Just One Good Idea
By Edith Whitfield Seashore
I was a student at Antioch in Ohio when Douglas McGregor became president of the college. The following year I was selected president of the student body and worked very closely with Doug. Antioch's educational philosophy was to involve students in all aspects of the college's administration. As I approached graduation, Doug came up with one good idea that was to define the rest of my life. He sent me to a 3-week sensitivity training program at the National Training Laboratory in Group Development (now NTL Institute) in Bethel, Maine. Doug was able to convince the big-wigs at NTL that even though young and inexperienced I would be one good idea for them, and I was.
After graduation, I stayed in touch with Doug when he would come to New York on his consulting trips. During dinners together, he continued to mentor me in the lessons of organization consulting. At one of these dinners, I asked Doug to tell me what he did at Standard Oil of New Jersey that was worth all the money they were paying him as an organization consultant. His answer has been his legacy to me. After a long moment of reflection, he said: "I listen, and I listen, and I listen and then I come up with one good idea that will impact their organization and their lives and I'm worth every penny they are paying me.” I carry this part of Doug's legacy into all of my experiences, but especially into my consulting work and it continues to pay off. I have at times modified his method slightly, by giving my one good idea to the client before I've listened, and listened, and listened, which seems to work for an extrovert.
A couple of my consulting examples where "one good idea” secured lucrative contracts for me are the United States Naval Academy where I consulted for 8 years and the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA) where I consulted for almost as long. In one case, I listened and then offered my one good idea: in the other I offered my idea in the sentence following "Hello”.
First, I give you the story of me at the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA), now the National Imaging and Mapping Agency (NMA). In the mid nineties, I was in the pipeline to go through an extensive interviewing process to become the consultant to the Major General who headed up DMA. Others in the pipe-line did not make it, so I entered the interviewing process. I was interviewed first by middle-management, then by the VP of Human Resources. Approved by all, I was schedule to meet the, Major General, a career fighter pilot in the US Air Force. The directorship of DMA was his last assignment before retirement, and he wanted to change the culture and production of the organization.
For the interview General James sat at the end of a long Boardroom table. I sat on his left, the VP of Human Resources sat on his right and down both sides of the table were his chief of staff and the others who had already interviewed me. Nobody, except the general and I spoke for the next two hours as we exchanged stories of our careers. I listened, and I listened, and I listened. Finally, the General asked me, "Why do you want this assignment?” Very carefully I replied, "Having listened to you this afternoon, I believe you would like to leave a legacy as you retire, I can help you to do that.” There was silence in the room and the General said, "Let’s get started,” stood up and left the table, followed by his Chief of Staff, VP of HR, me and the others. As the general got to the end of the corridor he shouted back, "That will do" and I had a 7 year contract. The General retired within two years and I continued to help the Agency sustain his legacy - my one good idea.
My next example is my 8 year contract with the US Naval Academy, begun in 1975. When all the military academies were commissioned by Congress to become co-ed institutions, a naval Lieutenant, his Captain’s aide, phoned from the Academy right after Congress passed the legislation to integrate. He wanted to set up an appointment to have me meet his Captain, who among his titles was Dean of Women. The Captain thought he would need consultation to accomplish the task of turning a 140 year old male only institution into a co-ed institution. The Lieutenant told me the meeting with the Captain would be brief while he looked me over and I looked him over to see if we would be a good match to work on this endeavor. He also told me I already had three strikes against me: one, I was a woman and up until now all of their consultants had been men; two, I was a civilian and they thought the Navy could do this internally; and three, I was a consultant and that would cost them money. He hung up without arranging the visit. I called right back and he apologized saying that showed how ambivalent he and the others of his colleagues in the Academy were about this mandated change.
Several weeks later, driving from Washington, D.C. to Annapolis, I thought about our phone conversation and Doug’s "one good idea” began to circulate in my mind. Assuming with their ambivalence they would be somewhat at a loss as to where to begin, and that I had a brief time to be assessed, I tried to think of something I could offer that would be simple but still effective.
When I arrived at the Academy, the Lieutenant was waiting for me and although we weren’t late, we ran through Bancroft Hall. I asked why we were in such a hurry and he told me he wanted to impress on me that the Captain was a man of action, he would make up his mind very quickly and he was preparing me for that experience. He also told me that the Captain’s nick-name was Boomer because of his loud voice and I should be ready for that. As we screeched into the Captain’s office, the Captain stood up and bellowed, "Greetings, Mrs. Seashore, what should we do?” I responded immediately, "Hello. The very first thing you should do when the women arrive in June is to have women officers on the summer program so that the women will have role models from the beginning.” The Captain picked up the phone, shouted into it, "put 3 women officers on the Plebe Summer Program next June” and hung up. He looked back at me and asked, "What else?”
I had given the Captain the one good idea that had come to me on the way to the Academy. Now it was time for me to listen and listen and listen. So I said, "What have you done so far?” and that was the beginning of 8 years of consulting to 5 Captains!! For each of them it was their last assignment before they became Admiral or retired. All five Captains became Admiral from their success as Dean of Women. It all started with one good idea.
Douglas McGregor also left as a legacy to all of us in Organization Development his "one good idea” – Theory X and Theory Y – described in detail in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. It is one of the classics in management literature
Doug’s "one good idea” has guided me for over 4 decades. I now pass on to you – one good idea.
McGregor, Douglas (1985). The human side of enterprise: 25th anniversary printing.
About the Author
Edith Whitfield Seashore, M.A. is considered a sage of the OD field. She has been consulting for over 40 years and has been an important shaper of organization development, as we know it today. She served as the President of NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, and has been on the faculties of Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and American Universities. She is the co-author of What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback. She is also co-editor of The Promise of Diversity among other publications. You can reach Edie at: edieseashore @ comcast.net.