Lois Levy walks into the room filled with senior executives, opens her carrier case, and deftly distributes containers of bubbles to everyone. Even the more reserved participants at this corporate retreat loosen up after playfully blowing a few bubbles in the air.
Silly Putty and Play Dough soon follow. Executives are high-energy people, says Levy, a management development consultant and author. They fidget a lot. Theyre thinking about the phones call they need to make, the meetings they must plan for, the "to do" lists that run the length of a legal pad. They need a way to channel that energy when they sit in her weekend retreats.
Levys conviviality may belie her dead-serious goal of helping her audience achieve improved results for their corporations. She says the processes she uses to lead problem- solving and planning sessions get results because they reduce stress and help people access the right side of the brain, which houses the minds more creative, intuitive powers. All of her techniques are a way of getting people "out of the box," she says.
"Its about finding ways to make work easy and fun, but get them to the answer," she says.
When groups problem-solve with toys, Levy says, they are more relaxed. She acknowledges that some organizational consultants may use a lot of "feel good" activities that dont do much else. But she says that, beneath the fun, she is as outcome-oriented as many businesses. After a group has used Tinker Toys to re-engineer a particular case- study workflow problem, for example, shell ask, "How did it go? What worked? How does this apply to your work processes?"
By the end of the weekend, she expects participants to have a who, what, and where - a plan, in other words outlining how they intend to implement change when they return to their offices the following week. She has them write down five measurable goals and objectives so they will be able to evaluate whether their plans are effective.
She also makes her audiences promise they will leave work at 5:30 p.m. two days a week three days a week if they have children. If top management does this, she says, then their subordinates feel they have permission to leave work at a reasonable hour too. When executive level managers model this kind of behavior, Levy says, they are in effect acknowledging the value of "having another life."
Levy learned a number of tricks to reduce her own stress level long before she began teaching senior executives of large corporations how to manage theirs. She says her office at CIGNA Corp., where she was a corporate executive overseeing large multi-level departments wish several hundred employees, was the laboratory where many of her stress reduction techniques germinated.
During her tenure there, she would de-stress herself by turning off her phone and computer and going outside for a quick breath of fresh air or taking five minutes just to become aware of her breathing. She accumulated in her office a treasure trove of playthings such as "magic" wands filled with sparkling, viscous liquid and miniature pinball machines.
When Levy left CIGNA about 10 years ago, she took her toys with her and established a management development consulting firm, which now offers one-on-one training and development to senior executives.
But organizational development consultant Richard Allen, principal of Discovery Institute in New York City, says Levy does much more than artfully facilitate executive development, strategic planning and teambuilding exercises.
"Lois work goes a lot deeper," says Allen, who has collaborated with her on a number of organizational development projects.
To make meaningful and lasting change, Allen says, the true nature of the organization, what he describes as the organizations "personality and soul," must transform itself. He says Levy sets the stage for these transformative processes by intervening with higher level decision-makers.
"Organizational cultures are driven by the spiritual component of the core group of people driving the organization," he says. And if those in leadership positions are only interested in the bottom line, their response to improving the companys profit will be to eliminate people.
Eighty-five percent of todays organizational workflow re-engineering models fail to recognize the effect such changes will have on people, Allen says, explaining that these models simply become euphemistic attempts to decrease the human resources in the company. Yet, its the human resources who are the bridge between business processes and technology, he says. And when that human element or link isnt considered, then all the other systems will eventually fail.
Ever so slowly, these linear paradigms for thinking about organizational change are beginning to shift, Allen says. He credits Levy for giving attention to such issues, and for providing senior executives tangible tools they can use to create deep and sustained change in corporate environments. Levy focuses on more than just results, Allen says, "(She) deals with the human assets."
Levy often begins a project by looking at executive stress levels within the company. Work life was less stressful for senior management before the birth of technology because they at least had the opportunity to disconnect after they left the office, even if it was late. These days, cell phones, FAX machines, laptops and pagers connect many of them to the office and subsidiaries around the globe 24 hours a day. "Now, we have to give ourselves permission to take breaks," she says.
All stress, she says, takes a terrific toll, which is reflected in dollars lost through mental and physical illness. "Were seeing a rise in accidents (particularly car accidents), migraines, lower back problems, depression and anxiety," she says. "All of this takes away from profit."
Stress costs industry real money in productivity, disability costs and absenteeism, she says. "If businesses want to make more money, they have to take a look at the stress level of their organizations and do something about it."
Levy first offered nuggets of her stress-reducing wisdom to a group of physicians at a weekend medical staff retreat, when the audience told her they would prefer to spend the time contemplating their roles and relationships within the hospital and the healthcare industry, rather than focus on strategic planning.
They responded favorably to the stress-reduction exercises she taught them and requested that she provide the same information to their nursing staff at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. But when Levy learned she would need to compress her day-long format into 20-minute increments to fit into the hospitals rather inflexible staffing schedules, she had to reconstruct her presentation content.
Wondering how she could be useful within such short and fragmented timeframes, she decided to focus on "finding balance in the moment," giving the nurses just a handful of ideas that would help them survive their frantic work days. Condensing the material paid off so absorbed were the nurses that no one left the room, Levy says.
She became convinced that her "sound bite" format might be applicable to other groups of busy people as well. From this experience, she conceived Undress Your Stress: 30 Curiously Fun Ways to Take Off Tension, her recently published book that describes a number of stress-reduction techniques people can access quickly, no matter what theyre wearing, where they are, or what time of day it is.
Deep breathing. Singing. Dancing. Silly Putty. Working on jigsaw puzzles. Coloring in coloring books. These are among the simple activities that can center us and calm us, Levy says. Her book offers these and more than two dozen other ideas, most of which can be done in five minutes or less. Such activities help people to be present in the moment, she says, a concept often foreign to people who must simultaneously deal with multi-million dollar budgets, audits, mergers and acquisitions, and global economics.
Mark Hug, senior vice president of Equitable Assurance Companies in New York City, and one of Levys clients, says Levy helped him manage his stress level in meetings by teaching him how breath control could change his behavior. As his personal coach, Levy "shadowed" him for several days during an 18-month period, following him to meetings and observing him in his office as he talked on the phone, met with his peers, and gave performance appraisals.
He recalls that she approached him after one meeting and asked him why he "argued for the sake of arguments sake" and focused on meaningless points of debate. They discussed why his communication style might make him intimidating, and talked about how breathing deeply and slowly the opposite of how most people breath under stress would prevent him from responding too quickly. He says this was a defining moment for him.
"It allowed me to recognize my weaknesses, and (accept) the fact that my voice is too loud," Hug says.
Levy says others on her diverse client list respond in similar ways to these simple and fail-proof techniques. Some of her other customers are Johnson & Johnson, Prudential Insurance, Aetna Inc., Banque Paribas (the Americas and Asia), the Small Business Administration and Merck Corp. She sees many of these organizations once a year and now finds that "They expect toys, something different each time," she says. "They are ecstatic to play."
Most of the research on managing stress has been too prescriptive, she says, or instills too much guilt, which creates more stress. "It has to be fast, fun, easy no matter what Im doing," she says. "(And) its important to be willing to be silly," she says. She ultimately wants her clients to make money, and believes this will happen if they have a better time working and interacting well with each other.
"ln the end, my motto is The margin between profit and loss is people."
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Lois Levy Enterprises
Author of "Undress Your Stress"
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