One day, one meeting, $5 million dollars. That's what it took for Charles Schwab & Co. to make what co-CEOs Charles Schwab and David Pottruck believe has been an invaluable contribution to the company's future.
On a Saturday last spring, the typically 24/7 business trimmed back its sails for a few hours to bring together everyone from its U.S. and U.K. organizations--13,000 employees from 10 far-flung locations, from the newest brokers to Mr. Schwab himself--for a vision-sharing exercise using a technology known as "RootMaps(tm)." The compulsory meeting also marked the 25th anniversary of the financial services firm.
Dubbed "Vision Quest," this was to be no ordinary gathering.
The Vision Thing At Schwab, strong corporate vision, values, and strategic priorities have always been at the core of the business. But growth has been so swift that management needed a way to effectively pass these on to a wave of new employees.
Map Out the Future At Schwab, strong corporate vision, values, and strategic priorities have always been at the core of the business. But growth has been so swift in recent years that the discussion at higher levels has turned to how management can effectively continue passing on those characteristics to the wave of new employees coming through the doors.
"We weren't sure how all the pieces of the puzzle fit into the 'what is the future' puzzle anymore," says Michelle Blieberg, Schwab's senior vice president of human resources. "That became the theme we started to build the 1999 meeting around."
"How do we make sure that new people understand what we're all about?" adds Victoria Sandvig, vice president of event and production services, based at Schwab's San Francisco headquarters. "How can we get them to experience it?"
The answer came from Root Learning Inc., the Perrysburg, Ohio based company that has created a cottage industry of "mapping" companies' visions of who they are and what they seek to accomplish. RootMaps(tm) focus on different aspects of the business, from finances to customers. The mapping process involves conferring with company leadership and employees and collecting data; it can take four to five months to complete.
For Schwab, Root Learning created two distinct maps that became the focus of the 25th anniversary meeting: "Schwab to the Summit!" showed the company's various divisions climbing a mountain formed by three very different investment customers; "SchwabQuest: Pioneering Personal Financial Freedom" illustrated how Schwab employees must surmount a river of challenges to reach their organizational goals.
Blieberg was responsible for bringing Root Learning to Charles Schwab, having learned about the mapping company back when Schwab had only 6,000 employees. Until VisionQuest, co-CEOs Charles Schwab and David Pottruck had used town meetings to communicate the company's vision, crisscrossing the country to talk to employees in extensive question-and-answer sessions.
How They Did It Root Learning typically works with organizations that are undergoing rapid change and that need to communicate new information equally rapidly. That combination pretty much describes daily business at Schwab's. "Change is a habit; it's a way of life for [Schwab employees]," says Eliot Wajskol, director of client services for Root Learning.
But Schwab insisted on a very different process from the one Root Learning usually follows. "[Root Learning] likes the maps to be tested on the employee level, and they like a small team of people to be responsible for developing them, because many, many people cannot all draw a picture together," Blieberg says. "But as we say at Schwab, it is not Schwab unless we 'Schwab-ize' everything we do. We saw no reason why we couldn't get input from our top 100 people in designing this map."
One of the early exercises they played with the Root Learning team set the tone for the entire event. "We divided into two teams of five and said, 'Go in a room, close the door, one Root person and one Schwab person, and answer these questions: What does it feel like to work here? What is the drama of the company?' The answers included: 'It's exhilarating,' 'It's strenuous,' 'It's a thrill,'" says Blieberg. Root Learning used these words as the basis of their maps.
Early versions of the RootMaps(tm) were first reviewed by a management committee, then rolled out to the senior management team, then to vice presidents, and then to Schwab and Pottruck. Pottruck's top 10 direct reports acted as facilitators at a test run for the top 100 leaders at the company months before the meeting.
"Root Learning usually goes to the lowest common denominator--the 'real' employees, they say--and they put them through the maps, and then they debrief them at the end," Blieberg says. "That is pretty much the model we used, but we did it with our top 100 people."
Pottruck was impressed. "I want to do this, and I want to do it for the entire company," he told Blieberg.
Meeting Under Deadline That was late November 1998, and the 25th anniversary meeting was planned for mid-March 1999--just four months later. Further complicating the organizational task, Pottruck decided that every employee should go through the process at the same time.
"He realized it would be much more effective if we did it like this," Sandvig says. "The importance of bringing everybody together and getting everybody on the same page was a real serious issue to the company at large."
But figuring out how to execute this on a single day was "a monumental challenge," she says. "We had no locations. We had no venues. We had no travel plans. We had nothing in place at that time."
Since the company had conducted town meetings around the country, says Sandvig, "We had done some satellite downlinks, so I had somewhat of a model in place that I knew I could copy. But we had to blow it up tremendously. That meant studying all our numbers and looking at where large quantities of employees were, and examining travel patterns and flight patterns and how we could bring people in to some of these locations and make it cost-effective."
Another challenge was finding an appropriate venue in Birmingham, England, for the company's employees there, and juggling the eight-hour time difference between the U.K. and San Francisco.
Schwab turned to Los Angeles based Merv Griffin Productions, which the company had previously used for small events.
"We hired them to figure out how to do it everywhere else in the country and around the world," says Blieberg. In addition to San Francisco, eight cities were to become
VisionQuest downlink sites.
Root Learning's system added some extra quirks to the meeting logistics. For example, the maps provide a hands-on experience, not one that works in a theater setting of audience and stage. So planners in San Francisco had to find a site that could accommodate 5,000 people broken into groups of 10 per table.
But not just any table. Since the maps are 40 by 60 inches long, 72-inch round tables were needed so participants could stand around the maps for more than an hour.
"The way it worked was that we had to have a facilitator at each table who walked the group through the maps," Sandvig explains. "There were two maps, and we allotted an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half to work through each of them. The group facilitator kept everybody on track and helped to lead the dialogue."
Arrangements were made for 80 of the top 100 company leaders to facilitate a December gathering of the next tier of 500 vice presidents and business leaders. Those 500 then became the facilitators of the companywide meeting, which was held at the Moscone Center. In all, 1,300 facilitators were trained, 900 online.
To get a better mix of people from its different enterprises, the company assigned seats at the companywide meeting for every employee.
"We didn't want all the people from one enterprise sitting together, because that would eliminate the richness of the dialogue," says Sandvig. "So we mixed up people from retail, from mutual funds, from capital markets and trading, from HR, as much as we could so there was a cross-section of people."
A $5 Million Day The notion of spending $5 million on a one-day educational meeting (the price tag includes overtime and childcare costs), which is what Schwab's meeting cost, would probably make most boards of directors apoplectic. But not here.
"If you look at $5 million, that is huge," Sandvig acknowledges. "But if you look at it on a per-person cost--divided by 13,000 employees--it's only $384 per person. If you think you are investing $384 per employee to get them at the same place to understand who we are as a company, where we are going, and what we are all about, it's not really very much."
The day brought "softer" results as well, Sandvig says. "The energy, the enthusiasm, the excitement that came out of it were immeasurable. The effect it had on the morale and the fact that the senior management would care enough to invest this in people was so appreciated."
The impact is still being felt. At least two Schwab business units are developing new RootMaps(tm) specific to their enterprises, and new employees are now indoctrinated into the Schwab way through the maps. Pottruck received more than 1,000 e-mails from Schwab employees excited about VisionQuest.
Most important, when employees were asked in the most recent employee survey to state the company's mission and values, more than 96 percent had the answer. Pottruck thinks that score alone was worth the whole event.
About Root Learning The genesis of Root Learning, which was founded by Randall Root and James Haudan, began with consulting with companies that would hire the two men to talk about the future--where things were going from an industry perspective, and what that might mean for the company. But Root and Haudan found that many of these meetings for upper management offered an ivory tower perspective: A year later, it would be as if the consultation had never taken place because nothing in the company would have changed.
What would happen, they thought, if every employee could see what senior leadership saw? Out of that thinking came RootMaps(tm).
Getting to know a company starts when Root Learning assigns a team to work with the client's senior leaders for a few concentrated sessions. From that point, Root Learning collects data, listens to employees' stories, and then meets again with the senior leadership team to assess what works and what doesn't. Then there are two rounds of testing and mock presentations.
"As we go through that process, we really begin to know and understand an organization at the gut level, at a very different level than merely writing a paper might help one understand an organization," says Eliot Wajskol, director of client services.
RootMaps[superscript]TM are structured to present a company's essence in five categories: 1) the big picture; 2) financial literacy; 3) customer value; 4) core work; and 5) strategy. The mapping process can take about four months, with another month to produce the final presentation materials.
The company lists Taco Bell, Boeing, United Parcel Service, PepsiCo, and Sears among its clients.