Editor’s Note: Thought leader Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consultancy, like WRALTechwire, celebrating its 20th anniversary.  Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for us. Grace’s core offerings are one-on-one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TED speaker, she is hired to facilitate team building retreats and leads HappinessWorks programs for companies and campuses.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – My happiness teacher, Tal Ben Shahar, the creator of Harvard’s most popular course ever on this topic, often says,

“When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.”

Image courtesy of Grace Ueng

A Big Challenge calls for Appreciative Inquiry

A CEO was preparing for his upcoming quarterly business review. He asked his COO her recommendations of who could come in to inspire the leadership team given all the many difficult changes that the company had gone through in the last year.  She recommended me. I’m always up for a big challenge and after being briefed on their situation, I knew this one was a big one.  So, I dove headfirst into preparing my design.

Trusting Tal’s wisdom, I consulted with him, and he advised that I leverage the science of Appreciative Inquiry, a body of research work by David Cooperrider professor of social entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve. See my last column: Listen to all Voices to Reach the Miracle Goal.

Image courtesy of Grace Ueng

Breaking the Ice to achieve Trust

Given there had been changes in the CEO as well as his leadership team in the last year, I thought it of utmost importance to renew a baseline of trust amongst this group. In my icebreaker exercise, I encouraged them to step outside their comfort zone and share openly a couple of personal things, one that was fun and importantly, another that was serious.  I anchored the conversation by going first.  I then had the CEO and then the COO share which they did quite vulnerably. I could not have been more pleased with what happened next as the team opened up their hearts and minds and shared.

We discussed the work of Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson on psychologist safety and my column Back in the Classroom as well as Charles Duhigg’s New York Times Article on Project Aristotle: What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. I then asked them individually to write down in their own words, “What is trust?” and then answer the question:  “What could we achieve as a team if we all fully trust each other?”

Photo courtesy Grace Ueng

I then launched into the first 3 of the four “D’s” of Appreciative Inquiry:  “Discover, Dream, and Design” by having each respond individually to 3 prompts:

  • Discover: Write about a high point experience, a time when you felt most energized, most passionate, and proud of your team and your involvement.
  • Dream: Imagine that tonight you fall into a deep, relaxing sleep and you don’t wake up until next year. When you awake, you see that a miracle has occurred. Major changes have taken place and you can truly say, without hesitation, that this is the company of your dreams. What does it look like?
  • Design: If you could transform the company in any way to make that image of the future into reality, what three wishes in order of priority, would you make?

Then they broke into teams and discussed their answers before rejoining the group and sharing as a leadership team.

Illustration courtesy of Grace Ueng


The next day, the COO wrote,

It was great to have you working with us. Our team bonded in ways we have not previously and I believe that will manifest itself in many ways in the coming days, weeks, months. Of course, we need to continue the process.

She is 110% right.  Behaviors impact attitude.  There is cognitive dissonance, or tension, when there is inconsistency between attitudes and behaviors. I can bring in an experiential exercise that changes thinking, and then it is of utmost importance for the participants to take action immediately, in that very first week, in order to develop a habit.

Develop habit.  Change attitude.  Change behavior.

We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”
                                             – English poet John Dryden

Workshops that are most likely to work are those that directly target both behaviors and attitudes. A workshop can change attitudes, temporarily.  Then the individuals in the company must follow up with immediate behavioral change.

“Those whose deeds exceed their wisdom, their wisdom shall endure; those whose wisdom exceeds their deeds, their wisdom shall not endure.”

– Rabbi Channin ben Dosa, Chapters of the Fathers (3:12)

Assignment: gratitude & anticipation journaling

I left them with an assignment, to develop a new habit that research shows results in better outcomes.  I asked them to keep a work journal and write down three things that they were grateful for at work that day.  Then, to write down 3 things that they were looking forward to impacting at work in the coming days.  I said they could be small things, simple things as well as big.  There is power in gratitude as well as in anticipation. We discussed how enjoying the journey, including the anticipation, is more important than summiting, or reaching the top.

I asked if they would consider doing this each day, for the next 5 days, in order to ingrain a new habit.

Research shows that those who introduce new behaviors to reinforce the material they just learned, are the individuals who will sustain positive change over time.

Reflect and repeat.

Growth occurs through action as well as reflection.  Workshops that work, that is, bring about permanent and lasting change, focus on attitudes and behaviors, and ALSO on getting participants to reflect and act.

A virtuous circle of reflect, act, and then reflect again has been cited by my piano performance coach, Noa Kageyama, on faculty at Juilliard, to be the type of deliberate practice that leads to the best overall performances. Think to yourself, “What is wrong?” Correct immediately and repeat the cycle.

I will be checking in with the leadership team this week to hold them accountable to developing this new habit.

As my client works together on the 4th D, Destiny, I look forward to hearing how they are doing in actualizing their vision into reality.

What about you?  I will be soon offering online workshops on these topics.  Subscribe to my Happiness and Leadership community to keep in touch and learn when they will be offered. 

Next up: How is Lasting Change possible?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most. 

Companies hire her firm for leadership coaching and strategy consulting as well as to  facilitate HappinessWorks™ programs, infusing the happiness advantage into corporate culture, leading to higher productivity and results.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She earned her undergraduate degree from MIT and MBA from Harvard Business School.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, accomplished cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact-focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.