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Published: November 30, 2006

 
 

Masters of the Breakthrough Moment

Edie set up shop as a consultant in New York in the 1960s, her serene confidence in her own instincts her most formidable asset. At first she worked primarily with religious and community groups — then considered suitable work for a woman — but she soon began to make her name with business and then military clients. She often had dinner in New York with Douglas McGregor, who was then consulting for Standard Oil. One evening, Edie asked him the secret of his success, and he gave her the advice on which she would build the rest of her career. “I listen, and I listen, and I listen,” he said, “and then I come up with one good idea that impacts the organization and makes me worth every penny they pay me.”

Edie adopted “one good idea” as her personal motto. Fred Miller, CEO of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, who has worked with Edie Seashore for many years, sees her success as rooted in this approach. “Edie dispenses wisdom in short doses, little insights that people can assimilate as they go along,” he notes. With her self-invented career and indifference to academic qualifications, Edie, says Mr. Miller, “is credentialed by her practicality, and by her engagement.”

Edie was Charlie’s first trainer at NTL. They worked together occasionally in the late 1950s, while she was building her business in New York, and he was finishing his Ph.D. in Michigan. In 1961, Charlie proposed to a woman named Sandra, using this line: “If you married me, your name would be Sandy Seashore.” She turned him down. Later that summer, working with Edie, he mused absentmindedly: “If you married me, you could work and travel as much as you liked.” It was a novel suggestion in an era when women were expected to quit work after marriage, and though they weren’t dating, Edie agreed on the spot. Charlie then tried to back off, claiming he had been speaking hypothetically, but with characteristic directness Edie told him it was too late, she had already accepted. Unlike Sandy, Edie found the prospect of being known as Seashore irresistible. “Who could turn down a name like that?”

They settled in Washington, D.C., where NTL had begun a variety of programs, mostly for federal clients, and Charlie accepted a position as program director with the institute. He also began a long association with the National Institutes of Health, building collaborative networks that sought to break down barriers between physicians and staff. Edie, whose one good idea decisiveness made her a natural for hierarchies, worked with the Naval Academy, which was suddenly required to admit women in 1972. “The captain didn’t want to hire me because I wasn’t Navy and I was a woman. He stood up when I entered his office and barked, ‘Okay, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Put women officers into the plebe summer program.’ He picked up the phone, barked at someone else, and said, ‘Done! Now what else?’ I said, ‘That was my one good idea. I’ll get back to you with another. Meanwhile, let’s sit down and talk about it, so we can get it right.’” This was the start of what would be an eight-year contract.

Over the next two decades, Charlie and Edie designed and taught courses at Johns Hopkins, American University, and Concordia in Montreal, bringing group process and techniques into traditional academe. They bought a house in Washington’s Rock Creek neighborhood and filled it with friends, dogs, piano music, and children. Their daughters Becky and Kim were born in the 1960s (Edie threw a dinner party the night before she delivered one of the girls). Edie often took her children along on business trips, pioneering the role of professional mother. “Our work and our lives were the same thing,” she recalls, “and the girls were part of it. They always talked about how their friends’ parents seemed to hate to go to their jobs because they weren’t much fun. We were having fun.”

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor, Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (Wiley, 2000): Overview and update of McGregor’s classic work on human beings as interdependent co-contributors.
  2. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change (Doubleday, 1996): Includes a more detailed history of NTL and the Seashores’ role in it.
  3. Charles N. Seashore, Edith Whitfield Seashore, and Gerald M. Weinberg, What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (Bingham House, 1997): The Seashores’ guide to conducting difficult conversations in a way that does not offend, provoke, confuse, blame, or overwhelm other people.
  4. Marvin Weisbord, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century (Pfeiffer, 2004): The history of organizational development, tied directly to the realities of the high-performance workplace.
  5. National Training Laboratories Web site, www.ntl.org: Overview of the institute’s history and current courses offered in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.