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Since WillowTree’s founding, culture and core values have been central to the company’s brand and success. When the staff wrote their core values as a team, the words flowed easily because they reflected the people and their way of doing business. Today, they are at the heart of every project, partnership, and even happy hour. They get revised, taught, and enhanced by the teams who live them every day. The autonomy, inclusivity, and openness of the project teams reflect WillowTree’s core values in action.

In early 2018, as the company entered another phase of rapid growth, the executive team began asking: How can we maintain our culture and our core values as we continue to expand? Partnering with Launch Project, a leadership development and coaching firm, WillowTree realized that to sustain and evolve its culture, it needed to invest in its high potential leaders.

"Our core values are everything. They are who we hire, how we work, and what we create. Everything we do is a reflection of our core values." -Tobias Dengel, CEO, WillowTree

High Potential Leaders at WillowTree

Leadership at WillowTree does not come from a position on the org chart; it is simply about putting the company’s seven core values into practice. Leadership means taking responsibility for your work and colleagues (ownership), caring enough about your team members to be clear with feedback (open communication), and finding inspiration in the face of uncertainty and challenge (optimism).

About 85% of the company is divided amongst 20+ project teams, making each team its own entity, operating with the support and values of the larger organization. Each team is led by a small team, including a Principal Engineer, Business Development Lead, Test Engineer, Design Lead, and a Project Manager (PM). WillowTree vests tremendous trust in these leaders as they design and build products for high-profile clients such as Pepsi, Johnson & Johnson, and Time Warner. These leaders do not directly manage the people on their team, yet they are responsible for what each person on the team delivers and for creating safe environments that align with the core values.

The Challenge

WillowTree’s team leaders must navigate through times of disruption, motivate staff in the face of uncertainty, and remain inspired themselves. To date, they had not received formal training or support in some of the most challenging and critical aspects of their jobs:

  • Soliciting, receiving, and giving feedback

  • Engaging in difficult conversations

  • Coaching their team members

To ensure continuity and consistency in how the teams are led - and make sure that the core values are put into action - WillowTree needed to intentionally design training and support for these emerging leaders that would go beyond a one-and-done workshop.

The Process

The desired outcome was clear: Team leaders who could carry forward WillowTree’s values and culture by creating safe and open environments where feedback flows easily and team members empower and support one another. To move toward this vision, WillowTree partnered with Lisa Rogoff, Leadership Coach and Founder of Launch Project, to focus on three key areas:

  • Listening at all levels. People from across the organization participated in small discussions to better understand how the core value of open communications was being put into practice. Through this listening tour, it became clear that the PM function held one of the more challenging leadership positions, and that supporting the PM’s growth as leaders and skills associated with open communication could have a powerful impact that would ripple across the company.

  • Designing experiential and embedded learning programs. Launch Project took the learnings from the listening tour to craft an experiential learning program, including workshops, a customized 360 assessment, 1:1 coaching, peer coaching circles, and webinars. Over the course of four months, the PMs participating in the program deepened their leadership, learned how to identify strengths within themselves and their team, cultivated coaching skills, and gained confidence in having difficult conversations.

  • Creating scalability and sustainability. Lisa partnered with an internal WillowTree “Momentum Team” to create an experience that was unique and relevant to the organization. Through the development and implementation of the program, the Momentum Team learned how to facilitate the workshops, lead engaging discussions during the coaching circles, and continue the program in perpetuity for executives and other leaders across the company.

An Agile Approach

Much as WillowTree runs any project, this program was designed to be agile, allowing for nimble iteration in response to ongoing feedback:

  • Modeling in place of training. The initial program design included a train-the-trainer component, whereby participants would train their teams on what they were learning. In the initial workshop, however, the participants shared that they weren’t prepared to do that. The facilitators were able to accommodate a shift, meeting the participants where they were in their learning. This gained credibility with the participants, and as the PMs gained confidence with the material, they trained their teams through modeling behaviors and designing their own materials.

  • Introducing a powerful leadership model. It came as a surprise to learn that almost all of the participants had varying - and perhaps, conflicting - views of what leadership means. To gain a common language and more refinement around the topic of leadership, the facilitators decided to introduce the Co-Active Leadership model, a philosophy grounded in research and practice that aligns with WillowTree’s values. The participants embraced the philosophy which posits that traditional, hierarchical models of leadership are outdated and that effective leadership in today’s world of uncertainty and disruption requires new ways of leading.

  • Offering more space for community. At the outset, the workshops and coaching circles offered a great deal of content. While this was valuable, it was clear that leaving time and space for the participants to connect with one another was just as important. The facilitators redesigned portions of the curriculum to allow for more practice and connection among the participants.

This program changed me as a leader and a person. To be honest, I don’t think I understood what leadership meant; now I know and I’m just beginning to live into it. The workshops gave tools, strategies, and time for practice. Coaching in between was phenomenal and transformed how I see myself and behave at work. I’m grateful for WillowTree making this important investment and to Lisa for making it a reality.

The Results

WillowTree’s collaboration with Launch Project led to meaningful results for the PMs and leadership across the company. Almost all of the participants reported stepping more confidently into their leadership roles as they developed more comfort with their coaching skills and the power of not having all of the answers. They gained greater self-awareness through the 360 assessments and by requesting feedback from a variety of colleagues. And nearly all of the participants reported that they had begun using the learning to enhance open communication on their teams. One Project Manager shared that he did one of the workshop exercises during norming with his team and client, and it transformed the dynamic by building trust and safety.

Perhaps the most important result is the ripple effect the program has had across the company. Other team members are intrigued and excited to learn from the Project Managers about leadership, coaching, and open communication. The Momentum Team is prepared to begin delivering the content to other leaders across the organization starting in early 2019.

The Leadership Bootcamp introduced practical and proven leadership concepts and educated us on when and how to use them in our lives. Participating in this training opened up my eyes to new ways of leading people and bolstered my confidence in my ability to lead.

-Joshua McVeigh, Project Manager, WillowTree

About WillowTree

WillowTree is a digital innovation agency with a mission to bring together diverse, smart teams who want to continuously hone their craft. We cultivate a collaborative environment focused on continuous learning and unlimited opportunities to impact our clients, products, teams, and company as a whole.

About Launch Project

Launch Project is a leadership development firm supporting organizations and individuals on leadership, culture, and communication. We partner with clients to develop as leaders, navigate work challenges, build coaching skills, and design inspiring careers.