to innovation officers. In 2008, General Electric (GE
) will add an academic wrinkle. Vijay Govindarajan, co-author of Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators, will take a year's leave from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business to become GE's first "professor in residence" and chief innovation consultant.
Govindarajan will teach at GE's Crotonville (N.Y.) campus and other global sites, consult on "imagination breakthrough" projects, and make himself available to managers. While he hasn't set office hours, he plans to host coffee hours with "learning officers" throughout GE. Will he grade GE's notoriously performance-driven managers? No, he says, laughing. "GE is already very much in the grading mode." Many CEOs talk about spending time on the front lines. But few take it as seriously as Arkadi Kuhlmann. In early September, the CEO of Internet bank ING Direct (ING
) USA traded the quiet, spacious, warehouse-chic digs he shares with three other C-suite members for a noisy corner desk in the call center.
Kuhlmann's new "office"--an oval table at one end of the vast open room, complete with file cabinets, two halogen floor lamps, and a cubicle for his assistant--has energized the Wilmington (Del.) call center staff, say the floor's supervisors. And of course, it keeps him close to customer issues. Overhearing one customer asking about CD rates reminds him he has to do more to discourage rate shoppers who probably won't turn out to be loyal.
Trips back and forth to his desk--he passes at least a dozen customer service reps on the way--also give him the chance to make impromptu pep talks. That's important as ING Direct takes over 104,000 customers and $1.4 billion in deposits from NetBank (NTBK
), the online bank shut down on Sept. 28 following poor performance and mortgage-related losses. Kuhlmann warns a group of sales reps to vet new lists carefully for customers with issues such as a history of bank fraud: "Save the savers! Nuke the bad guys!"
There are other, symbolic reasons for the move. Kuhlmann, who also sat in the marketing and lending departments, believes "nesting," or decorating desk space, can encourage territorial, silo thinking. Uprooting himself is a way to remind employees that to stay innovative--ING Direct was a pioneer of the high-interest, no-fee online savings concept and is now the largest Internet bank--you can't get comfortable. Indeed, Kuhlmann is currently slated to stay in the call center only until the end of October. Or, says this constantly moving manager, "until I get bored."