Blue Apricot Solutions has served corporate, government and nonprofit organizations across the US, Kenya, the Middle East, Japan and Vietnam.

  • Case Studies

    Leadership Development & Culture Change

      1. Presenting Issue
        A rapidly growing technology company in the Mid-West attracting a solid pipeline of business struggled with tensions between executive team members, and there were concerns about retaining talent. The CEO recognized her team was largely made up of friends who found it difficult to hold each other accountable. In particular, tensions between the CFO and COO stalled agreement on investments and priorities. This was spilling over into turf battles, siloes, inefficiencies, and missed deadlines – with the potential to lose one or more customers.
      2. Discovery
        My interviews with the entire team and some of their direct reports revealed this was a young company that had spent its first five years focusing on sales and bringing in revenue, hiring for particular technical skills, and building good relationships with customers. The company enjoyed an informal culture with little or no attention paid to talent management and professional development, the integration of roles, functions and responsibilities, or establishing a clear path for sustaining success. The CEO believed that paying good salaries and and treating people well would naturally build an effective and healthy organization. She worried about the potential fallout if she pressed for change. Others reported they enjoyed their work and liked the “friendly atmosphere.”
      3. Key Challenges
        As the consultant brought in, one of my tasks was helping the team to figure out how to develop a new way of being. The informal friendly atmosphere had its advantages, particularly when the company had only a handful of employees who could communicate easily with each other. With over 240 staff, they were now playing in a very different sandbox. Could they – would they – see the need for change? I spent time with each team member to understand their perspective and how they envisioned the evolution of the company.
      4. Solution
        I gave a synthesis of interview feedback to the entire team, building shared awareness of the strengths and challenges with the status quo, and the frustrations experienced by some who were eager for change. The team learned that change was not only possible but also inevitable and they had the capacity to shape it, rather than merely react to it. The work focused on building alignment, conflict resolution, increasing capacity and creativity. The team began building greater awareness of the impact of their relationship to each other and on the company as a whole. With process consulting to reveal covert and open behaviors, the team became more intentional about what they wanted to achieve, how they would work together, and how to accomplish their goals.
      5. Results
        Most of the team had never worked with an external consultant before. Many of them were initially circumspect and feared the CEO would be swayed by “arbitrary ideas” and “gimmicks”. By the end of the 6-month engagement, the team members were excited about the changes agreed to and initiated. Six of the eight executive team members asked for help with their own leadership development.  They all recognized they were in a different phase that called for greater consciousness about the way decisions were made, how employees were engaged, and how further growth and learning could be supported.  Profitability continued to go up, tensions reduced and the CEO shared, “I dreaded what might happen here because so much of what we were doing was disorganized. I now feel I have a clear head and a team I can rely on”.

    Executive Coaching

      1. Presenting Issue
        An experienced Program Director with a background in the military and 10 years in a large aerospace company had been promoted to a Divisional Vice President in Operations two years before I started working with him. John is an expert in a technical field responsible for managing a global team, including fifty on-site staff. “I am consumed with work and cannot seem to get my team functioning as well as it needs to,” John shared.
      2. Discovery
        John and I started a coaching contract that included a 360-feedback assessment so we both could quickly understand his strengths and possible areas for development. John selected 18 raters including his two bosses (direct and indirect), several direct reports, a few customers and some of his peers. John was eager to start the coaching even before the 360 was completed. He knew he was strong on setting goals and priorities and meeting deadlines, but the pace of work was uncomfortable and he knew something was missing.
      3. Key Challenges
        Like many high potential managers making the transition to a leadership role, John was relying on his knowledge and experience as a functional expert. His credibility and comfort zone rested on his deep expertise and the depth of his relationships in the aerospace world. He had not had given himself much time to step back to think about the kind of leader he aspires to become other than exercising discipline around goal achievement and “being professional.” The 360 feedback reflected that others saw his many strengths but there were clear gaps: an inability to build an effective team, lack of attention to the development of others, and ineffective communication experienced particularly by virtual team members.
      4. Solution
        Our coaching work started with my asking John a lot of questions and engaging him to think about the big picture as well as his day-to-day work. We talked about the kind of leadership he had experienced and what assumptions he was making about himself and the needs of those around him. He was self aware in many ways and found my questions “thought provoking.” He soon grasped his priority was making the leap from functional expert to achieving work through others.
        Over time, John’s new awareness of his strengths and shortcoming encouraged him to experiment with new ways of talking to his full team and with individual members.
      5. Results
        Within a few weeks, John experienced an enormous shift at work: he started to ask his team more questions, listened to diverse opinions and ideas, and took the time for team discussions and one-on-one meetings. “I feel like such an idiot that I did not start this sooner” declared John one day. I asked him why he felt that way. His response illustrated why John was on track to become one of the company’s brightest leaders: “the results speak for themselves: I get it that my most important job is to understand my team and to help them excel. This has been tough but fun. I know this is what I am meant to be doing: I no longer feel consumed with work. I feel energized by what I am learning and how I can make a difference”. 


    Strategic Planning/Change Management

        1. Presenting Issue
          I receive a lot of calls for help with “strategic planning.” I typically caution against assuming a plan is the whole story. A plan is the tip of the iceberg. A plan requires attention to many different moving parts, continuous change, gaining buy-in from employees, and an honest assessment of the capacity for plan implementation.
          In reality, many CEOs will call me when they feel something is not working smoothly and they believe a planning process might resolve the issue(s). I am upfront – I won’t facilitate a one-day offsite: while much can be achieved in a single meeting to get everyone thinking and sharing ideas and solutions, necessary follow up and action are typically minimal and the day’s efforts quickly get overrun by other priorities.
          The Board Chair of a Windstorm Association responsible for managing the risks inherent in living and doing business in coastal areas was quick to acknowledge a single meeting was unlikely to be enough.  While the Association had had some success in responding to the aftermath of several hurricanes and windstorms, the challenges going forward were huge: establishing fair rates for property insurance, planning to handle future catastrophic damage, maintaining effective communication of incentives for mitigation efforts to offset risk, and balancing financial and social concerns of coastal and non coastal property owners. The Association needed to navigate national and local developments, the views and interests of multiple stakeholders, and retain its independence as a viable enterprise operating with financial prudence and integrity.
        2. Discovery
          I personally interviewed the entire Board (made up of representatives of multiple stakeholders), the staff, and researched the common challenges inherent in wind pool management across the globe. The interviews revealed the Association enjoyed a strong Board of Directors and highly competent staff but these were not enough to anticipate, plan and act on several key challenges in the short and long term.
        3. Key Challenges
          A major stumbling block facing the Association was the way different stakeholders viewed the need to balance the risks (to ensure the Association stayed solvent while insuring coastal properties) with the impact of decisions on the economy: thousands of lives and livelihoods literally are at stake.  While this was no surprise to anyone, the feedback from the interviews sharpened everyone’s focus and determination to do the right thing.  Instead of making minor adjustments or fixing things here and there, the Board recognized it had a unique opportunity to help shape a future in which every stakeholder understood the variables, could understand the Association’s decisions (even if they could not agree with all of them), and acknowledge the Association for its transparency and strategic approach to a persistent and serious problem.
        4. Solution
          The Board embarked on a strategic planning process that not only weighed all the financial and other variables but involved adopting a media and public relations campaign to educate the public, offer credits and incentives for mitigation to proactively reduce risk further, and clarify competing priorities for consideration by the State.
        5. Results
          Plenty of new ideas emerged from the process that are now actively being pursued by Board members and staff. The facilitated discussions removed some lingering tensions among stakeholders and got everyone on the same page with strong buy-in and a plan that can have real impact. As one Board member said, “We have been going nowhere for too long on some of these issues. We now have some viable solutions. It helped to get a fresh perspective on things.”
          From my perspective, I was reminded that even talented and committed people could find themselves stuck. The key to strategic planning is not simply unraveling the issues and coming up with a list of actions. The key lies in recognizing the future needs to be compelling and inspiring enough to motivate people to act; to have candid and deep conversations that are safe but challenging to embrace diverse views and aspirations; to have the support of a neutral facilitator who asks the important questions, is a listener, is caring and provocative, and is trusted across the board.

  • Client List

    Anybill, Inc.
    Business Software Alliance
    Washington Business Journal
    National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB)
    MGAC -Mark G. Anderson Consultants
    The World Bank
    IDB – The Inter American Development Bank
    Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers (CIAB)
    Bipartisan Policy Center
    Korn/Ferry International
    Howard Hughes Medical Institute
    Whitman Walker Health
    Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association
    Leidos, Inc.
    Roach Howard Smith & Barton
    IBS Millwork
    Vistage International Inc.
    RN Solutions
    Inova Fairoaks Hospital
    TransForce, Inc.
    Visiting Nurse Association of of America (VNAA)


    Subcontractor to Prime for USAID (Iraq, Jordan, East Timor) and Korn/Ferry International (including, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Exelis Aerospace Inc., and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency)


    Executive Coach for CEOs and other executives across all sectors.

  • Testimonials

    “As an Executive Coach, Caroline Nicholl has the innate ability to quickly assess the situation at hand, and asks key questions to help me tailor my approach. She is an invaluable sounding board and has taught me how to think differently. He approach to coaching is not about “fixing”: it is about appropriately applying my own strengths.”

    Denise Dancy, Communications Executive, Major Government Contractor


    “Caroline started working with me in the Spring of 2013 as I transitioned in to a new Senior Leadership role. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about how useful our time would be together. I am now a believer!   My time with Caroline is extremely productive and enlightening. She asks pointed questions, provides insightful suggestions, and helps me stretch outside of my comfort zone. She provides guidance and useful resources that aid in building my confidence and broadening my perspective. My time with Caroline has significantly helped me become acclimated in my new role. I would strongly recommend her to my colleagues!”

    Michelle Vaughn, Sector Chief Human Resource Officer for a major Government contractor


    “Caroline Nicholl’s provocative book on teams guides us to be change-ready and to reinvent ourselves on an ongoing basis. Recognizing that teams achieve more than any individual can and are vital to business success, Nicholl explains the one golden rule: It takes an effective leader to realize the full potential of each team and marshal it to successful outcomes.”

    Rafael Pastor, CEO and Chairman of the Board, Vistage International


    “Caroline’s work on teams is highly relevant, particularly in a tough economy: her insightful work with one of our divisional teams surfaced issues that clarified exactly the priorities the team needed to address to increase its performance in a way that the team could hear. The team quickly got motivated to action. Caroline’s approach is practical, sensitive and to the point, precipitating rapid learning and improvement.”

    Jay Reid, Senior Vice President, Labor Ready Inc.


    “Caroline Nicholl has tackled a familiar topic with an unusual twist: her tweets on teams are thought-provoking and will help any team build awareness of its strengths and performance gaps. Her work with Anybill catapulted my team to a different level of action. Her acumen and business sense are spot on.”

    Matt Voorhees, President & CEO, Anybill Inc.


    “TEAMWORK tweet is a clear guide for anyone who works in or with teams: Caroline’s emphasis on leadership and team process is not for the timid. Her timely book reminds us why teams are important and the critical role a leader plays to tap into a team’s power. Teamwork is a common phenomenon but Caroline’s work on teams is a rare gift.”

    Ken Crerar, President, Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers


    “Caroline’s insights shift one’s thinking … a powerful coach for anyone or any team trying to make needed change, she listens at a level you are not immediately aware of until, bingo! You see a clear path toward change. Her coaching is purposeful and makes a big impact.”

    Elisabeth Hayes, Executive Coaching client


    “Caroline is an extremely gifted professional coach for senior executives in federal service. She is an insightful and intuitive listener who easily grasps the unique challenges and opportunities facing managers and supervisors in large federal organizations. Working with her has helped me understand the nature of certain work situations in a more accurate light and take the necessary steps to advance my goals. I strongly recommend her for anyone looking for one on one coaching for their career.”

    Jessica Zufolo, Deputy Administrator, USDA