By Kimberly Hundley
The strategically placed tissue boxes around the room are the first clue that students turning up for a U & Improved weekend shouldn’t expect a typical corporate training experience.
Some enroll for personal development, eager to become better leaders and more effective professionals. Some go begrudgingly, sent by their employers to improve communication skills. Many sign on because a friend or family member wouldn’t shut up about how the program changed their lives for the better, and finally they were intrigued enough to take a class themselves or simply succumbed to the nagging.
Regardless of how they got there, nearly all first-timers walk into U & Improved harboring some degree of skepticism.
Almost none of them walks out that way.
Faces weary but transcendent—not unlike parents holding a pink newborn—a knot of “U the Communicator” classmates clap and whoop greetings to supporters filing in for graduation in early June. One by one, the group members, garbed in black-and-white T-shirts, take a turn to stand at the front of the nondescript Scottsdale banquet room and share their experiences.
These students, who vary in age from their early 20s to mid 60s, had signed on to develop communication tools and skills to improve their relationships. The course, like the “U the Leader” program, is intense and experience-based, starting on a Friday at 5 p.m. and finishing Sunday at 3 p.m.
A woman begins by explaining that words can’t begin to describe what she’s feeling. “All week long you taught me about gratitude,” she continues, as her voice breaks. She reaches for the nearest box of tissues.
A young man laughingly admits he and his wife came into the class pegging their fellow students “as a bunch of weirdos … and now I have 19 friends,” he finishes.
U & Improved founder Jodi Low stands at the rear of the room, perched on her signature high heels, smiling proudly.
Then a slight, dark-haired man gets up, his expression serious. He looks straight at his seated wife, who’s wrangling their toddler, and pledges to be a better husband. The declaration feels like a marriage proposal. “I’m going to take the tools, the lessons from here and create a win-win world. It’s not just about me. It’s about my daughter and the world I want her to grow up in,” he says, and all over the room, people’s eyes begin to glisten.
Low can’t take it anymore. She dashes tears from her eyes and snatches a tissue.
It’s hard to believe the group has only known each other 2.5 days. Mike Binder, who has completed all three of U & Improved’s core programs—Leader, Communicator and Warrior—is in the audience to support his son’s graduation. He acknowledges the seeming improbability that students could be deeply impacted so quickly.
“It is hard to believe,” he says. “It is. But then you see the difference it makes in other people, and you believe.”
Low committed to teaching others how to improve their lives after she bounced back from a personal devastation almost six years ago. She and her husband ran a couple of businesses together from their Scottsdale home and had what seemed an idyllic life with their daughters, then ages 1 and 3. One day, Low happened to see a text message on her husband’s phone. He was cheating with an old girlfriend he’d found on Facebook. Everything she thought she’d known and trusted was gone in an instant.
Suddenly she was a single parent with no income and a mountain of business debt, and she had to figure out what to do next.
“I was like, what am I going to create? What do I love? What am I passionate about? I love inspiring people, helping people, and I love to speak and train and coach.”
Low went back to school at night, earned a master’s certification in coaching and soon co-founded Girlfriend U at the Scottsdale Quarter. When her business partner left to pursue another opportunity, Low brainstormed with several talented trainers she’d met along the way to create a leadership organization that emphasized experiential training.
Unlike lecture-based programs, U & Improved would offer small classes where participants had to do just that—participate. “The way the class is written and designed is to lead students through a series of challenges and processes that allow them to use leadership behaviors in the classroom,” she says. “They are practicing it there … so in two weeks or a month later, they can apply those tools immediately. It’s not some dusty notebook on a shelf.”
The “U” in the company’s title isn’t meant as clever wordplay. Low’s core philosophy is that positive change starts with “U”—the individual, and in turn, you can change your personal life, your work life, and ultimately, the world.
“Maybe it sounds like Pollyanna blue skies, but I know that one person affects other persons. I know that’s the answer—that we can make a massive impact,” she says.
As students in the programs learn self-awareness and tools for self-actualization, they’re encouraged to pay it forward, to inspire and bring the people they touch up with them, whether it’s their husband, child, boss, client or employee. “As we say in ‘U the Warrior,” Low says, “‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, include others.’”
Airpark-area resident and former general manager at Acura North Scottsdale Jenny Lang was a “self-improvement” enthusiast, but she was skeptical that Low’s program would teach her anything new. Still, on the recommendation of one of her car customers, she took the leadership class—and was blown away.
“One of the reasons the classes are so impactful is it is experiential-based training. You are involved, experiencing different situations based on the processes. There is absolutely no way to slide through these courses,” she says. “It requires your full involvement the entire time.”
Not only did Lang end up taking every course, she sent her entire management staff (with one exception) through the communication program. “Having the team go through it changed the way we communicated and listened to each other,” she says. “It genuinely gave everyone the courage to work as a unit and not as individuals.”
As far as benefits to the bottom line, one of Lang’s last years at Acura—just coming out of the recession—saw a 200 percent increase in earnings before taxes. Turnover, which often churns at sky-high levels in the industry, fell to just 17 percent as well.
Low unveiled a sort of “master” class this spring, “U the Samurai,” which focuses on service to others. Lang says the experience shifted the “axis of my little world.” “It was like putting on a new skin, having your eyes opened,” she explains. “I know it changed me to look at the world and the opportunities I have and to make it a better place.”
Another employer who believes the U & Improved training is worth the investment is John Jennings, CEO of Safeguard in Scottsdale.
“I’ve always been a firm believer in my business career that you can never train your people too much,” he says.
One of Safeguard’s core values is doing what you say you’re going to do, which comes down to clear communication. Jennings has put about 30 employees through “U the Communicator” so far, with the goal of building trust and understanding between departments. The program has helped salvage several staffers who were talented in technical areas but on the bubble because of their poor communication skills. As a bonus, Jennings says, the graduates report they’re happier at home as well as more effective at work.
“They walk in my office all the time and say thank you for doing that for me. They get so much out of it, they are very, very grateful, and I think their families are grateful too,” he says.
Thanks to smartphones and the Internet, the membrane between work and home has never been thinner for employees, Jennings adds. “And if they’re happier at home, they’re happier at work.”
Mike Binder flat out credits the U & Improved training for changing his life. Over the last few years, the former communications director for the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce has navigated some difficult roadways and stressful situations. Today he’s enjoying a new endeavor as enrollment counselor at Grand Canyon University—as well as cherishing a close relationship with his son and daughter, both of whom he sent to Low’s program.
Mike’s 18-year-old daughter, Shannon Binder, is one of the youngest to have ever completed the “U the Communicator” course. Seeing the difference in her dad convinced her she should take the class.
“A lot of things hadn’t been going right for him, and he took that in and blamed it on himself,” she says. “After ‘U the Leader’ I saw him being himself again, and it was just incredible. They brought him out of his shell, made him realize how awesome of a person he is. When he comes home from work now, he’s happy. Now we do family dinners and a lot of family-oriented things.”
Shannon notes that, like her, many of her fellow students had been sent by somebody else, and the process is hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it. Students are repeatedly told to “trust the process,” and those who do, get a lot out of it.
As a high school student, Shannon noticed the training gave her more maturity in her communication with teachers and other adults.
“Mostly what I got out of it was I spent way too much time on my phone and not focusing on everyone around me and what’s going on around me,” she adds. “The class taught me to open up my eyes and open myself up.”
The experience inspired her to write a report for school on how technology affects communication; she conducted an experiment in which 10 of her peers went without a phone for 24 hours. “I asked them to really focus on who was around them and make an effort to start a conversation with people they ordinarily wouldn’t,” she says. “A lot of them asked their families to have a dinner together and talk about their day. The feedback I got was awesome—they all said it was great.”
U & Improved is now developing a curriculum specifically for teens, “U the Teen-Leader,” to give young people the tools to make them more successful in college and life.
Shannon now regularly attends U & Improved graduations with her father—they go to encourage others and recharge their batteries. Many alumni also get together for activities such as charity fundraisers and even a book club, building a supportive community outside of class.
Shannon has already signed up for the upcoming teen program, and her best friend has plans to take all the classes.
“It lights a fire in people,” Shannon says. “I haven’t seen someone go through a class and not be changed in the end. And it’s crazy because they are such simple processes and lessons. But they show you who you are and what you are capable of.”
Summer 2014 Class Schedule
U the Leader July 18-20, Aug. 1-17, Sept. 12-14
U the Communicator Aug. 1-3
U the Warrior July 21-23
U the Samurai July 24-26
U the Teen Leader Aug. 15-17
Visit Uandimproved.com for fall/winter classes and tuition information.