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Case study: The Returning Star

by on March 1, 2010

Executive summary

This case study highlights the challenges of balancing the moral principles and organizational interests. Jason Brown, the CEO of an international IT consulting company Hurricane, is informed about the returning of his previous star employee whom he made a promise to. But the current employee in that position did a great job and improved the structure of the firm during the past one year. Whether to embrace an old friend or break his word, whether to continue the innovation process or discourage a promising star. It is a tough decision that needs to be made as soon as possible. Jason needs to find a way to continue the successful restructuring while being true to the promise he made.

Keywords: Change Management, Organizational Change, Moral Principles


Ke Ding

Jiandong Hu

Jeroen van den Eijkhof


From → Coursework

    This entire crisis has been caused by a lack of awareness and understanding of some basic principles — at both an individual and collective level.

    The Principle of “Impermanence”
    In my experience, it is common to encounter an unchallenged emotional and/or cognitive assumption in individuals and organizations about viewing things as permanent (versus impermanent). In the “Permanence” view, things and phenomena are considered fixed or unchanging or eternal, or everlasting. So the assumption is made that the business conditions that we are experiencing today will be the same tomorrow. Or the people and positions we have today we will have tomorrow.

    A good example of this is when the Democratic Party in 2008 achieved a super-majority in the US Senate. Rather than move with urgency and accomplish whatever their agenda was — they argued and positioned and acted without a true sense of urgency — as though the super-majority would “last forever”. And they subsequently lost that super-majority. Awareness of the “Principle of Impermanence” would have resulted in a very focused and urgent plan and execution of action.

    In the business case, by Jason announcing that Ross could have his old job back anytime he wanted to return — Jason was likely making the unconscious unchallenged assumption that the business, the business conditions, the people, and the available positions would be the same in the future as they were in the moment of that announcement.

    So the “Principle of Impermanence” is the insight that all “things and phenomena” — form (space/time, matter, energy), feeling, perception, thought, and Consciousness — are compounded and arise without first cause through dependent origination (arising together), and thus are constantly in flux or changing (impermanence) through the conditioning action of subsequent cause and effect. In other words — “change rules”! The name of the game is emergence — everything that we experience is made up of co-arising parts, dependent on preconditions for existence.

    The wise view of impermanence is the realization that it is futile (and causes suffering) to be attached to “things and phenomena”, precisely because they are compounded and impermanent. Living things and organizations embody impermanence in the processes of birth, aging, and death. All things embody impermanence in the processes of arising, maturing-proceeding, and ceasing (cessation) — they arise and eventually cease to exist.

    If Jason had been aware of the wise view that all “things and phenomena” arise and cease according to both simple and complex conditions that reflect predispositions and limitations — then he would not have promised Ross “his old job back”, although he could easily have promised Ross a suitable job when he returned. In this case, “suitable” means a job position that reflects the changes that have occurred in the market, the business, and the people.

    The consequences of Jason’s ignorance of “The Principle of Impermanence” is that he, Frank, Ross, and probably countless others are now having negative emotional experiences of the unpleasant awareness of emotional, cognitive, and/or spiritual stimuli and responses associated with actual, potential, or perceived damage to themselves, each other, the organization, and/or their business ecosystems. And this level of individual and collective “suffering” can and will likely destabilize and have a significant negative effect on the business.

    This crisis can be quickly (within 12 hours) and positively addressed by understanding and applying the principle of “Presence” — at both an individual and collective level.

    The Principle of “Presence”
    In my experience, wise and skillful leadership requires the practicing of “Presence” — Wisdom & Compassion — as an unconditional skillful “gifting” of your integrative view and perspectives, awareness, attention, discernment, intuitions, humor, understanding, and mindfulness on your self — identifying, developing, and using your multiple intelligences to act from your experience of and awareness in the “present moment” to achieve whole lifecycle sustainability and continuity of the organizational ecosystems and their inhabitants.

    This means that the wise and skillful leader must engage in the conscious evolution of consciousness as a continuous individual and collective learning process of: discovering and developing multiple intelligences; challenging unchallenged assumptions; developing the capacity to fully hold multiple perspectives and experiences; and discerning and “living” highest purposes as individuals and organizations.

    For me, “Presence” is experienced as rich in clarity and compassion; free in-the-moment from craving/greed, hate/contempt, apathy/boredom, egocentrism/narcissism, and/or envy/covetousness; and free in-the-moment from the experiences of betrayal, rage, despair, irrelevance, and/or imminent extinction.

    Leadership development of “Presence” can be trained through highly refined processes of “Reflection”:
    (1) Experiencing
    (2) Noticing the Experience (Mindfulness)
    (3) Reflecting on the Experience (Insight)
    (4) Integrating the Experience of the Experience (Wisdom)
    (5) Being Aware in the Experience (Awareness)
    (6) Acting from that Awareness in the Moment (Presence)

    So how does Jason achieve “Presence” and quickly and positively address the crisis?

    First, by reflecting on the situation — as he has in part done — Jason needs to recognize that the market, the business, and the people (including himself) have changed. This the insight on “Permanence” using the practice of “Presence”.

    Second, Jason needs to use “Presence” to deeply sense into the whole-system of internal and external human ecosystems — to discern what is existent, arising, and becoming possible. This discernment must be gridded against the flux of current and emerging ideals (values-in-practice), views, intentions, visions, goals, objectives, strategies, tactics, and resources. The resulting activity will manifest wisdom, compassion, and skillful means as efficiency, effectiveness, and organizational resilience.

    What Jason will realize from his reflections is that Frank is more likely than Ross to have a long-term systemic positive impact on the company — because Frank is focused on sustainable process improvement and innovation in general, and Ross is focused on the CAM assignment in particular. And the practice of “Presence” suggests that multiple perspectives can be accommodated — that this is not an “either/or” situation.

    So for me, the “win-win” solution would be for Jason to offer Frank a position (probably Vice President) as the head of “Process Improvement & Innovation” for the entire company. Frank would be invited to choose some core employees to join him in his new organization, and others who would remain in their existing organizations as his ambassadors — both groups of people would be trained in process improvement and innovation.

    Jason would also offer Ross his old CAM job back with the request (and admonition) to allow the experiments that Frank put in place to continue for one full annual reporting cycle before being considered for cancellation.

    There is some risk in this strategy — Frank and/or Ross may still nonetheless feel betrayed. Yet that risk can be diminished if Jason can speak with the clarity and authenticity of “Presence”. And he can always point out that “things change”, that this arrangement is itself an experiment in impermanence — and can and will be modified as situation and the players dictates.


    Mark R. Jones
    Chief Executive Officer
    The Sunyata Group

  2. Wow, what a predicament Jason is faced with. On the one hand you have Ross, who’s leadership, client management and decision making abilities helped grow Hurricane into one of the largest consulting companies in the country. On the other hand, Frank had overhauled the company structure into a more flexible, responsive and innovative firm, well enabled to innovate and service client’s needs. Business is tough, no matter how hard you try to separate your emotions, it is personal and it’s not just business. At the end of the day you have to be able to stand by your word, if you don’t what else do you have and even worse, what else do your employees have. As for Frank, it sounds like Frank is young and understood from the get go that his position was as CAM was temporary. He knew this day was coming, he was just disappointed it came. Frank is absolutely an asset to the company and deserving of a promotion, but Frank has to understand that Jason must honor his word. By honoring his word, Jason can extend promise to Frank, a promise Frank can take to the bank. Jason can also consider being creative. Since Frank has implemented a flatter organizational structure he may consider implementing two CAM’s. Have Frank manage the accounts he built and brought on and Frank the other 1/3. Provide Frank with incentives for growing his client base and make them bother owners of their own destinies.

    By Jason Labaw

    CEO of Bonsai Media Group

  3. Hope all is well with you. I have read through the case study and outlined my ideas below. Jason definitely had a dilemma!!

    In the case study “The Returning Star” CEO Jason Brown certainly has a dilemma created by the untimely heart attack and subsequent absence of Ross McDonald. To make matters worse, Jason makes a promise to Ross and his employees that his old job will be waiting for him when he regains his health and returns to work. Jason was clearly talking from his heart and emotions. Leaders need to lead by principles and not emotional baggage that friendships can bring at times.

    In the year that Ross is out on sick leave, Frank, his replacement, does a fantastic job. He transforms the Client Account Management department by taking a more focused, strategic approach to the business. He collapses the existing hierarchical organization, reducing the layers thus making a flatter structure that is flexible, innovative and energized. In addition, Frank retained the existing clients and gained the respect of Hurricane Board of Directors. Frank realized that holding onto old ways was a sure way to lose business. He improved all aspects of the business that needed change to create a competitive organization.

    Jason’s dilemma is obvious…..does he promote Frank to the CAM role or follow through on his promise to his friend Ross? Jason could have avoided the issue if he had thought of the potential consequences before following his emotions in promising Ross his job back. It is always better to “under promise and over deliver”. In addition, a realistic time frame for his return should have been discussed versus an open invitation to return to his old role. While it is important to follow through on a promise, there are times in the real world when a promise based on emotion may restrict a manager from acting in the best interest of the employee, client and business. Wisdom dictates that managers like Jason realize these unusual situations for what they are and make rare exceptions. Jason needs to support *Frank* in his role and give him the position that he has earned. At the same time, a dignified alternative for Ross should be offered such as New Client Development with the understanding that he must adapt to the new structure and work environment since the economy, company and paradigms of the organization have changed in a year. There is no going back to the hierarchical organization of a year ago. All changes must be clearly communicated to the employees by Jason.

    Dave Abrahamsen

    GE Money Bank a division of GE Capital
    SVP International Operations

  4. Student Response

    Jason needs to sit down with Frank as soon as possible. The heavy weight client will be able to sense that something is amiss if Jason doesn’t get a chance to talk with Frank and reestablish their connection. If it’s not too late in the evening, I might even suggest calling Frank immediately to make sure a morning meeting is confirmed. During this meeting, Jason needs to do a number of things. First, he needs to let Frank know how valued he is – by Jason personally and also by the company as a whole. This communication needs to be genuine and sincere, which Jason shouldn’t have any trouble with. Knowing one is appreciated and valued can go a long way toward rebuilding trust, moral and an attitude of cooperation.
    Next, Jason needs to ask Frank what he wants out of working at Hurricane and what his long-term hopes and dreams are. Then Jason needs to fully listen to Frank’s response. The importance of truly listening can’t be overstated. Frank needs to be heard in order to know he is respected and valued by Jason. But Jason also needs to learn what exactly will make Frank happy. Perhaps Frank simply wants the compensation that comes with the CAM role. Or perhaps it’s the status of the role that’s important to him. Jason simply doesn’t know and won’t know unless he asks and then listens to Frank. The money-saving changes Frank implemented were not client facing. They dealt with internal strategies that increased innovation and engagement between Hurricane employees, not clients. It could turn out that what Frank really enjoys is managing employees and maximizing their effectiveness.
    Once Jason fully listens to Frank and understands his wants and wishes, he needs to be upfront about things he knows for sure he can’t give him, assuming there are any. But, if there are ideas that need to be massaged and could potentially work, Jason can give Frank a concrete outline – including dates — of when he can come to him with next steps. He needs to communicate to him that he’ll do everything he can to work with Frank and make his experience at Hurricane a rewarding one. This attitude, along with concrete action, can also go a long way in restoring Frank’s loyalty to Jason and to the company.
    During this part of the conversation, Jason might also suggest the possibility of redefining the CAM role and creating a new position that incorporates some of the responsibilities that are now in Ross’s domain. Ross has two thirds of Hurricane’s clients. Ultimately, Jason was wise to accept Ross back into the CAM role. But perhaps Ross needs to stay engaged with clients and leave other responsibilities – management and business strategy, for instance – to someone else. If Jason can carve out a new role for Frank, one that is perhaps on a peer level with a better compensation package, everyone wins. Of course this will all depend on Frank’s actual wants and desires. It may also equally depend on Jason’s ability to show Frank that he is fully behind finding a solution that will allow Frank to grow and flourish at Hurricane.

    Emily Cunnington

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