A Darden custom program for US manufacturing giant Milliken sees executives pitch mold-breaking ideas to leadership in bespoke “Shark Tank” sessions. Here’s why and how.

In 2020, even as the pandemic was raging across the US, one the country’s biggest industrial manufacturers was busy forging a plan. Led by CEO Halsey Cook, Milliken had a vision to transform for a more sustainable future. This would entail a step-change in leadership thinking and capabilities. And it would mean radically accelerating innovation mindsets and risk-taking, while simultaneously breaking down a command and control culture that had been in place since the organization’s inception in 1865.

Milliken’s Senior Director of Talent Development, Ottilia Dill, and colleagues sat down with the team at UVA Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning to test these ideas. The program they went on to design together has been hailed by Milliken as “game-changing.”

The Milliken LEAD Organizations program is an Executive Education & Lifelong Learning custom program led by Darden’s Sean Martin, a renowned thought leader in leadership and organizational behavior. Over four immersive and silo-busting days at Darden, Milliken executives explore opportunity-spotting, navigating the unknown, the tradeoffs around growth, responsible business, organizational alignment and leadership styles and effectiveness. Above all, they are supported and encouraged to think outside the box—to become more daring, agile and innovative in their decision-making—and to speak truth to power; a challenge that finds its singular expression in an activity inspired by the television show Shark Tank. Here, Milliken leaders have a chance to present and defend innovative new business ideas to a panel of Darden experts and Milliken top brass.

Perhaps what makes the “Shark Tank” experience truly exceptional is the participation and support of CEO Halsey Cook and Milliken’s Executive Team. In two years and seven editions of Milliken LEAD Organizations, CEO Cook has made it a personal priority to attend each “Shark Tank,” speaking to participants and engaging directly with new ideas and approaches. And it’s this kind of sponsorship and commitment from the very top, says Ottilia Dill, that makes an already transformational learning experience “absolutely mold-breaking.”

Welcome to the “Shark Tank,” Milliken style

The idea to incorporate an idea pitch based on the popular US TV show, Shark Tank, came from Darden’s Sean Martin. And it’s become such a “key piece of the whole experience,” says Dill, that the entire curriculum effectively builds to this moment in the learning experience.

“In the ‘Shark Tank’, our Milliken executives are challenged to team up and collaborate in totally new ways with colleagues that they may never even have met before let alone collaborated with, so it’s very interesting—it’s fascinating seeing them break out of the established ways of doing things.”

Milliken executives coming into the “Shark Tank” pitch new business ideas, but they also get a chance to practice the new leadership model they’ve been building towards through cross-functional teamwork, idea-sharing, planning and taking risks. And in doing so, they’re also forging new networks across the organization that endure after the program ends. Dill describes the end results as “stunning:” not only does the experience generate new business ideas with each edition, she says, but there is a significant upswing in collaboration and ideation capabilities, and a palpable shift in thinking and doing. Importantly, the process feels “psychologically safe and empowering.”

“Going into a ‘Shark Tank’ in front of a panel of senior Milliken leaders and Darden faculty can feel intimidating, but the whole learning experience building up to it is infused with coaching and support from faculty,” says Dill. “Darden professors really help our leaders here, pushing them and brainstorming with them throughout. So psychological safety is embedded in the process.”

Milliken Shark Tank presentation custom program

Support from the highest level

Milliken CEO, Halsey Cook, has consistently made it a priority to attend every “Shark Tank” session and interact with participants as they present and defend their ideas. Setting the tone in this way—signaling to colleagues that the chief executive is open and welcoming of creative and innovative thinking—has been critical to the success of the program.

Executives coming out of the learning experience have indicated that they feel “part of the fold” at Milliken, Dill says; they report feeling that the program is a sabbatical of sorts—a chance to experiment, to innovate and to grow as leaders—supported “to the hilt” by the company’s senior executive and Executive Leadership Team.

“Halsey being there in person signals to our upcoming leaders that they matter; that their ideas count,” says Dill. “One of our executives describes the experience as being selected to be part of the leadership of the organization. They really feel they have the support of leaders who are in their corner.”

And for Milliken, this kind of interaction marks a significant departure from a “command and control” model that has historically dominated organizational culture, she adds.

Executives joining the program are invited to attend in casual, not business attire—a gesture that in itself has been seen by some as radically out of kilter with Milliken traditions. To counter this and herald a shift in gear and approach, Darden faculty and colleagues have deployed some “interesting tactics.”

“We’ve done some left field things to help break the ice and encourage our people to relax into the experience,” says Dill. “We had a colleague introduce Darden’s Sean Martin to a new cohort, and then take a pair of scissors to his tie—cutting it off and throwing it out to our participants as a symbolic way of saying: hey, let’s not be stiff anymore! Let’s break with that tradition.”

Breaking with the past

The Milliken LEAD Organizations program has become a key component in the organization’s bid to enact its new vision, its new strategy and a new sense of purpose. CEO Cook’s ambition to shift from command and control to a new mode—one predicated on innovation, risk-taking and sustainable growth—is a major cultural change. It heralds a completely new era for the organization. And a significant challenge for many of its people.

“In our mixed cohorts, we have lots of seasoned leaders who have maybe been with us for a long time. And they are learning alongside new leaders, coming in from different companies,” says Dill. “So there’s a blend of different cultures, different eras and people from different backgrounds, all coming together to explore a new leadership model.”

The program with Darden has been tasked with bringing these diverse decision-makers together and empowering them with the skills and tools to collaborate and align in new ways to break with the past and gear up for the future challenges facing Milliken and the industry. Dill and her colleagues are “thrilled” with the progress it has made in this sense.

“We’ve managed to harness our DNA as an organization—the management foundations that make us so strong—and blend it beautifully with Darden’s vision of future leadership. The program and our work with Darden is just doing an amazing job.”

Partnering with Darden for impact

Making that initial choice to partner with UVA Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning was contingent on a few key things, says Dill. First, there was Darden research around the future of leadership looking forward to 2030: a new leadership rubric and framework that resonated with Milliken’s vision, she says. Then there was an attitude of collaboration and commitment from Darden faculty—a capacity to “really listen”—that made the choice to partner “incredibly easy.”

“As we got further into it, we could see how much Sean Martin and Darden faculty were focused on our success and on the partnership between us: on marrying their research and pedagogy with what is going on at Milliken. We were all working together seamlessly towards the shared business outcome for our organization.”

Building the program, Milliken and Darden went through dozens of iterations of the Milliken leadership model; bouncing ideas back and forth, says Dill, customizing Darden’s framework to Milliken’s needs and mapping cases to the Milliken model.

“We just kept running that circle until we were in agreement and locked in. There’s a flexibility and a collaboration that Sean and the Darden team bring that is just so impressive.”

And as the program heads into its third year, with no fewer than seven cohorts trained to date, feedback from Milliken executives has been universally positive and enthusiastic. Dill and her colleagues are seeing a new stratum of Milliken leaders emerge, she says; a succession pipeline that is far better equipped to brainstorm, to ideate and to forge new project teams, relationships and networks across the organization.

Then there’s the engagement that the program is engendering.

With Halsey and the Executive Leadership Team so involved and committed, Milliken is seeing a new stickiness among our upcoming leaders, says Dill.

“Something that has developed organically is a dinner hosted by SVPs and verticals leaders, who fly out on the last night to meet their teams, to talk to them and get to know them individually. This is becoming a new Milliken tradition and it’s a measure of the success of this program and our partnership with Darden. In how many big organizations do you get to spend quality, human time with the highest level of your vertical, knowing that they are not there to judge, but to learn with and from you?”

Learn more about customized development solutions for your organization and leaders.