CornerStone Propane: Nurturing Diversity With Perceptual Styles Training

Built principally through acquisitions, Cornerstone Propane had a diverse workforce with a wide range of philosophies. Perceptual styles training helped establish a common thread of understanding and purpose.

Personality conflicts will always exist when people interact closely on a daily basis, particularly under challenging or stressful situations. People who manage others, whether in the private sector, the public sector or the not-for-profit arena, can attest that the majority of conflicts, disagreements and issues they deal with are directly related to how people 'see' one another and how they work with one another. The issues tend to be interpersonal in nature, that is, differences in style or approach, not differences in the end goal or objective. As the head of organizational development for a large company that operates across the country, I am well aware of the challenges interpersonal interactions present. CornerStone Propane has been built principally through acquisitions, meaning that differences in operating philosophy often surface. The company is geographically diverse (with employees in large suburban areas such as New York City as well as small rural areas like Nogales, Ariz.), functionally diverse (blue-collar and professional employees) and socio-economically diverse (minimum wage earners up to executives with six-figure salaries). This wide range means the company's employees hold very different views of the world, sometimes hampering integration efforts and overall performance.

The synergies CornerStone Propane expected from acquisitions were not being completely fulfilled. The company was fragmented on a number of levels. There were multiple operating cultures. We needed help. This was never more apparent than at a meeting I was asked to facilitate designed to introduce a group of field managers from a newly acquired company to the senior management team of the organization. The purpose of the meeting was to break the ice and allow the incoming management team an opportunity to interact with the executives and learn more about the company's operating culture and business philosophy—beyond what was shared during the due-diligence process. In addition to the anticipated anxiousness that was certain to accompany such an event, I prepared myself for what would be an obvious clash of cultures. While the companies shared the same industry and product line, each was structured very different from the other in many ways.

The company CornerStone had acquired was a family-owned and -operated business that had grown through the years from a single location to 20. The founder & CEO was a soft-spoken, unassuming man who preferred face-to-face interactions and loathed the impersonality that technology brought to the table (voice-mail and e-mail). The company was based in the Midwest and prided itself on the sincere, warm hospitality it provided to customers and employees alike. That personalized attention was ingrained in every one of the 175 employees, and was one reason why the company was growing year after year in a highly competitive market. By contrast, CornerStone Propane was a 2,200-employee, 285-location organization operating in 34 states. The president and CEO was a high-energy, charismatic individual who could rally employees to a cause and was a confessed technology junkie. While customer service was a hallmark of CornerStone's operating philosophy as well, the organization was more risk-tolerant, entrepreneurial and fast-paced than most.

At the meeting, it was clear that there would be many challenges to overcome. An eerie awkwardness remained despite best efforts to draw the group closer through a series of facilitated discussions and activities designed to highlight the many commonalities between the two companies, and the successful traits both organizations could leverage to ensure the integration would be successful. After the meeting, I met with the executive team, and together we developed a strategy to more effectively surface this chasm of operational and philosophical difference. CornerStone needed a more complete understanding of its diversity, and the strengths and risks associated with it. We agreed that until people came to appreciate that differing opinions and alternate viewpoints could be valuable, the organization would remain fractionated and ineffective. We needed a common thread of understanding to tie us together, and a shared sense of purpose. It was clear that a perceptual styles tool could help meet these needs.

I knew there were a number of tools used in the business setting that attempted to uncover why people behaved in a certain manner (such as DiSC, Insights, LIFO and the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, or MBTI). I had experience with each of them and found some theories too complicated to effectively grasp in the confines of a training session, while others were just the opposite—too simplistic in their approach toward differences in perception. I turned to a company called Impact|TDF, for its proprietary perceptual styles tool named TDF. I had experienced TDF while working in the training department of a Fortune 100 company, where the tool was a part of the core professional development curriculum. TDF had just the right balance. I found that TDF was easy to understand, simple to apply and powerful in its approach to perceptual style differences. The TDF pattern inventory was developed by a business executive (and later, an organizational development consultant), who wanted to describe the different ways he saw people acting in organizations and work life. The TDF theory describes those differences and places common perspectives into one of six type “patterns.” The theory helps uncover the strengths these patterns bring to the table, as well as the limits each perspective presents. In an interactive, fun, non-threatening manner, I knew that TDF would enable our employees to better appreciate their own strengths, better align their efforts with others and, most importantly, better understand the value of different approaches and perspectives.

The consultants and trainers from ImpactTDF worked with me to establish the right expectations going into the training and helped to set a receptive environment before, during and after the training experience. I worked with them to create a customized development experience that enabled us to focus on three core outcomes: a better understanding of self/others, a clearer sense of the organization's culture and expectations for employees and a systematic method for establishing and meeting individual and departmental goals and objectives. We launched the program with the senior management team first in order to get feedback and further refine the program, as well as establish a firm base of visible support for the training initiative. We then implemented the program in a 'top-down' fashion, moving through successive tiers of management to ensure alignment throughout the organization. The program was unlike any professional development experience conducted at CornerStone Propane. Due to its high energy and unique blend of personal, interpersonal and business focus, it was an immediate success. The management team of the most recent acquisition found common allies in CornerStone's senior team, and the two executives more clearly appreciated the skills and capabilities each brought to the table. In short order, the operating silos where brought down, and the sharing of information CornerStone was looking for at the time the acquisition was consummated.

The most visible impact of the training was the vast improvement in open communication. Through the program, employees found a non-threatening language that enabled differences in approach and perspective to be aired, considered and valued. I noticed different clusters of employees meeting to discuss organizational issues. This alone was a breakthrough for CornerStone Propane. Because the program confirmed personal strengths, I found employees approaching work in a more confident manner. The organization began leveraging intellectual capacity, utilizing the varied and long-constrained thoughts, ideas and opinions to improve productivity and operating results. Problems that hampered the company in the past were more easily overcome. I knew we were making a positive difference when I had managers calling me wanting additional training sessions held at their locations in order to get more employees through the program.

Six months after the initial launch, we revisited course participants to gauge the effectiveness of the program. Although employees enjoyed the class and rated it high on the course evaluation form, I knew the executive team wanted more concrete results. ImpactTDF helped me establish Level II and III evaluations for the program. Using a series of focus groups, we confirmed that participants recalled the program's primary objectives and in most instances were able to accurately state the company's business philosophy and desired operating culture. When pressed for changes in their work practices as a result of the program, feedback was overwhelming. Consistently, employees reported improvements in their interpersonal interactions at work (and at home), a greater sense of confidence in their skills and abilities, fewer conflicts with co-workers and, most important, a more accepting attitude toward different perspectives.

TDF became a part of the organization at CornerStone Propane. Partnering with ImpactTDF, we developed a second program focusing on key skills for managers, specifically goal-setting, communication, performance management and team-building. The perceptual styles tool was again an integral part of the course design. CornerStone also held a series of intact work-team sessions designed to foster creativity and bolster problem-solving capabilities. Hard measures of the effectiveness of these training efforts included greater job satisfaction as measured by climate surveys, increased productivity levels as measured by department and individual performance standards, and indirectly, improved employee morale and an associated reduction in voluntary attrition.

The decision to utilize a perceptual styles tool opened the way to more effective interpersonal interactions and established a foundation CornerStone Propane has been able to enhance with successive training and development activities. Through the use of a perceptual styles tool, the company has come to better understand its diversity and is a more productive organization. This success in the training arena has helped the organization's overall performance. We're a stronger company. That's the bottom line.

Gregory Gamble is director of organizational development & corporate communications for CornerStone Propane, one of the country's largest propane retailers. He has worked as a trainer, facilitator and internal consultant in industries as diverse as health care, energy and financial services. For more than a decade, he has focused on helping organizations achieve business objectives, and individuals achieve personal and professional goals. Gregory can be reached by e-mail at