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,”
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,”
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
“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,
HOW TO REACH: W&S Agency Group, (513) 629-1800 or www.westernsouthern.com