Corporations – ‘Stop hiding’

By Chris Leppek, Intermountain Jewish News

Expert sets strategies for surviving in difficult times

Cathy Sunshine has the perfect surname for what she does.

As a management consultant, she is hired to detect systemic patterns that hold companies back, reduce efficiency, cut communications, erode profits, even — in extreme cases — shut the company down.

What she does is shine light — sunshine, if you prefer — into the dark corridors and hiding places where such corporate bogeymen dwell, and then devises a plan to expel them.

Her skills might sound mystical to those not hardwired for corporate psychology, group dynamics and organizational behavior, but Sunshine insists that she owes a great deal to old-fashioned common sense, not to mention a dash of Jewish thinking.

Her current firm, the Sunshine Consultancy, is the descendant of earlier versions of Sunshine’s forays into the corporate sphere, the earliest of which, Sunshine Professional Services, was founded in Denver in 1975.

Unlike her current offering, which examines such global corporate issues as structure and vision, her initial effort was devoted to simpler tasks like career counseling, office leasing and career enrichment.

Her first venture also operated in a vastly different, considerably more optimistic, business environment than today, Sunshine pointed out in a recent interview.

“In 1976, we moved to a different cadence. Think about this as a melody. In those days we had some predictable movement. We knew, sort of, what our market was and we knew what business we were in.”

In today’s business climate, with rapidly changing technologies and new market realities, those old givens are no longer given.

“If you’re a CEO,” she says, “you don’t know how to stay alive and relevant because the outside world is transforming so fast that you can’t predict who your customer is going to be tomorrow.”

Not to mention the recession.

It’s a situation of chaos, says Sunshine — but not of hopelessness.

If a company can enable itself to move as fast as the dizzying marketplace, or even faster, it can remain relevant and survive, she says.

SUCH a feat is more easily described than accomplished, of course, which is where the Sunshine Consultancy comes in.

When hired as a consultant, Sunshine brings not only her education (with strong emphasis in psychology, English and business) but more than three decades in corporate management.

She approaches her work with objectivity, she says, and with the goal of viewing things from a wide perspective.

“It’s about systems and how they move and behave, and organizations are just organized systems. Everything I do is within a larger system context. It’s about solving the problem by seeing it in a bigger system, rather than solving a symptom.”

The symptoms, however, are usually the reason why she’s called in.

Apathy among employees and managers, flat or declining profits, or a general pattern of flat growth are the most likely villains.

“In today’s day and age, most businesses aren’t getting a lot of lift in their growth,” Sunshine says. “It’s not that they’re dying, but they’re flat, and they don’t know why.”

Growth, she adds, isn’t necessarily the same thing as profit.

“When I say growth, it isn’t avarice. Growth today is staying alive, staying vital, revitalizing, understanding the complexity of the market environment.”

The most commonly needed tonic for such maladies – and the governing principle of Sunshine’s approach – is movement. She has coined her own term – “through-put” – to describe the dynamism she tries to inject into the corporate bloodstream.

SUNSHINE routinely begins with the most fundamental of concepts, the need for a business to define, or perhaps redefine, exactly why it exists.

“A company only exists because it provides value to someone for something, so if we’re not creating value in the context of our market, we’re treading water, we’re not going to be around.

“I believe a business only exists because it has a customer. To use an expression I like, it’s lunar, not solar.”

Sunshine, who likes to communicate concepts with picturesque metaphors, elaborates. “Solar” is direct light, symbolizing a corporation’s decision to create its own definition and purpose. “Lunar,” is reflective light, symbolizing a corporation’s decision to define itself based on the needs of its potential customers.

“It says that my true value is based on what they tell me it is, not based on what I’m going to tell them it is. Ten, fifteen years ago, when business could grow as brilliantly as it did, if you had any product that was warm and breathing you could sell it, because the market was massive.”

Sometime between then and now, companies began to stray away from what Sunshine believes was the correct course.

“We inadvertently flipped by believing that our primary customer was the shareholder. If your primary customer becomes the shareholder, it makes you think totally short-term because the customer expectations are returns on investment every quarter, thank you very much.

“We moved from the idea that people want pencils: Well, I make the best pencils in town, or we are the smartest consulting firm or real estate firm around.

But we shifted from that, little by little, because we got big and bigger.

“Our fatal flaw was that we shifted from the customer really being the one buying what we have of value to the primary customer being the shareholder.”

Companies which forget who their customers are, Sunshine warns, are setting up their own demise.

SUNSHINE uses the metaphor of a “three-legged stool” to visualize a healthy corporation.

The first leg of that stool is the self-definition described above. The second leg is to understand and ultimately satisfy the customer base which is critical to the corporation’s survival.

“The third piece is org structure,” Sunshine says.

“We don’t have a structure that’s designed to be a container that lets us keep pumped up. That’s the thing that everybody’s missing, and that’s what I work on.”

This is where “through-put” comes in.

“Through-put is movement. It isn’t skill building in leaders; it’s that they move. You can’t keep up unless you move. We could have all the value and all the customers in the world, but we’re bumping into walls. There are structural impediments that are clogging us up inside. So the redesign creates a pump of information.”

Most companies began simply and efficiently, Sunshine says, pointing out the early successes of industrial pioneers like Henry Ford. But as these successful ventures grew, they added layer upon layer of corporate structure.

Such structure was necessary at the time to keep up with sustained growth, but in today’s business environment it has all too often become cumbersome and inefficient.

“Most businesses are scrambling, because they’ve built a structure that’s a little like a maze. We have an org structure that has become so brilliantly creative to help us grow that it’s weighing us down in a way that we’ll never be able to get lift.”

Most org structures, Sunshine says, eventually created divisions and departments that often work out of sync with, or even in opposition to, other divisions and departments.

“The org structure kept growing and growing and became more complicated,” Sunshine says. “And then we found little places to hide – information, money, knowledge – and that’s all structure. If people can hide, they will.”

THE structures also contributed, in Sunshine’s opinion, to some of the unethical and criminal conduct that has been witnessed recently in a number of very high profile corporations. While individual choices no doubt played a role in such instances as Bernard Madoff, AIG and Enron, she feels that complex structures can be conducive to illicit corporate practice.

“They can create little pods of dark hiding places for people to hold information, for there to be a lack of transparency. So the system also can support or not support unethical behavior,” she says.

On a larger scale, such “vertical” structure, she believes, eventually left corporations ill-prepared to deal with the rapid and dynamic business environment of the 21st century.

“Now, the biggest issue is it can’t move fast enough. It’s weighted down by the structure. We have become inadvertently designed in such a way that our departments are too internally focused, and not integrated, not inter-connected.

“The common problem that creates inertia is that people are not able,  nor are they motivated, to communicate across the entire spectrum of the business.

“They can’t — they’re too busy, there’s no system in place so they’re spinning in their own circle.”

Such vertical structure, Sunshine insists, must be replaced with a “horizontal” model, one in which the invisible walls and barriers come down. This allows all parts of the company to communicate, and, more important, to keep an eye on the customer.

The ideal corporate environment, she says, is one in which the reflected “lunar” light of the customers’ needs is the primary source of illumination for the business.

ALL this is a severe condensation of what is in reality a delicate and complex process, the result of Sunshine’s extensive experience in dealing with the collective psychology that manifests itself in the corporate environment.

“There are things I think I was born with, this pattern recognition skill, for example,” says Sunshine, who admits to a lifelong fascination with people and problem solving.

“But my clients taught me a great deal. I feel like I’ve been operating in a lab and it’s been fantastic. Clients have trusted me to help them, but in doing so it’s really helped me observe patterns of what I believe to be true.”

Her Jewishness has also been of great help in her calling, she adds.

Raised in a third-generation BMH family, her father was a student of Kabbalah and shared his knowledge with his daughter. Her grandmother, Mary Sunshine, was respected for the kosher home she always kept. The late Rabbi C. E .H. Kauvar used to routinely ask Mary to host observant guests at her home.

“I don’t talk religion,” Sunshine says of her professional work, “but I think that everything I do is Judaic.”

She recently read a book on quantum physics, Sunshine says, in which the author used the kabbalistic symbolism associated with Hebrew letters to help describe some of the abstract concepts associated with that science.

“Alef is energy, Bet is the house — the container – and Gimel is movement,” Sunshine says.

“That’s all I’m talking about. How do you take a bunch of people who are supposed to serve other people, all organized into a system, and help organize them into a house, into a container, where they can move?

“It’s my core belief. It’s where I came from. It’s why through-put to me is Gimel. It’s containers, it’s energy, it’s being alive.”