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September 2008
Shared Vision
By Susanne Deitzel

     Open up any management book and inside you are bound to find a wealth of paradoxes. “To create stability—manage change,” “Develop structure—and be flexible,” “To be productive—get plenty of rest,” and of course, “To succeed—be willing to fail.”

Great leaders do more than just read and comprehend these paradoxes, they live them. Such is the nature of the work that occurs on the carefully manicured grounds of Whitehead Manor Conference Center, and offices of Whitehead Associates, Inc. In the midst of rose bushes and the shade of aged oaks, conversations frequently mesh the language of the corporate lexicon with self-awareness. It is here that attention to the people-side of business translates into vaulted financial performance and more satisfying lives.

     Whitehead Associates, Inc. is a leadership and culture development consulting firm created by Mike Whitehead, a visionary who integrated his challenging personal life experience into opportunity. The result is a penetrating understanding of human dynamics that permeates his work, family life, interaction in the community, and relationships. The consulting provided by Whitehead and his associates uses an approach that underscores the conditioning of personal experience, and how it can impact decision-making, execution and personal integrity.

     For 10 years this January, Whitehead has used the word intentionality to describe this mode of leadership. As the word implies, every decision is framed deliberately in agreement with what the individual or organization determines is important. Individuals say that cultivating a habit of intentional behavior has a transformative effect on every aspect of their life; companies say that this transformation and its organizational implications have a profound effect on the bottom line.

Being the Change

     Whitehead’s business partner and COO Tom Lane joined the firm four years ago. He had taken the firm’s Quest for Personal Leadership course (QPL) when he started to question why his MBA and considerable success in the banking industry were failing to bring him the quality of life that he was looking for, and to avoid the frenetic lifestyle that he saw many colleagues pursuing.

     Says Lane of his experience: “QPL helped me see that I had a lot more choice in my life than I previously thought, and that wealth, health and satisfying relationships did not have to be mutually exclusive.”

     Shortly after completing the course, Lane approached Whitehead with the idea of joining the firm, which materialized a few months later.

     Lane’s personal experience and business acumen proved to be the perfect complement for what one client described as Whitehead’s “laser-like ability to get to core issues in an empowering fashion.” Between the two, they have devised a highly-efficient framework for transforming the challenges of today’s executives and their organizations into opportunities and results.

     Harris Teeter President Fred Morganthal relates, “It takes some people three or four years to learn a lesson that Whitehead can teach in three to six months. This training increases the proficiency of individuals and teams, and operational performance follows.” Morganthal says the company’s metrics show the training improves efficiency, turnover and the bottom line.

     Janet Fortner, president and CEO of Hospice and Palliative Care Charlotte Region, engaged Whitehead Associates to illuminate growth opportunities. She shares, “For us to take timely advantage of opportunities, we had to share a common vision, a common language and enjoy clear and direct communication. Our work with Whitehead Associates has created new opportunities for our leadership to excel and maximize their contribution to the organization’s success.”

     Whitehead Associates’ consulting approach is highly customized. The firm assists organizations in the areas of team development, succession planning, and culture issues related to increased growth, mergers and acquisitions. Most consulting engagements involve assessments, 360 degree feedback, group facilitation and executive coaching.

     The facilitation and coaching process involves assisting executives to see how attitudes, assumptions and communication style affect organizational results. Whitehead says that in the process of these coaching sessions, executives are often surprised by the insights and solutions that emerge. Comments Whitehead, “The bottom line is to  create a culture where people are accountable and self-managed; when this happens performance is optimized.”

     The firm stays current within the evolving field of organizational development which includes emotional intelligence, fully-engaged performance and work-life balance.

     “Whether we are talking about developing a business culture, individual leadership development, or team development, people become conditioned to certain ways of operating that often limit growth potential,” explains Whitehead. “When we coach people on their ‘default’ communication and behavior, they begin to see new ways of doing things.”


Emerging Vision

     Whitehead should know—he often sees possibilities that aren’t readily evident to those around him. He offers by example the 5,200-square-foot conference facility he is building, saying, “It’s easy to hesitate on investing right now, but I am betting that it is the right time.” Like much else that occurs at Whitehead Associates, the decision to begin construction of a new building in an ‘off’ economic cycle was very deliberate.

     Tom Lane weighs in: “As a rule, companies that perform well in a strong economy, plan well when things are less rosy. Now is the time to be planning for the next up-cycle in terms of preparation and people.”

     Lane also says that many breakdowns are concealed by rapid growth, and are revealed during flat or down cycles. So despite appearances, lean times are conducive to exploring what works and what doesn’t. “It is a great time to be assessing organizational strategy, pursuing culture development and recruiting good people, he comments. “By default, people fall into a hunkering down mentality—and this provides hunkering down results.”

     Hunkering down certainly doesn’t describe the atmosphere at Whitehead; growth is visible in all directions, most notably on the new construction site behind the Whitehead Manor house. In November, the two-story conference facility will be complete with wide foyers, several conference rooms, offices and a prep kitchen, as well as oversize deck space, complete with the white rocking chairs that have become a client favorite and hallmark of Whitehead Manor.

     Whitehead envisioned the conference center as a contemplative, creative space offering high-tech accoutrements alongside meandering gardens, with a special emphasis on hospitality. Whitehead Associates will use the space for corporate consulting and hosting seminars like its Quest for Personal Leadership, Optimal Team Performance, and others. It will also lease the space to organizations for off-site meetings, retreats, receptions and civic conversations.

     As event manager, Yvonne Carrasco oversees coordination of outside events for both the Manor house and the new conference facility. Whitehead attributes much of the Manor’s atmosphere to her authenticity, nurturing personality, and organic, eco-conscious mindset: “Yvonne is a gracious hostess who also innately understands the important components to a special experience.”

     He has similar praise for Property Manager Chris Bolinger, who performs a heavy task load maintaining the grounds and facilities in immaculate detail, as well as coordinating the demands of the new construction. “I couldn’t do this without Chris’s reliability, unfaltering commitment and extreme hard work,” comments Whitehead.

     The overall design of the Whitehead Manor Conference Center has been equally deliberate. Every aspect—the room flow, the cohesive design with the Manor house, the immense decks, and the breezeway connecting the two buildings—were carefully choreographed. Environmentally-friendly practices were made a priority, including rainwater harvesting for irrigation, use of recycled and low VOC materials, LED can lights and insulation for energy efficiency, garden installation and tree preservation, and grounds which are being cultivated for Audubon Wildlife Certification.

     As the Whitehead Manor Conference Center is adjacent to and inspired by the original 1895 Victorian home built by the pastor of Sardis Presbyterian Church, it shares its special sense of place. Comments Carrasco, “Guests constantly remark about what a surprisingly private, quiet and verdant space this is. Most people become curious about the Manor building while driving by, but when they arrive on the grounds, the special nature of this place captures their attention and imagination immediately.”

     Carrasco says the space has become popular for celebrations like receptions, bar and bat mitzvahs, and organizations as well as corporate groups holding off-site meetings and retreats. “Many groups appreciate having a special site in town because it eliminates travel and lodging expenses,” she explains.

     Tim Newman, president of Charlotte Regional Visitor’s Authority (CRVA) concurs, “Whitehead Associates is a great asset for Charlotte, and the new conference center and Center for Intentional Leadership sound like excellent additions to the Charlotte market.” Newman adds, “Mike coordinated the CRVA’s senior staff visioning session when we revised our strategic plan after three years of operation in 2007, and his work is first rate.”

     Neighboring Concepts is the site architect; owner Darrel Williams also has a special appreciation for the space.

     “As a close friend and someone who has received coaching from Mike over many years, the chance to design the conference center was very gratifying for our entire staff,” he says.   
     “It gave us the opportunity to express our understanding of the firm’s mission as well as exercise some of the growth my partners and I have experienced from Mike’s coaching and facilitating the company retreats over the years.”


A Broad Horizon

     Whitehead Manor Conference Center is on target to be complete in November and has begun accepting reservations for holiday events. It will be home to the Center for Intentional Leadership, Whitehead Associates’ training and development division which provides transformational leadership initiatives to corporate and community leaders.

     Community leaders are vocal about their support. Sue Gorman, wife of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman offers, “The time is now for our community to open the conversation of who are we and what we will continue to be. With many facets in the community, we need to have a means to bring these voices together. Mike has been a catalyst in bringing some of these critical conversations to fruition.”

     Foundation for the Carolinas President and CEO Michael Marsicano offers, “Charlotte is blessed with an extraordinary level of civic energy that is turbo-charged by many leaders involving lots of citizens at multiple tables. Our greatest challenge is in connecting the dots, linking one civic table to another.”

     He adds, “Mike Whitehead is a master at making connections, nurturing leadership, and building consensus. And now he has created a fabulous space for both leaders and neighbors to come together and forge common goals that will move us forward.”

     Whitehead says the idea behind the Center for Intentional Leadership is to create a literal and figurative space to create new opportunities. “The wisdom and the energy are already right here—in our leaders and our community. We offer the resources to facilitate and leverage them for the greatest good.”

     The Center for Intentional Leadership offers seminars, speakers, special events and a full curriculum for intentional leadership and intentional living, many of which will be launched during the grand opening in January 2009. Two weeks of festivities are promising a tapas of events for corporate and community leaders as well as close friends and family who have watched this element of Whitehead’s vision come to life. Many of them admit wondering, ‘What’s next?’

     Answers Whitehead, “The future is as big as we want it to be, and from where I sit that includes a community that works for everyone. If we can get people to agree on this big idea, then nothing is out of reach.”



Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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