Our Thoughts

Candace & Cathy: The Ultimate Intergenerational Team

During the Clarus Conversation between a Baby Boomer and Millennial this month, we’ve heard about the challenges and benefits of intergenerational teams in the workplace. Today, both Cathy Wright and Candace Phillips come together to share what they’ve learned from working with other generations and how Clarus leverages our unique strengths.

Our differences are our strengths. At Clarus, our clients range from high-powered corporations to grassroots nonprofits, so it is crucial that we be flexible and open-minded. Our group is comprised of strong, diverse workers, prepared and eager to lend their expertise to client needs.  A recent article in The New York Times dubbed Millennials “Generation Nice,” but Baby Boomers have a culture of grit and perseverance engrained in them. It’s the balance of these attributes that is the backbone of Clarus.


In short: Some of us need to be open to learning from more experienced colleagues; we seasoned veterans should recognize the benefits of listening to younger generations. As Candace described, Millennials have a readiness to learn from their peers, and, dare I say, elders. She exemplifies the open-mindedness that has empowered Millennials to make great strides in the workplace just a few years after college. While she has not had the 30-odd years of experience that I carry with me, she has a warmth and openness that cannot be taught. I am sometimes quick to revert to my old ways, and our Millennial colleagues will, always gently, suggest other options that I haven’t thought of. Oh, and they aren’t so bad with technology either. Candace’s attention to detail brings a focus to the “big picture” perspective that is crucial to project success. And I can transfer my knowledge and give her the personal feedback that I could have used when I started my career.


While I may have a Millennial mindset and ambitious approach rooted from my upbringing, , Cathy’s experience is invaluable. As Angela Lee Duckworth outlined in her TED Talk, grit is the key to success. And, boy, does Cathy have grit. When dealing with fast-paced projects and high-powered clients, it is Cathy’s directness and confidence that provides the structure to deliver a strong product. When I have the tendency to hyper-focus on task-oriented project details, Cathy’s experienced perspective allows me to view the project from multiple vantage points.  It is our willingness to work together and use our differences in a balanced, productive way that allows us to create impactful results for our clients. Clarus’ open door policy means that I am able to bring my ideas and concerns to other team members. This fosters an innovative, collaborative environment charged for creativity.


To ensure that our differences bring us together, rather than divide us, we practice what we preach.  Employee Reviews are completed every six months (not yearly), promoting open communication and feedback. We know that workloads, roles, and interests are constantly evolving. We do our best to allow our team members to elaborate their skill sets and hold weekly staff meetings so that we all know the collective vision for work at Clarus. Perhaps most importantly, we push aside our personal agendas and let others bring their style, experience and expertise to the table: Collaboration at its best.

We are learning from each other every day— a process without an end point. Team-building helps us build on each person’s distinctive backgrounds and strengths. We have all been shaped by different life experiences. Whether that shape was formed by the Millennials’ helicopter parents or the Boomers’ unresponsive supervisors, we are made to fit together. And the picture we are creating is getting clearer by the day.

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Clarus Conversation: A Millennial perspective

Below is Millennial Candace Phillips’ response to last week’s blog on Baby Boomers:

There is a word that today’s employers utter with caution: the “M” word (Millennials, or Generation Y). This is the generation I proudly call home. My generation has collected workplace stereotypes of being needy, entitled, foolishly ambitious, and disrespectful. And while some of these judgments may be perceivably true, at the core of this generation is a driving force that is changing the marketplace as we’ve known it. Behind this force are technological advances and a progressive, generational entrepreneurial spirit (just look at Silicon Valley nowadays).

I entered the workforce about a year ago, and while I (thankfully) have no experience with the “Dark Ages of HR”, I would be reluctant to “throw the Boomers out with the bathwater.” In fact, I would appreciate the opportunity to learn from their experiences.

I admire the Baby Boomer generation and their entry in the workforce as a self-taught crash course. That experience is an invaluable resource. However, although I admire more experienced generations, we can’t ignore that the landscape of the workplace has changed. Dramatically. With technology as a key driver, the global business environment no longer evolves in real time; instead, it changes at warp speed. Because of these shifts, employers have had to make reluctant but necessary adjustments to maintain viability in their organizations.

I believe the same potential and (dare I say) work ethic of Baby Boomers also exists in Millennials. Contrary to Generation Y stereotypes, I don’t believe I’m entitled to a step-by-step guide on how to enter and succeed in the workplace. On the other hand, I do believe that today’s young professionals need mentorship and coaching in order to cultivate their talents.

So, all that to say I agree with Cathy. It takes experience to have experience.  Even so, we are eager to learn from you, our wiser, more experienced colleagues because the transfer of knowledge is critical to us all.

After all, the Dalai Lama once said: “Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.”

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Clarus Conversation: A Baby Boomer’s views

This month, we examine the strengths and challenges of intergenerational differences. Today, Cathy Wright, a Clarus principal and Baby Boomer, tells us how her work style was formed. Next week, Candace Phillips, just a few years out of college, will respond to Cathy and share the qualities of Generation Y (good and bad) and why the intergenerational transfer of knowledge is critical. In two weeks, Cathy and Candace will co-write a post on the synergistic results that can be generated when products of two very different generations collaborate.

As a colleague once told me, it takes 20 years to have 20 years of experience. In any project I’m juggling a dozen considerations my juniors may not ever have thought of—business strategy, client relations, profitability, training, and staff resources.  This ability comes only with decades of sacrifices that led to this opportunity for all of us. No doubt a younger colleague may have a better idea—there is always a better idea—but we can’t implement or even consider them all.

I promise, I’m not a curmudgeon. I use a MacBook Air, an iPhone 5, and dozens of apps. I can name a dozen rappers, and own a half dozen Wilco concert t-shirts. But my career was built on these 1970s HR philosophies:

  • Professional Development:  “Here.  Don’t screw this up.”
  • Employer Feedback on a Job Well Done:  [Silence.]
  • Employer Feedback on a Job Screwed Up:  See above.
  • Test of Fitness for Promotion:  Cancelled dates, field trips, vacations
  • Interaction with senior managers:  Possible, after a few years

The Dark Ages of HR.  I don’t recommend any of this as best practice. Yet, maybe we shouldn’t throw the Boomers out with the bathwater.  Each interaction was an opportunity to develop qualities of resilience, determination, and focus. And so I learned to deal with competitors, opponents, occasional difficult clients—indeed, the external world—who really didn’t give a fig about my feelings.

I love working with young colleagues and using the best ideas wherever they come from.  And I would argue that some of the best ideas come from experience.

I’m very interested in you, your career and interests. But we still have to deliver the work we have, on time and on budget.  Just as you are juggling work and your personal life, most of my generation is coping with some combination of aging parents, college tuition, and aches and pains. We’ve been taught to tough it out and get on with the job.

In my 10 years at Clarus, I’ve learned that great results can only come from the collaboration of co-workers with varying backgrounds. While intergenerational differences can present challenges, it’s our contrasts- and how we learn to deal with them- that ultimately make us a strong team.

At Clarus, when we work with organizations to improve teamwork around generational differences, we encourage more dialogue among age groups.  Somewhere between us, if we work together, we’ll leverage the best from everyone. So we thought we’d share the conversation in our own multigenerational staff.  We’ll be interested in your experience, too.

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Leveraging generational diversity: A Millennial’s view

One of the Clarus team’s greatest strengths is our diversity. Our team members possess a myriad of professional, educational, and personal backgrounds. From a review of related research and observation of our clients’ teams, we know teams that value the diversity of their members outperform their peers. At Clarus, we also recognize that generational diversity is an integral part of a healthy and innovative organization.

Much has been made of the potential for generational conflict in the workplace particularly with regard to the youngest generation in the workforce, the Millennial. However, the goals of Millennial and other generations are not necessarily at odds. Like the Great Generation, the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y, Millennials want to be effective and make a difference in the world.

I am a Millennial (born between 1982 and 1994). Like my generational peers, I value opportunities for intrapreneurship and an environment where creative ideas can be shared and contributed freely. Also, workplace flexibility, work-life balance, and time set aside for volunteerism and civic involvement are all important to me. Like all Millennials, my interaction with the world is shaped by the technology and communication systems we use so readily. The Millennial experience is distinctly enriched and complicated by information technology and globalism.

Now, how do you maximize the promise and capability of the Millennial generation without alienating other generational groups? It’s how you make any great collaboration bear fruit (see Liza’s essay). The collaborators have to know and respect one another. Spend time developing team cohesiveness. Invest in training on generational differences to heighten awareness of how we all are a product of time and place. Through our training protocols on diversity, including generational differences, we’ve seen clients create happier, more productive teams.

Structure and implement mentorship programs that allow young people like myself to gain from the wealth of experience held by more seasoned professionals. In turn, encourage us to share our unique perspective and knowledge. Invest in our professional development and help us understand why completing our knowledge and skill sets make us more competitive and valuable to the team.

Finally, make time for casual intergenerational interactions. Sometimes generational gaps are not as big as they seem. Most everyone loves a good cup of coffee and a chat.

Understand and make room for what people care about. Knowledge of generational differences can help employers build stronger teams.

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What urban spaces and your organization have in common: Effective systems at work

I knew I was in the right place when I first learned that Clarus uses a system-based approach to its strategic planning efforts. Similar to one I studied and employed as a urban planner, this approach is grounded in the engagement and understanding of all the various parts of an organization and the ways in which they function individually, with each other, and in relation to the whole.

A favorite illustration of a systems-based approach can be found in the groundbreaking urban planning work done by William H. Whyte. In the 1970s, Whyte founded The Street Life Project, a grant-funded initiative that was born from a desire to figure out why some urban places are successful and why others are not…and by extension, how to improve those less successful places.

Although systems thinking was only in its infancy at this time, Whyte’s approach to analysis, as documented in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, can be summed up as a systems-based approach. Whyte looked at each individual component of Seagram Plaza (such as Streets, Sitting Spaces, and Effective Capacity), how each component interacts with the others, and how they all work together to create an overall successful “Life of the Plaza.” This kind of systems-based analysis is just as important in strategic planning.

This year, Clarus had the opportunity to work with a local grant-making foundation in developing a strategic plan for their organization. Leadership of the organization recognized that both external factors – such as progress in local economic development projects and shifting dynamics in community leadership – as well as internal factors – such as the foundation’s growing desire to make lasting impact in the community– presented an opportunity for the organization to step back and identify goals and priorities for the future that would be informed and enhanced by careful consideration of these dynamics.

Working closely with the Client, Clarus designed a process grounded in our systems-based approach. On behalf of the Client, we began by engaging community leaders and public officials in the community ranging from government officials to key civic organizations. We then drilled down into the organization’s staff, leadership, and board of directors, and expanded to the organization’s community partners, grant recipients, and investors.

At each step of the process, the Clarus team considered how all of these individuals and parts of the organization related to one another and contributed to the organization’s overall operations and mission. The project is also a great example of client/consultant collaboration, in which we were able to deliver the most value through strong alignment with a very capable team. The project was a great success and Clarus is now working to add targeted capacity as the Client implements the plan.

In working with this and all of our clients, the Clarus systems-based approach allows us to aid organizations in building the capacity and buy-in that is critical to helping visionary leaders (see Cathy’s essay), while also building the foundation for effective communication to support implementation (see Kristie’s essay). The outcome of a systems-based approach is a well-informed, holistic plan that moves on its own into successful implementation and organizational success.

Employ a systems-based approach, one that examines all dimensions of an or ganization and brings the right people to the table for discussion, to ensure the longterm success of any planning initiative.

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Crowdsourcing change: The power of solution-focused stakeholder engagement

If you’ve ever worked with the Clarus team on a project, you know very well that we deeply value the broad and diverse perspectives of a client’s stakeholders. We carefully design each project to ensure that stakeholder feedback is collected, analyzed, and discussed with our client for the purpose of informing a strategy’s development.

This process serves as a primer for future organizational change, as it readies each manager, frontline worker, or external partner who provided feedback to anticipate and support strategy implementation efforts. Both because it promotes buy-in and high-quality strategy development, we are tirelessly commitment to effective stakeholder engagement in the diagnostic phase of a project; it is a trademark of our work.

But here’s a question…have you ever seen us apply our methods to large-scale social issues, ones that are complex in nature and difficult to change?

Since 2012, Clarus has supported stakeholder engagement for Healthy Living Matters (HLM), a county-wide policy initiative to curb childhood obesity in Harris County, Texas (Houston). In the county, childhood obesity rates are soaring and the fragmented efforts to combat the issue reflect the complexity of addressing vital community health issues in populous and culturally diverse geographic areas.

In the face of this, the partners leading HLM narrowed their focus to public and private policies that can impact childhood obesity rates. They knew they would have to engage an array of stakeholder groups across the county to find answers. In other words, HLM was prepared to crowdsource a solution to this pressing public health challenge.

Whether we are helping a client identify the best strategy for aligning their workforce to support a major change or helping a community strengthen itself, our approach is the same. We focus on enabling meaningful micro-level engagement of stakeholders to collect their feedback and stimulate two-way dialogue and then we analyze the data to provide a macro-level characterization of an issue, opportunity, or challenge.

In the case of HLM, we have facilitated a plethora of microlevel engagements, across 13 different industries, which range from education and healthcare to legal and law enforcement. We have tailored interviews, surveys, focus groups, and community forums to engage the relevant communities. For example, our unique work to engage high school students led to commitments from HLM Youth Ambassadors who are working to further the mission of HLM.

We have meticulously collected and analyzed feedback and actively discussed our findings with HLM leadership. Soon, we will finalize a macro-level strategy for curbing childhood obesity in Harris County, Texas in the form of a Community Action Plan.

We can’t honestly tell you that effective stakeholder engagement is always easy. However, when well organized, it’s not that difficult either and the results in implementation and engagement are more than worth the investment. Effective stakeholder engagement requires considering a company or community issue from the systems-perspective. Identify all of the stakeholder groups in your system, those that are affected by or provide support for your outcomes. Learn more about the groups, proactively engage each, and sustain communication with them all.

No matter whether it is y our company or community that seeks positive outcomes, the answer is not in the minds of the few, it’s in the collective insight of the crowd. A solution is there. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

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Organizational Math 101: Collaborate for Exponential Results

Recently, as I prepared to teach a class on management consulting, I spent a few minutes reflecting upon one of the greatest lessons I have learned, lived, and loved in my time at Clarus: the power of collaboration.

Later, I shared with the students how important it is to establish a collaborative relationship between the Consultant and the Client. We talked about placing a high-priority on collaboration throughout an engagement as an opportunity to strengthen the working relationship and ultimately enrich a project’s results. To illustrate the benefits of collaboration, I provided this example.

Early in my Clarus tenure, the firm was engaged to help a large federal agency develop a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan, as required by a Presidential Executive Order. The project was grounded in collaboration from day one, as Clarus had teamed with a global engineering consulting firm in pursuit of the project. Clarus Principal Cathy Wright and I worked closely with the engineering team to develop a project approach and identify the value all members of the Consultant team would bring. After we were awarded the project, the Consultant team warmly welcomed the Client team to the established collaboration and the work began in earnest.

At every step of the multi-month project, collaboration took place. Consultants worked closely with members of the Client’s team, who came from up, down, and across the organizational chart. Equally important, members of the Client’s team actively collaborated with one another, often having had little or no interaction before. Ideas flowed between Consultant and Client team members. Expertise and knowledge was widely and freely shared throughout the project.

The results of this effort were remarkable. The agency’s Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan was named by the Office of Management & Budget as one of the top five of all federal agencies. The agency built internal capacity for implementing and maintaining the plan. Innovative ideas were generated and operationalized. New, valuable internal relationships were established and a culture of collaboration around an important issue was introduced. And finally, our Consultant team was undeniably pleased with outcomes and proud of the Client team.

We continue to actively encourage internal and external collaboration with all of our clients. By cross-populating teams tasked with leading important organizational initiatives with stakeholders from throughout a company, you open up a whole new realm of what’s possible. By identifying and eliminating perceived barriers to collaboration, you empower your team to seek out expertise and insight that will strengthen a project and its results.

Some say: “the proof is in the pudding.” A mathematician might say: “the validity is in the proof.” Collaborate for exponential results. It’s a formula worth trying.

Intentionally encourage and facilitate internal collaboration across departments, functions, and teams. Seek opportunities for valuable external collaborations.

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Excellence in customer satisfaction: A team sport

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” -Vince Lombardi

It’s half-time and the Patriots are down against a rival. The energy in Foxborough has shifted. Fans are upset. They’ve never seen the Patriots perform this way, with many individual errors and poor team coordination. It was a finished game for sure. The Patriots could hear and see the fans’ frustration. It worried them that their fans – their customers – were not happy or satisfied with their performance.

Customer satisfaction is a hot topic these days. With the ability to tweet or post satisfaction – or its opposite – in real time to hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people, all companies must work hard to ensure customers are well served. And organizations clearly benefit when they master the art of good customer service. Customers are retained and, with a reputation for strong customer satisfaction, the cost of new customer acquisition is often lower.

How does a company ensure customers are satisfied? For one, it’s important to recognize that it is most certainly not the job of one individual or one department. Achieving customer satisfaction is not unlike the Patriots coming through on a Sunday night. It takes a team, one aligned around a common vision, strategy, and action plan to make it happen.

At Clarus, we work to achieve a high-level of customer satisfaction in a number of ways, not the least of which is through our focus on collaboration and teamwork. Our team members regularly collaborate to maximize the overall efficiency and service for our clients. We regularly discuss the needs and preferences of our clients. This collaboration also occurs both through formal project assignments and informally when we involve one another in our respective projects to seek specific expertise or to serve as sounding boards and advisors on tough issues. In addition to delivering high value, we remember names, stock favorite snacks, and work toward fast response times.

We have built systems to keep each other up to date on our projects, from regular weekly staff meetings to staff-led professional development sessions where we share best practices. In our staff meetings, we acknowledge the importance of our clients by finding more ways to ensure their satisfaction. We have found that by working together as a team we deliver exceptional service and build long-term client relationships.

Customer satisfaction is not a one person job; it is the work of a strong
team that provides the best services for the client.

Second half for the Patriots proved this. Individual players upped their game. The team came together and back to win. That day, the Patriots lived up to their reputation of giving the fans something to cheer (and light up Twitter and Facebook) about.

Ensure your team members understand how they collectively contribute to customer satisfaction. Make sure they have the alignment, knowledge, tools, and systems necessary to contribute effectively.

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How celebrating success strengthens teams & results

Strong leaders often use celebration as a tool for mobilizing teams, a strategy that produces results to drive significant organizational change even at a most fundamental level. Celebration is a powerful motivator with outcomes extending beyond the particular celebratory event.

We often see leaders use intentional celebration of success to bring focus and team alignment. Celebrations remind team members of the importance of their strategic work in situations where team focus is easily drawn away from company goals by competing demands of the day to day workplace. We also see leaders use celebration to maintain momentum through a prolonged and difficult change initiative. In either case, celebration demonstrates management’s satisfaction with outcomes and effort. Recognizing and appreciating good results inevitably leads to greater focus on what matters. Morale and productivity improve. Success breeds success.

I first learned this some years ago. I had the privilege to work with the CEO of a large and very prominent institution. At the time this leader took the helm, it was performing below its potential. In retrospect, it is clear that intentional effort to imbue the culture with a spirit of celebration was a hallmark of this visionary leader’s tenure. The marking of annual accomplishments moved from staid formality to culturally-rich ceremony with the introduction of distinct ritual and celebratory elements. New types of celebration were introduced as opportunities to bring together disparate components of the organization. Accomplishments were broadly recognized and shared. The organization’s culture gradually shifted from one perhaps characterized as “good is good enough” to one proud of and protective of its unique strengths and accomplishments. More and more highly qualified employees were drawn to its ranks. Demand for its services soared. Performance and financial return improved.

Celebration can take many forms. We’ve helped clients celebrate successes with everything from emails and newsletters to infographics and videos. They’ve held anniversary parties and barbecues, handed out wristbands and bumper stickers. Usually, though, it is not the form that determines the success or impact of the celebration. Rather, it is the act of pausing to mark the important, to express pleasure, and share successes that matter and can make a difference. Celebrations create opportunities for team members to connect in new ways, to build alignment around goals, and to recommit to results. Savvy leaders see celebrations not just as a way to give back to participants but as a way to move their work forward.

Effective leaders reinforce and showcase success by making accomplishment fun and rewarding through celebrations.

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Sound like a broken record? Congratulations, your strategic plan’s implementation is right on track.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw

At Clarus, we always include strategic communication support as part of our work with clients because time after time we have seen that how our clients talk about their initiatives can significantly ease or hinder accomplishment of the outcomes they want to achieve. This is particularly true when it comes to implementation of strategic plans. While hour upon hour (and dollar upon dollar) are devoted to the development of strategies, goals, and objectives, many plans fail due to a simple lack of sufficiently frequent, broad, or effective communication.

Strategic communication during planning takes many forms and serves many purposes. At the onset of a planning project, communication with stakeholders – a group we define broadly – is critical to expressing leadership’s commitment and to achieving buy-in from those people whose efforts will be key to building and implementing the plan. As a plan is developed and implementation begins, strategic communication helps keep focus on the priorities of the plan. Without frequent, on-point communication, it is all too easy for the details of the day-to-day workplace to pull attention away from plan priorities. Later, as the organization moves deeply into implementation, communication can focus on highlighting successes and on explaining the likely detours that occur as new opportunities or unexpected obstacles arise.

What do we recommend our clients consider in developing their communication? First, let stakeholders know why a planning project is being initiated. What is happening in the environment internally or externally? What challenges or opportunities exist? Share information about the planning schedule and key milestones and, when the plan is complete, talk frequently about its priorities and goals. As well, talk about the changes that will be required during plan implementation, and the things that will have to be done differently as the plan comes alive to help engage those who haven’t been integrally involved during the plan’s development.

The bottom-line is that successful implementation often boils down to how well – and how often – leadership communicates the vision and strategy outlined in the plan.

When you reach the point where you don’t think you can possibly say one more word about your strategic plan, you’ve probably only reached the half-way point in terms of communication. Continue to invest time in clear, concise communication with your stakeholders.

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