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Published: November 30, 2006

 
 

Masters of the Breakthrough Moment

Among the Horsepersons
Then, in the mid-1970s, NTL once again catalyzed a new kind of management thinking: diversity awareness. But this time, it happened almost by accident. NTL was facing acute financial difficulties. The “T group” business was declining — in part because of new competition from the less rigorous “encounter group” movement, in part because some of its own most popular leaders were defecting to start their own consulting practices, and in part because as the business environment became more competitive, managers could no longer justify spending three weeks in Maine on “group dynamics,” especially if the results could not be easily quantified. At the same time, the institute had acquired a sprawling Victorian mansion, known as the Founders House — a picturesque setting for workshops but a money pit.

In 1975, Edie joined with three NTL veterans to form “The Four Horsepersons,” a task force charged by the board with trying to save the institute from financial collapse. The other three horsepersons were all longstanding OD consultants: Hal Kellner, who died in the mid-1980s; Peter Vaill, now based in Minnesota; and Barbara Bunker, who works in New York. Together they persuaded 67 associates to donate two weeks each year for the following two years to keep NTL programs running. Edie was then selected as president. “Without the dedicated work of the Seashores at this time,” recalls NTL Fellow and MIT Professor Edgar Schein, “the institute would probably not have survived.”

With Edie at the helm, the NTL members took on the mission of making both the board and the membership far more diverse while also developing techniques for doing group work in diverse settings. To accomplish the former, they expelled all the NTL trainers — about 200 people at the time, many with long-standing pedigrees in the organization — and then admitted trainers one by one, insisting that there be equal numbers of white men, white women, men of color, and women of color. This created a dramatic upheaval, especially for the many white men who had been NTL fellows for three decades but now had to apply for membership all over again, with no guarantee of being chosen.

At that point in the late 1970s, a group of highly educated baby boomers — white women, and women and men of color — were entering the workplace in the United States. There were few models to help these newcomers advance, and resentments and uncertainties made it difficult for highly diverse teams to achieve cohesion. With Hal Kellner, Edie began an in-depth initiative to help AT&T, then the largest corporation in the world, deal with the consequences of a court-ordered mandate to achieve greater gender and racial balance. She saw that NTL had a great opportunity to establish itself as a standard-bearer in modeling the kinds of conversations, more difficult and daunting than ever, that were needed to surface and resolve conflicts in a diverse work force. NTL came to be a defining center for the new field of diversity training; for example, Edie was among the first to form the internal associations that would now be called “affinity groups” for women and for people of color within organizations, a highly effective way to develop collective strength and understanding.

NTL regained its economic health during the next few years, under the leadership of Edie Seashore and Elsie Cross, who became the first African-American to chair the organization. The new leaders maintained NTL’s rigorous emphasis on research, which kept it from becoming a cultlike encounter group or a sales-oriented program like Erhard Seminar Training (est). Edie and Charlie continued to reside in Bethel every summer, buying a big comfortable house next door to the Founders House, and bringing new generations of students with them to learn. Meanwhile, Edie started teaching at Johns Hopkins and at American University, where she established a degree-granting program under NTL auspices, and Charlie joined the faculty of Fielding Graduate University.

 
 
 
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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.