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Thought provoker Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002

Denny Proux witnessed the hand wringing that accompanied the creation of General Motors’ Saturn subsidiary as a member of the team that conceived it.

The new, innovative way to sell cars made some uncomfortable because it challenged the stodgy, yet proven, corporate culture GM had known for years. Despite initial fears, the Saturn concept was ultimately given the green light, and the first car rolled off the assembly line in 1990.

Today, Proux says, Saturn executives are once again struggling to free themselves from the grip of GM’s corporate culture. He points to five years of declining sales — down 17 percent from 1994 — and lagging customer satisfaction as proof that the revolutionary Saturn concept may be running on empty. Proux says it’s one more sign that creativity is fleeting, and even honest attempts at change can be derailed if everyone in an organization is not focused on the same goal.

“The principles upon which Saturn was built were good internally, but there was always the danger GM would get its hand on it,” he says. “That has been tragic. Saturn is quickly becoming more (like) GM every day.”

Proux, chairman and CEO of Hudson-based Changing Places Inc., is also a stakeholder in six other companies worldwide in a variety of industries that range from banking to entertainment to the Internet. He is a board member of Cleveland’s nonprofit Institute for Creative Living, which helps companies build better teams and inspire creativity through physical problem solving.

He recently sat down with SBN to discuss the power of building a more creative and productive work force.

How did you get involved with Saturn and what did you bring to the table?

I was doing consulting for General Motors and was dealing with some people who were part of the initial start-up of the Saturn concept. They had a lot of people who were brilliant but had very poor communication and human relations skills.

So there was this constant tension and conflict. They had hired really great engineers and business minds, but they couldn’t function. They couldn’t hold meetings and they couldn’t get things done. So, I began to work with that part of it and a lot of it went over to Saturn, where they did more teambuilding and focused more on communication skills.

I brought Stephen Covey’s book (“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”) to GM and, at first, they didn’t want it. I had to buy the first 220 books with my own money. Today, it’s required (reading). Everybody at GM has to go through the Covey course.

What did you take away from that experience?

I met some wonderful people. They allowed people in who were not strictly car or engineering experts and that had a great impact. There were some wonderful people who began to influence a very old culture and helped it loosen up and be a little more open.

That was a great personal experience for me, but I recognized there was a clash of cultures. You always knew that GM culture would ultimately win out, that they would not fully accept the Saturn way.

You are a board member of the Institute for Creative Living in Cleveland. How did you become interested in this type of teambuilding?

When I was with the General Motors group, the Institute for Creative Living came there and I really liked their principles, their values and ideals. They weren’t pie-in-the-sky, they were talking about the real dynamics of how you create productive groups and how you produce leadership that makes sense. In other words, how to achieve goals and build human beings.

I saw the impact in a really hardened group of people from GM who just hated the thought of “turning company.” I watched that group turn around and go back to the plant and become involved, actually loving their work instead of dreading it and watching the clock.

There was this genuine thread of human interaction that had some real power to it.

Is there a type of management mindset that helps spur innovation and productivity?

Yes, and it’s kind of radical. When I work with an employer, I try to introduce to them the idea that the employee is the center of their own universe. Everybody is the center of their own universe. People are motivated if they believe there is some benefit to themselves.

So, the idea is for business owners to help each and every worker have the sense that employment at this company is in their best interest. The employer should try to grow them, give them every opportunity and, if life would be better for that person at another company, give them the skills and opportunities to move on.

If your company has the reputation that it’s a great place to work because employees are cared about first and foremost, then people are going to contribute at a higher level. You should help everyone feel like an entrepreneur in the system. Give them as much authority and as much latitude as you can.

If you hired somebody you have to watch over, you’ve hired the wrong person.

What are the first steps business owners can take to build creative employees?

If employees know they have total freedom to go out there and find out just what it is about them that brings meaning to their world and how they can get a different edge or focus, that really gets the juices flowing. If their job looks exactly like it did yesterday, then the employee starts saying, “There’s got to be a better way to spend the next 30 years.”

If you want creativity from someone, help that person to feel absolutely free, because the human spirit can’t be contained.

How to reach: Changing Places Inc, (330) 688-2360

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.