Bryan Dunn transformed W&S Agency Group Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

When Bryan C. Dunn became chief marketing officer of Western

& Southern Financial Group in 1995, he was the first outsider

brought in to that position since the family of financial service

companies formed in 1888.

The experience would serve him well.

In 2004, Dunn became president of W&S Agency Group, a $606

million business unit of the parent company that deals with career

and marketing sales efforts.

Dunn saw a need for change to bring the company up to date.

There wasn’t enough innovative thinking going on and too many

decisions were being made based not on current data but because,

“that’s the way it’s always been done.”

But change wasn’t going to come easy.

The company was steeped in tradition, with many of the 2,530

employees having worked there for their entire careers.

The culture was based on long-term internal relationships, making

it more difficult for Dunn, an outsider, to make progress.

“It was high relationship and an understanding of who did

what,” Dunn says. “Employees ... had been with the company

forever and were extremely loyal, had a parental relationship

with the company and (were used to) no outsiders coming in,”

he says.

Dunn needed to transform the organization to make it relevant in

today’s markets, but he needed to do so in a way that would not

destroy the company’s history.

Understand the culture

In order to change, you first must understand the company’s

culture and traditions. Dunn started by analyzing different areas

of the company and speaking with a variety of employees.

“There needs to be a clear analysis and understanding, looking

at the financial numbers and metrics, doing interviews so that

you understand what people think and believe, and doing a

check as to how they align with what the organization is supposed to be doing,” he says.

Dunn interviewed about 50 people in the organization, from

senior leadership on down, as part of the process.

“You’re not talking about an exhaustive time effort, but you

interact, sit down and talk with people who are doing the work,”

he says.

Dunn says to ask employees what the company strategy is and

how they feel they contribute to it. Find pieces of information that

are consistent from one employee to another that give you an idea

of things that need to be changed first.

From these interviews, he learned that customer service was

an important part of the organization’s culture and needed to

continue. He also learned that employees did not understand

the budgeting process. Money was spent in areas because that

was how it had been done for years, instead of looking at where

money was being invested and determining if it needed to be

allocated to new areas.

Employees also did not know how to bring new ideas to the

company, and if they did, they did not feel like these ideas were


“During a change process, people have to see early successes,”

Dunn says. “A lot of times people will tell you what needs to be

changed. If you can enable those things, you start to gain that buyin and emotional commitment to the future.”

One early success Dunn implemented was the creation of a team

to change company policies and procedures. The team made recommendations on items that needed to be changed, and the

changes were then made.

“This showed employees that a good idea can be implemented if

properly delivered,” Dunn says.

Another early success was implementing a new software package

and providing a cost-benefit analysis on why this should be funded.

Although this package was an added expense, Dunn and his team

were able to show why this package was necessary for the sales representatives, how it could improve productivity and the expense savings the company would get from it.

“We went back to the executive committee and made a recommendation, which they approved, and our people said, ‘Wow, they

will do things that make business sense,’” Dunn says.

A final early success was to change the profile of future sales representatives and align it with the company’s value proposition and

strategy. Dunn began looking for people who had a past pattern of

success, were disciplined, had an innate ability to learn and had

good interpersonal skills.

“There was a lot of belief that, ‘Gee, we’re not going to be able to

hire people,’” Dunn says. “We were able to show our field managers

sources for these recruits, and they were able to hire more people

than they had before of the right type of competencies that we


Not all recommendations can be implemented, but analyze and

determine which ones will be the best to move the company forward.

“You apply their changes against what the strategy is going to

be and their recommendations as well as the numbers against

the value proposition that is going to give you that strategy,”

Dunn says. “If you see that change enabling that value proposition or strategy, then you put more work in that area.

“Look at internal interviews and numbers, and ask certain questions. Look outside and at your market, your relevance to it and

who your competitors are.”

Dunn was able to avoid slash-and-burn tactics by following this


“With the feedback we received, we were able to identify fat in

the budget that we were able to carve or trim off, take part of that

money and put it into our pockets for improved profitability,”

Dunn says. “We took the other part to fund initiatives that were

necessary to revamp our organization so it could be more successful than it was in the past.”

Create a clear vision

Once you understand what the company is, you need to recreate

the vision to meet the changes and to give employees emotional

buy-in for the future.

Dunn brought together the company’s senior leaders to recraft

the vision and strategy. They focused on defining what type of

company they wanted to be and what they could do on a higher

level to define what the company is. You also need to take the new

vision and integrate it into the company.

“What you want is for people to say, ‘My personal vision aligns

with the company vision. I can see that the way I want to work and

live fits in with the way the company wants to grow and work

going forward,’” Dunn says.

Regular and consistent communication is important to get

employees to understand and buy in to the changes.

“You have to communicate, communicate, communicate, and

when you think that you have communicated so much that everyone has to be sick and tired of hearing what you’re saying, you

communicate again,” Dunn says.

The company hosted several workshops to share the new vision

with employees, which included interactive activities to help employees embrace and understand the vision.

“It is amazing the amount of effort and time that we spend

explaining the vision and strategy, and then taking it down through

the organization to say, ‘If you do your job well, this is how it

works, and this is what you get. When you get that, this is what we

get,’” Dunn says.

You also have to have different types of talks to get your point


“You have the three-minute talk that can tell them exactly what

you want,” he says. “You have the impassioned 30-minute talk, and

then you have the hour explanation, where you talk about how the

pieces fit together and where their piece fits.”

Start with the vision during these talks and what type of company you want to build, and see if the employee is willing to go along

with that change. If he or she is, tell the employee the strategy that

is needed to get the company to that point, his or her role in that

strategy and help the employee understand the need for change.

You may need to change your communication methods to make

sure all employees understand the changes.

“We found that certain methods can sometimes get stale, and

people stop listening or hearing it,” he says. “Every so often, take

a look at your communication strategy and the mediums you use,

and say, ‘Do we need to change that up, so it’s a little bit fresh, so

people will pay a little more attention to it, rather than just the routine numbing effect of getting an e-mail or something in that way?’”

Assemble the right team

The final piece to change is to make sure you have the right talent in place to fill the structure and meet the strategy. You also

need to help employees adapt to the change and deal with those

who may not be able to make the change.

At W&S Agency Group, about 40 percent of the employees had

the skills needed to meet this new strategy. Dunn brought in new

employees to fill the rest of the team, about 30 percent from outside the company but inside the industry, and then another 20 to 25

percent from outside the company and the industry.

Change is hard, especially for employees who have been at a

company their whole career. Share employee success constantly

to motivate others to work hard.

“There are going to be an awful lot of passive resisters who say,

‘That’s fine, but this too shall pass. If I just stay at my desk and keep

my head down, this person will go away,’” Dunn says. “Once you

have identified people who will not change, you need to help them

find another opportunity.”

He says employees reacted in two ways to the change. For those

who didn’t fit in to the new vision, the company tried to find them

another opportunity within the larger financial group.

“We respected their loyalty and them as individuals because we

changed that parental relationship to a partnership relationship,”

Dunn says. “Going forward, you still have a great opportunity, but

you have more responsibility than just showing up. You’ve got to

be able to perform and achieve goals.

“There were other people who chose to retire because they said

this is just too much change, and we tried to show them that they

didn’t have to retire. These 120 years of history, we still believe in

that and in tradition, but at the same time, you need to have that

positive expectancy of the future. You’re not living in the past,

you’re reveling in the past because the future is just as bright, if not


Once you have the team in place, encourage members to

work together and meet goals, and be clear in communicating

those goals.

“You’ll have a strategy and two or three critical success factors,” he says. “Your direct reports will develop their objectives

to align with those factors and identify the drivers in their

organization and what initiatives they need to help deliver on

those success factors. This gives them ownership of how they

think we’re going to get this done.”

You also need to provide the team with a clear definition for decision-making, so members know when they can make a decision on

their own and when they can’t.

“Most people get frustrated when they think they are allowed

to make a decision and they aren’t because they don’t know

when they can make a decision,” Dunn says.

This change process has allowed the company to invest millions of dollars back into the company through new initiatives,

which has resulted in a less than 1 percent expense growth in

the last five years. Some of these initiatives included implementing a client relationship center, broadening the product

offering to become more of a financial services company, repositioning offices to where future customers would be located,

developing a data warehouse capability to house all client

information in one area and enhancing employee education.

Dunn says if these changes were not made, the company could

have faced a harvesting process to try to keep it viable instead of

reinventing and evolving it into a company that could grow on its


Change is an ongoing process that you need to worry about every

day, and you can slip back if you are not focused on it.

“Understand the culture and what you want to keep and want to

change,” he says. “Understand the business reasons to make that

change. Understand that you only change for that sake, not for the

sake of change, and then engage your organization by having

employees participate in activities that can help them feel empowered. Celebrate early successes, and communicate, communicate,


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