When Thomas Labrecque, chairman and chief executive of Chase Manhattan Corp., summoned his top 25 lieutenants to a strategic planning session in April, they were prepared for the annual three-day budget planning grind.

Instead, the meeting turned into a kind of encounter group. Asked to critique each others' performance, executives betrayed a deep distrust of their colleagues. Disagreements erupted among business unit leaders over the direction the company should go and how it should get there.

Worst of all, it became obvious that protecting one's turf, even at the expense of losing customers, had become a way of life at Chase.

"It was a real eye-opener," said Arthur Ryan, president and chief operating officer.

And that was exactly what he and Mr. Labrecque were hoping for. When the dust settled, the group emerged with a corporate values program that has become a prescription for survival - both personal and corporate - at the New York-based behemoth.

|A Major Transformation'

The program, called VisionQuest, has shaken Chase to its roots. Part behavior modification and part traditional business planning, it seeks to replace a stodgy and factious corporate culture with an atmospheree of openness and mutual respect.

It sounds like corporatespeak, but Chase means it.

Employees who don't buy into the team atmosphere risk their jobs.

"People who don't perform and don't live up to these values should probably move on," Mr. Labrecque said in a recent interview.

The executive believes a change in employee behavior is absolutely necessary for Chase to become -- in a phrase that has become a company catchword -- "world class."

A VisionQuest promotional brochure defines this as a 21st-century financial services company that is a "provider of choice, employer of choice, investment of choice."

To get there, Mr. Labrecque said, Chase needs and expects "a major transformation of the company."

The core of the program -- and the biggest challenge -- is to persuade the 34,000 employees to think teamwork instead of individual success ("Chase first, my unit second" goes one mantra).

VisionQuest's primary "value" requires employees to focus on serving customers -- even if it means handing them over to another unit within the bank - something that was heretofore unthinkable at Chase.

Unlike Other Attempts

The consequences of the new vision are far-reaching. Management structures and compensation systems have to be regeared to translate theory into action. But Chase has already made such changes in its retail bank, and promises to do more.

To be sure, there are skeptics inside and outside Chase. The company has tried other corporate culture programs over the years, with little success.

But Mr. Labrecque insists that VisionQuest is different.

"This is not a |program of the month,'" he said. "This is real."

To illustrate, he noted that several senior executives who did not embrace the program have left the company in recent months. He declined to name them.

Insiders say they include W. Christopher Maxwell, who ran Chase's successful mutual fund business. Mr. Maxwell, now at KeyCorp, denies that he objected to VisionQuest or left because of it.

Several other executives, in areas ranging from domestic mergers and acquisitions to retail banking in Connecticut, are believe to have left at least in part because of a "behavior problem," say insiders.

Whether the rumors are accurate is almost beside the point. What's important is that many employees apparently believe Mr. Labrecque means what he says.

All Chasers, from the top 25 officers to tellers, will be evaluated for their adherence to VisionQuest as part of their annual reviews, Mr. Labrecque said.

What's more, senior managers will be subjected to peer reviews for the first time.

Word Is Spreading

Chase employees are getting the message. During interviews with a dozen employees at all levels of management, many report having better communication with their peers in other business units. All spoke on the condition that their names not be published.

"If you say no to VisionQuest, it's like suicide, because it's a good business strategy," said an employee in private banking. "It used to be that if you called someone outside your group with a question about a customer or a product, it would take three or four days for someone to get back to you. Now you hear from them the same day."

Others say the VisionQuest program creates a bond among employees.

"It gets everyone on the same page, as far as what is expected of people," said one senior vice president. "Before, we had all these businesses doing their own thing."

Doubts Linger

However, some employees -- who have been through other teamwork and quality service orientation -- retain some doubt.

"We've seen other programs sort of fizzle out," said one executive.

Human resources experts say the hardest part of implementing the plan is to overcome such skepticism.

"Every time you bring in a new program and it fails, it gets harder and harder for people to take it seriously," said Janice Bergstresser, vice president and manager of consumer banking training and development at Chemical Banking Corp.'s New Jersey subsidiary.

Personal Commitment

Mr. Labrecque said he is personally putting his stamp on the program to overcome doubts.

After the "Group of 25" gathering last spring, VisionQuest was rolled out to 875 senior managers, who gathered in groups of 100 for three-day, offsite meetings.

Mr. Labrecque kicked off the first session of each meeting, and then handed the reins to Gary Koyen, a pony-tailed "facilitator" from ARC International Ltd., a Denver-based management consulting and training firm that helped develop the program.

He led the staid senior managers through soul-searching sessions on trust and teamwork.

The first day of each session was booth camp: executive were asked to rate their own performance on the job. The self-evaluation was then critiqued by others in the group, a grueling exercise for some.

The next few days were spent discussing the three parts of VisionQuest: business strategies, corporate mission, and employee attitudes. On the last day, each executive made a personal commitment "to live the values."

The group sessions haven't stopped. A second round of senior executive meetings are beginning this month and will continue through Labor Day.

Rank-and-File Conversion

Chase began converting its lower ranks to VisionQuest through two- to four-hour meetings with groups of 25 employees that began in February. Today, almost everyone at the company has received some form of VisionQuest training.

But management consultants say communicating a new set of values to thousands of rank-and-file employees is the hardest part of implementing a massive culture change, and some say Chase is not paying attention to the details.

"They are not putting near the amount of time into the program that they need to," said Noel Tichy, a business professor at the University of Michigan who served as a consultant to Chase in the 1980s. Two- to three-hour sessions at lower levels "are an unmitigated waste of time."

Mr. Tichy, who helped manage a restructuring of General Electric Co. that trimmed 170,000 employees from the company's roster, also thinks that Chase's program should be more far-reaching.

He recommends elimination of layers of management, wholesale departures from some business lines, and perhaps the firing of some senior executives.

A First Stage

In a restructuring of its retail bank announced last week, Chase created a new management structure that puts a single executive in charge of consumer, middle market, and small-business relationships in an effort to focus on customer needs.

In doing so, it appears to undermine the traditional power domains of Chase's retail product czars -- who must answer to the new executive's needs -- and of the senior branch system executives.

It's no coincidence that the restructuring occurred in the months following the adoption of VisionQuest. Mr. Labrecque said all business planning is being done within the framework of the program.

Similar rejiggerings, organized by customer segments, are in the works for the bank's wholesale operations and product companies.

So the sooner Chase employees embrace the VisionQuest values, the better, Mr. Labrecque said. The program is only in its beginning stages; it will probably take three to five years for a permanent change in culture to take hold.

Senior Managers Most at Risk?

Some insiders say senior managers have the most to lose in the new regime.

"For the people in the trenches, the lesson of VisionQuest is to be happy, be more productive, don't hang up on customers," said one executive. "But it's different for the people at senior levels. They have more at stake."

Mr. Labrecque said he knows the risks of introducing a wholesale cultural change, but believes that most employees welcome the program. And he repeats that he has little time for those who don't

"Everyone will be measured," he said. "If people don't perform, it will catch up with them. The management team has to deliver on all of this"

The VisionQuest Outline

1. Tell people why working at Chase matters

"We provide financial services that enhance the well-being and success of

individuals, industries, communities, and countries around the world." 2. Goals (the "mission") * "Customers will choose us first..." * "People will be proud and eager to work here." * "Investors will buy our stock as a superior long-term investment." 3. Values (the tools for carrying out the mission) * Customer Focus. "We believe it. We live it. The customer always comes first."

"We don't sell our customers just what they ask for...no, we want to provide

what they need..." * Respect for each other. "We treat colleagues like respected clients." * Teamwork. "Chase first, my unit second." 4. Measurement * "AA rating" by 1995 * "Market leadership in all of our businesses." * "Every year -- or more frequently -- measure performance" by customer

satisfaction, employee satisfaction, shareholder satisfaction.

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