Performance Improvement: Interview with Julie Kowalski, CEO, Creative Partnerships, Inc.

Have you ever wondered how to improve the performance of your company, or a specific team or even a specific individual? This short interview will challenge your thinking about “performance improvement.”  John Lankford interviews, Julie Kowalski, CEO of Creative Partnerships, Inc., in Troy, Michigan. Creative Partnerships has been helping people and organizations get better at what they do since 1990.

Julie, what is different/unique about your company’s approach to improving a company’s performance?

Our approach is driven by focus, speed and real-time results. Our team approaches engagements like Special Ops missions where a single, precise goal is the target, outcomes drive our actions, and superfluous activities are ruthlessly eliminated. We work with military efficiency and boot camp intensity.

Why did you build your business model to work with such urgency?

The change in our business model was mostly driven by a distinct change in our target market. For decades we provided conventional consulting services and tools to companies seeking specific deliverables. We masterfully used creativity, collaboration and experience to create the solutions our clients asked for. But too often, our solutions addressed symptoms rather the root causes of the problem. While this didn’t seem to trouble our clients all that much, the fact that we were not having a significant impact on business outcomes was unacceptable to us. The superficial measurements of success, when success was even measured, that satisfied our clients could not sate our consuming desire to make an real impact on their business.

We pushed against the tension this created with every ounce of ingenuity and resolve we could muster, often frustrating clients who just wanted what they wanted. Then one day a wise friend reminded me of a simple truth: “You can’t want more from your clients than they want for themselves”. That was a game-changer.

We recognized that we didn’t need a more persuasive argument; we needed a different kind of client. One with problems big enough to cause an intolerable amount of threat or distress. Clients that had a sense of urgency that demanded an immediate, measurable impact on their business. By necessity, they were committed and driven to do what was necessary to “kill their problems dead”. They knew they needed expertise they did not have in-house, real-time solutions, and people who would work in the trenches with them to make things happen.

Once we clarified our ideal client, what we needed to do to support was clear. As we refined how our business model needed to change, the Special Ops theme revealed itself as a perfect metaphor.

How do you approach helping executives measure ROI (return on investment) when they contract with your company?

Measuring ROI is not complicated when you understand what business metric you intend to impact. Let’s take turnover for an example. Every at-risk business we have worked with, or even been approached to work with, has had issues with an unstable workforce. Yet, rarely did they understand the true costs of their turnover. Mostly they were aware of the obvious costs, such as inability to keep to production schedules, performance issues caused by “hires of desperation”, and chronic quality issues. They were aware of the inconvenience and barriers, but not the costs. They also overlooked factors beyond the obvious day-to-day issues they suffered. So they knew that turnover was creating a crisis, but they never put a number to how much it was impacting their bottom line.

There are proven formulas for measuring the cost of turnover. In our experience, most plant managers and even HR managers could not present their turnover costs to us when asked. So we introduce the formula and get to work. That’s the simple part. Typically, once they get to the number, they are daunted and often, a new sense of urgency is manifested.

The story is not too different for other big problems. Instead of just looking at superficial stats we map out the broader impact. For instance, scrap rates have a measurable material cost most business leaders understand. But the costs created by high scrap rates, such as expedited shipping, overtime, and customer defections also must be considered. We help our clients look at the big picture, and then it’s easy to demonstrate the ROI they can expect once we kill their problems dead.

It’s worth mentioning here that, as is often not the case with most performance improvement approaches, our fees are just a small percentage of the savings created by the support we provide.

Why do you believe so many executives don’t have the commitment and urgency to seek the support they require to address their serious performance issues?

Here are my top three reasons.

First, they don’t understand the real cause of their problems is, ultimately, gaps in the way their team is managing their business. This response usually triggers a defensive response, because for so long business leaders have looked at forces outside their control as the culprit. This is understandable, but not accurate. Clients have approached us with problems like turnover over 125%, or scrap rates over 65%, and downtime surging over 50%. Problems like this don’t happen in companies where management is bringing their A-game. Said another way, not having a sense of commitment and urgency is a part of leadership missed opportunities.

Second, although companies with big problems have been in pain for a while and tried many approaches to improve things, many still don’t believe that an outside expert can help. They mistakenly believe that if they keep doing the same thing, or slightly tweaking what they are doing they will breakthrough. They do not recognize that if they had the talent and expertise required in-house, the problem would have been solved before it snowballed.

Third, they perceive that they cannot afford to. This is usually because once things are out of control, they are stuck in a cash flow dilemma. As well, they don’t understand what their problems are costing them in real numbers and cannot imagine a scenario where an unplanned expense could pay for itself.

What role does a company’s culture play in improving productivity and quality of a business?

A company’s culture drives the behavior, decisions, practices and priorities of every contributor in the organization. This truth cannot be denied. As such, culture plays the primary role in defining every aspect of the business, including its ultimate performance.

Let me point out that I say this with much trepidation because so many business leaders, even in 2017, still see culture as one of the “soft” metrics in their business. It has become a habit for culture to be dismissed as a serious business metric, which means that consultants who speak of it are also easily dismissed. This is a grave mistake.

This goes back to my earlier comment about failures in the way leadership is managing the business. In order for a business to nose dive, important cultural factors would have to be ignored. Factors such as proper accountability, employee engagement, communication, hiring and selection practices and so on. These things can even annihilate businesses that once dominated their industry, and they are all representative of the existing company culture.

I know you hear executives say, “my employees need training”. Why is training so miss understood? And what role does training play in performance improvement?

I’ll begin with a fundamental and widely held misconception. Top performing businesses understand that training is an investment; lesser performing companies don’t. Because training is costly, time consuming, and sometimes disruptive, they take short cuts. In fact, when times are tough for organizations, they often cut training, seeing it as a “nice to do”. So, a part of the disconnect is viewing training as a cost rather than investment.

The first reason training is so misunderstood is that there is too much focus on learning and not enough focus on performance. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not anti-learning, we just know that learning does not guarantee that a person can actually perform the critical tasks of their job. A leader can learn how to handle a challenging performance discussion, but until he can perform such a discussion with proficiency, the knowledge counts for nothing.

A second barrier is that training is often seen as something that happens once and is done. This is simply not true. Training is a process and not an event. When companies don’t approach it this way, optimal performance is a random anomaly rather than a predictable outcome.

A third factor is lack of an effective plan for developing the most essential knowledge and skills required for success on the job. This plan is called a learning path and it is used to ensure that training provided focuses on the right things, at the right time, and in a standardized manner.

Finally, sometimes training is not the answer. Many times, performance improvement is not caused by lack of understand of how to do something, which is essentially what training accomplishes.

Naturally, when the wrong solution is used to accomplish a goal, it doesn’t work.

As for the role of training in performance improvement, here’s what I have to say. There is not a top performing company that does not properly train their people. Period, end of story.

When a plant manager or a CEO contacts you for help, what do you listen for to determine if this person will be a great client?

This is a great question, because many businesses don’t do a great job of ensuring a good match before accepting a project. For many years my Achilles has was rooted in what I discussed earlier: wanting more for my clients than they wanted for themselves. I would be approached by company that was clearly asking for a solution that I knew would not deliver their desired result. And instead of simply stating “That’s not what I do”, I would do my best to help them see what could be possible with the proper solution.

I have banished that bad habit to the darkness. Today I listen carefully for my non-negotiables. The prospect must: 1) have a big problem that is either changing the trajectory of their business or holding them back, 2) have a sense of urgency about making the problem go away for good, 3) be committed to providing the resources, and clearing barriers, so that our team of Performance Improvement Warriors can make it happen, and 4) have the authority needed to execute the mission.

If most people resist change, what have you found is key to helping managers at all levels accept the changes you offer them?

Well, lack of other options helps a lot. Many times our clients are out of time and at risk of going under. They have tried everything they can think of or are able to do.

Sometimes we are able to negotiate a package that includes a partial payment along with a fee for performance component. That minimizes their risk.

Finally, sharing our success stories and letting them speak with past clients is very useful. We understand that our Special Ops performance improvement approach comes with healthy price tag which any rational person is going to want to properly understand and vet, especially in situations where previous consulting engagements did not provide the expected outcomes. So we do all we can to help people feel informed enough to make a good decision. With that said, I am no longer in the business of evangelizing prospects. If they look at our history, resources, talent and expertise and are still not convinced, they are either not yet ready for us or just not a good match.

Here’s the bottom line. When a business has accepted that they cannot afford to not engage in a serious intervention that is going to require a substantial investment, they are open to looking at new approaches. They are actually relieved to even learn that there is a team like ours around with a strong track record and approach that provides results in real-time. That doesn’t guarantee there won’t be some resistance once the project starts, but when we do our jobs right and progress is finally being made, it doesn’t require a whole bunch of convincing.

Five years from now, what will your company brand stand for?

Our five-year goals are threefold:

First, we want to be THE authority for holistic, real-time, operational performance improvement. We want to be the company where our clients, strategic partners, and colleagues tell prospective clients: “You have to call Creative Partnerships. That’s all they do and they’re the best.”

Second, we want to change the culture of the performance improvement industry. I want to shift the paradigm from focusing on solutions to focusing outcomes. We want to educate internal practitioners on Warrior tactics and habits so they can make improvements in real-time and they no longer view barriers as “impossible”. We want to help businesses understand the difference between learning and performance, and share tools that allow them to radically reduce the time it takes their people to get to proficiency.

Finally, we want to get rid of the time-consuming habits and non-value added activities that are so often a part of the performance improvement process.

To contact Julie Kowalski, visit  or call 419-299-4955

John Lankford

John Lankford was recognized as the 2007-2010 Associate Business Advisor of the Year in North America and brings proven executive experience and best practices to select companies every year. He served 18 years at the Executive Education Center at Ford Motor Company and is former Senior Director of Ascension Health Learning Institute. John has developed top leaders around the world in partnership with the University of Michigan Business School, the Center for Creative Leadership, Comcast University and GE University, to name a few. His business expertise has been tapped by prominent business media such as the New York Times, CBS and Dbusiness magazine and has been a syndicated business columnist. He is the author of The Answer is Leadership and Superstar for life…Career Transitions. John’s keynote speaking has landed him on the elite team that trains and certifies the new Executive Coaches joining the worldwide coaching community. John is also former Chief Executive Officer of the Innisbrook Leadership Institute. Lankford can be reached at [email protected] or call (888) 730-1950

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