Engaging Employees to Support and Sustain Culture Change: A CEO’s Perspective
Imagine you are about to embark on a huge corporate initiative that will truly change the way your organization works. But, what would normally seem like an exciting transition could be at risk because your employee engagement score is a low 37 percent. That probably isn’t a project you would rush to take on, yet that is exactly where Karen Adams found herself three years ago with Alberta Pensions Services (APS) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As the newly appointed President and CEO, she knew that employees would need to be fully engaged to ensure the successful transition of the company.
APS manages nine pension plans for more than 500 companies and more than 320,000 pensioners across Alberta. As Adams observed the staff of 300 while they served their many customers, she realized that sometimes they had to work harder than necessary. She explained, “I witnessed a lot of frantic activity, but no common purpose—a lot of hard work, but no one working together.” Adams realized that it would be essential to substantially simplify their work-flow processes in order to serve their very important and very large client base even better than before. The heart of this initiative was a $60 million technology implementation to reduce the manual aspect of their work, and with this much at stake, everyone at every level of the organization needed to support the changes.
Adams and her team created the implementation plan for the technology change, but also recognized that if they didn’t improve employee engagement, the entire program would be at risk. Their annual employee engagement survey indicated that a large part of this related to the low scores managers received in the category of managing performance. They realized that improving the engagement scores would put the employees in the right frame of mind to not only manage the change, but also to thrive during the transition.
Like many companies, APS had promoted high-performing individual achievers into management roles, but seldom armed them with skills needed to manage the performance of others. So they conducted a skill-gap analysis to determine which skills managers need in order to manage the culture change successfully. The analysis indicated that basic management and leadership skills were needed to provide managers with a consistent leadership approach that could be used throughout the company. “Leaders needed to learn how to set goals with team members, hold them accountable for reaching the goals, build trust, give feedback, have challenging conversations, and create a motivating environment where people could perform at their highest levels,” continued Adams.
The Learning Journey
After looking at several firms that could offer training, APS partnered with The Ken Blanchard Companies® to build an 18-month learning curriculum consisting of five modules that would teach leaders how to manage the performance of their direct reports. Adams didn’t want a training event, but a solid foundation of training delivered face-to-face in a cohort program. Learning was linked to the core competencies and the corporate values of Service, Quality, and Accountability. The first module of the learning journey was designed to challenge leaders to think differently about the role of leadership by introducing the concepts of Optimal Motivation and Leadership Point of View. Leaders examined motivation as one of the most vital, yet misunderstood aspects of leadership. Adams said, “Despite their best intentions, some leaders use counterproductive practices that actually hinder motivation instead of creating an environment where people can flourish, and this program introduced bold new thinking that helped us understand that motivation is a skill that can be taught, learned, nurtured, and sustained.” The program is based on research that proves individuals can be taught how to choose a high-quality motivational experience and participants learned how to help their employees make that critical shift in their thought process toward an optimal motivational outlook.
Another key element of the first module was helping leaders understand their formative moments, beliefs, and values as they relate to leadership. Participants were asked to reflect on the people who shaped their leadership values and the formative events they experienced, and then write their own Leadership Point of View. This process helped leaders develop a consistency between their values, words, and actions when leading others. “At first this seemed like a huge task and some leaders were reluctant to share their leadership point of view with staff members, but those who did realized quickly how the process helped improve the working relationships with their teams,” explained Adams.
Module Two focused on various methods for improving communication: giving feedback, having challenging conversations, and managing motivational outlook conversations. Participants learned how to provide four specific types of feedback in a timely manner in order to improve performance, bolster productivity, and build trust. They also learned how to manage difficult situations and conflicts using a five-step process to navigate intense and emotionally charged conversations. Participants reported that having this process to follow allowed them to resolve conflicts without alienating people, stay focused, and listen for clarity.
According to Adams, “Module Three was the game changer because it became clear that everyone in the organization could benefit from elements of this learning journey.” For example, in Module Three, the leaders were trained in Situational Leadership® II and Building Trust, and used the Leader Action Profile II (LAPII) assessment. Participants learned the skills of a Situational Leader: setting clear goals, providing the appropriate leadership style, and giving proper feedback to guide performance. Participants described this module as eye opening. So much so that APS decided to train all employees in SLII®. That way, employees and leaders were able to use the same leadership language. Employees were able to ask for the direction and support they needed and leaders were able to have meaningful conversations about performance. By putting the skills into practice, APS leaders were able to help their teams develop both competence and confidence.
The LAPII 360-degree assessment helped leaders examine behaviors they were using to influence others and close the gap between their perception of their own leadership style and the perceptions of their staff members.
Using concepts from the Building Trust program helped leaders create even stronger ties with staff by helping them realize the importance of building trust with employees to be able to work together more effectively, listen to one another, and sustain effective relationships.
Module Four focused on Coaching Essentials for Leaders, which provided a four-step process for having more effective coaching conversations with employees during all four stages of development. Leaders learned to listen more effectively, ask questions to gain insight, test for accuracy what was being said and heard, and end the conversation on a positive note. “Our leaders have found that with the ability to use coaching skills, it is easier to hold people accountable and guide their development to become self-reliant achievers while continuing to build trust,” explained Adams.
Module Five introduced the concept of Legendary Service and the importance of consistently delivering ideal service that keeps internal and external customers satisfied. Sometimes we are so intent on delivering external service that internal service is damaged. The careful attention to and balance of internal and external service is what can become a competitive advantage for any company.
Finally participants were asked to revisit their Leadership Point of View that was introduced in the first module. Enlightened with a host of new leadership skills and knowledge, they were able to fully develop their Leadership Points of View and share them with their teams.
Now midway through the project, Adams knows the investment in time and dollars was worth it. The employee engagement score has improved from 37 percent to 73 percent. According to Adams, “That is an impressive increase in engagement at any time in an organization’s life cycle—but this much improvement during a time of enormous change is a valuable dividend.” Additionally, leaders report more effective interactions with employees through one-on-one conversations, improved communication, and increased trust between employees and colleagues. There is no doubt that the learning journey has been a wise investment. APS looks forward to a successful completion of the technology implementation and ultimately the ability to serve clients even better than before.