Reality HR: CEO Dixon Thayer on Resolving
Dixon Thayer, CEO of Greenleaf Auto, uses a powerful simulation exercise to train
managers to resolve the paradoxes around making money versus doing the right
HR.com spoke to Mr. Thayer.
HR.com: Tell me a little about your background.
DT: I’ve spent over 30 years as an operating leader, in everything from small business,
to a couple of Fortune 500 companies, and even a Fortune 5 company. Most recently, I
led a leveraged buy-out of a division of Ford Motor Company.
In many cases, I've had to work in fixing a broken business or helping a business find its
profitable growth curve again. To fix a business you need to create what I call, “effective
HR.com: What is the key to getting a profit culture?
DT: Everyone speaks about leadership standards and re-establishing values in
organizations. However, very few people address a significant issue in change
management that foils many change initiatives—the matter of paradox.
There is a lot of talk about "balance" and that word suggests that there are two or more
seemingly polar business imperatives. The problem people have is in making the right
choices between those competing imperatives. Many people look to their leadership for
resolution of the paradox; they ask, "What do you want profit or growth?” "Do you want
profit or customer satisfaction?" A leader may say, "I want it all", which at first sounds
like strong leadership but is really no help at all. You’ve left the boat rudderless.
Somebody asked you to resolve a paradox and all you’ve done is to throw it back in his
or her lap.
HR.com: Tell us more about the paradoxes managers face.
DT: The mother of all business paradoxes is maximizing profit versus doing the right
thing. Doing the right thing could mean taking care of customer satisfaction, investing for
strategic growth, developing employees, or any number of other issues.
When it comes to profit, there are only four ways to make more money: sell more, get
more for it, sell the right stuff, and spend as little as possible doing so. Unfortunately,
knowledge of this isn’t enough. This tells you the what but not the how. If I have one
more financial analyst walk into my office and say, "I’ve done a great deal of analysis
and your costs are too high", I don't know what I'll do. What value does that add? As
operators, we all know this. The hard part is how.
Some organizations try to help managers handle the paradox of making the right
decisions by providing financial training for non-financial managers or have corporate
sermons on governance DOs and DON'Ts. But financial training for the non-financial
manager is learning how to read the gauges instead of how to pull the levers.
Sometimes people are taught case studies of winners and losers, and sometimes there
are benchmarks to show how poorly you’re doing. Again, all you’ve been taught is how
to be a financial analyst. The corporate sermons about, "Let's have more of an HR
focus," or "Let's have more integrity" are just reflecting the macro thoughts of how to be
an honest decision maker when what you really need is to show people how to make
those tough choices effectively.
HR.com: What do you do to help people make those tough choices?
DT: We've taken a different approach. We created an interactive web-based simulation
tool called Profit Master. I’ve used it in several large corporations, a couple of small
corporations, and now my own organization.
In Profit Master, we’ve created a fictitious company of some scale that has all of its
moving parts. People can learn new tools that help them make the right choices. They
can actually make decisions and then see how their choices affect the results of the
The simulation deals with the actual tools of paradox navigation. One tool is being able
to identify a paradox—to define the two polar states and find a way to frame it so that
they are not polar choices. We give people "what-if" tools in the gaming world so they
can drive success, not just look at the 'gauges' after the fact to see if they were
successful. It’s teaching people, in a controlled environment, what happens when they
pull the levers.
In this process, people also unlearn some of the business decision-making tools that
created this problem of not understanding how to reconcile making money with doing the
HR.com: We hear a lot of interesting but untested new ideas. It seems that this
teaching tool is something you've used for a good numbers of years in a variety of
DT: Yes. I have successfully used the system in product-based industries, distributionbased
industries, and service-based industries. We developed this with Norm
Smallwood of Results Based Leadership. Of course, it’s not just the model; it's the whole
process that integrates with that model that has been a great aid to helping people
handle this mother of all paradoxes.
I sit on the board of a couple of companies, and the Sarbanes-Oxley issues are real.
Resolving the paradox of making profits versus doing the right thing is not just theoretical
musing, it’s really about getting companies to function within that new world that’s been
defined for us.
HR.com: What kind of lessons might someone walk away with after having done
this kind of simulation?
DT: These models usually can take a person's specific issue and let them run several
different scenarios—to take several different approaches—and grind out the financial
implications. For example, a manager may face a paradox around where to cut costs
without hurting their customers. They can try various approaches in the model.
A manager's issue might be, "What do I do about my best customers?" If you think about
it, a customer who calls and says, “I love you very much and will always buy your
product”, usually gets the highest price. In the simulation, you can model how to build a
different loyalty relationship with your customers and see the financial results.
HR.com: So someone might have a specific issue about how to handle pricing
issues and could go into the model and play around with different pricing
DT: Absolutely. They can play with pricing, product mix, product development, cutting
costs, and so on. One of the most powerful levers is mix. People are always wondering if
they should increase prices and they forget that shifting the mix of the products, and the
mix of the customers you do business with, will dramatically affect your bottom line.
When people can do that, you’re not forcing them into the kinds of choices that get them
This tool creates a fun competition. If you think about the attraction of ‘PlayStation’ and
‘Xbox’, it’s very much the same kind of thing. Participants in the learning process try to
outscore each other by getting better financial results while still playing within the rules of
One thing that happens in the game is, they can get past false barriers, such as, "I could
never change that price". People have all kinds of false ceilings around what they can
and cannot do, but when they’re playing the game, they have the opportunity to try all
kinds of things.
While people are in that mental state, we slip in the actual metrics of their business.
When they’re done with the gaming process, they’ve actually created a specific action
plan for their business, with a measurable financial impact.
HR.com: So when you're done you'll be thinking, "Was this a training game or was
it a business planning exercise?"
DT: Yes. Why should they be separate? Usually action plans that come out of training
are quite abstract, such as, "Here are my top five priorities". What you really want during
the learning process is to create a specific action plan, where people have already seen
the financial benefits that come from doing the right thing. We translate this right into
their bonus—we say, "Here are the results of your actions and look at how much bonus
you would make by doing the right thing".
HR.com: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
DT: The development of this process is on going. I am very interested in others who
might be interested in sharing where we’ve gone, because, it enhances the model and
improves results within my own company. People are welcome to contact me at my
Greenleaf auto address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dixon Thayer is the founding partner of ab3 Resources inc. and a
member of the Duke Corporate Education Academic Network.
Dixon has over twenty-five years experience in direct leadership of line management.
His areas of expertise are business turnarounds and regenerative growth, change
management, leadership and value creation. He has led the acquisition and integration
of numerous businesses, supported a successful IPO on NASDAQ, and led two
significant divestitures. He has held several senior leadership positions in large
organizations in the US, Europe and Latin America during critical times of change.
Dixon recently completed the leveraged buyout of Ford Motor Company’s GreenLeaf
Auto Recycling division, and serves as President, CEO and Board Member. He also
currently serves on the “i-Trax” Health Management Solutions Board of Directors as the
Audit Chair and member of the Compensation Committee (AMEX). He also serves on
the Board of Speakman CRS, a market leading plumbing & appliances business. Dixon
also advises two Private equity firms regarding potential acquisition opportunities.
Dixon has written a number of articles and lectured on topics including “Teaching
Elephants to Dance”, “Paradox Navigation”, and “Creating Value & Distinctiveness in
Commodity Based Industries”. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of
Michigan, the American School of International Management, the London School of
Business, the Duke Fuqua School of Business and The 3M Annual Senior Officer
Dixon is hoping to be able to present at HR.com's Power of the People Event October
24-26th on Creating effective “Profit Cultures” in the post Sarbanes Oxley age.