Powering Strong Communities

Designing a New Cultural Grid

By Thomas Stredwick, senior manager of employee experience, Grant County Public Utility District

Like it or not, employees can leave you on a moment’s notice if your workplace culture doesn’t offer a balanced blend of money, meaning, and impact. And it could be months or years before you replace their level of expertise and understanding. The days of “pay people more money and they will stay” are long gone. For public power utilities to remain a competitive attractor of talent, we must focus on investing not just in our poles, wires, and customer service systems — we need to invest in our people and culture.

This is a glimpse into what Grant County Public Utility District in Washington state learned on our journey toward the elusive “healthy organizational culture.”

When we looked at our employee engagement data, the results were pretty clear — Grant PUD was not one of the greatest places to work. Having existed for over 80 years, we had grown tired and a bit apathetic when it came to our organizational culture. This manifested in everything from safety to rate increases, meager internal succession and career development opportunities, neglected technology, and a host of compliance concerns from regulatory agencies.

While some in management tried to bring in various training programs, book clubs, recognition programs, employee events, emergent leadership programs, and whiz-bang technology solutions, many of the tools were short-lived and fizzled out with each new CEO, elected commissioner, manager, or technical expert. We had programs, trainings, promises, splashy marketing materials and popcorn in the breakroom, yet a subtle mindset had crept in. Several employees shared the sentiment that, “If you don’t like this idea, don’t worry. If you wait it out about 18 months, a new one will come along!”

We were great at tackling the byproducts of healthy organizational culture, but not great at getting to the heart of organizational culture change.

Begin by Securing C-Suite Street Cred

When our CEO at the time, Kevin Nordt, stepped into his role, he began his tenure with a five-year plan known as Vision 2021. The plan was focused on rapid (by utility standards) systematic change across the organization spanning safety, finance, operations, technology, customer service, compliance and people. After spending the first few years of the plan focused on financial, operational, and safety improvements, the organization was making positive headway and our customers were on the benefiting end of top-notch performance, as reflected in several years of low-to-no rate increases. From the outside looking in, Grant PUD was starting to become all roses and sunshine.

However, employees were fatigued and frustrated by the rate and volume of change. This is when we decided it was time to go all-in on improving our people and organizational culture. In hindsight, we might have switched the order in which we tackled all the changes identified in Vision 2021, yet systemwide changes and forward motion are always messy and never perfect.

Looking back, I recognize how incredibly important it is to have executive-level sponsorship for anything that sniffs of “culture change.” Having people with positional authority (and the necessary resources) within an organization sets the tone and elevates the priority for the endeavor. Humble executives who recognize how they are contributing to the current felt reality of the workforce are an essential first step in making cultural change.

Working collectively, our leadership’s commitment to prioritizing people and culture was demonstrated early on when our elected board of commissioners memorialized the effort by adopting a new strategic plan with an objective focused on “designing and sustaining an engaging and fulfilling Grant PUD culture.” This objective came second only to our safety outcomes.

Listening Is the First (and Best) Intervention

A temptation when an executive greenlights a new program or project is to go out and hire people, bring in new training, rope a few consultants in, print some posters with happy people and inspirational words, throw a party, and announce the dawn of a new era. I can attest to how counter-effective (and shortsighted) these methods are.

Before solving a problem, you need a clear understanding of both the problem and the desired outcome. For the first six months in my role, I spent most of my time listening. Listening — without judgment and with empathy — proved to be an invaluable tool and served as a pressure-relief valve for a pent-up and exasperated organization.

I wanted to ensure that we captured as many different voices as possible. I set up a series of one-hour listening sessions with 120 individuals spanning all parts of the company. With the participants identified, I crafted a set of questions based on appreciative inquiry, a method created by Case Western Reserve University professor David Cooperrider. As Cooperrider shared, “organizations gravitate toward the questions they ask.” In other words, the questions help shape what people begin paying attention to. The sessions evoked a gamut of responses. Some participants became emotional upon reflecting on how much they had to tolerate for years, while others aired frustration, which manifested as shouting. I heard it all and had a chance to widen the aperture on the experience of our workforce.

If public power wants to remain an attractive and competitive force in the talent acquisition and development space, then we need to design empathy into our systems, policies, processes and experiences. If you are a small public power organization and don’t have the luxury of people and money to focus on this work, I encourage you to begin by asking employees simple questions, such as, “How did you learn to be good at your job?” or “What’s one small thing that we could do this week to leave this place better for the future workforce?”

From Data to Diagnosis

Because I couldn’t set up listening sessions with all staff members, we also had McKinsey distribute its proprietary Organizational Health assessment. Between the listening sessions and the assessment, we had a tremendous amount of data on our hands. The challenge with a large volume of data is that it can be overwhelming if not distilled into actionable patterns and themes. Without that work, too much information is gathered, and no one knows where to begin.

The best way to change a culture is gradually and from within. I also knew that we had to be honest about the process and its outcomes. We started slowly, using internal resources, and had very clear parameters around what we would and would not be doing. We began by asking questions and crowdsourcing employees for solutions. The planning process focused on three classical phases of organizational development: 1) assessment, 2) diagnosis and 3) intervention.

Frameworks are incredibly valuable for their ability to simplify the complex and guide you toward a starting point. My go-to frameworks are the Waterline Model (courtesy of Chris Crosby) and the McKinsey 7-S model (courtesy of Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman). Both models provide practical ways to assess the health of organizations and avoid unnecessary distractions. Using these models, we identified two core themes that would become the touchstone for all our work over the next three years: clarity and community.

We lacked clarity when it came to our people. We (senior leadership) didn’t know what employees really cared about, the values we wanted them to espouse and exhibit, how we wanted them to lead or engage with one another, and what the standard was for leading well within our organization. The absence of clarity was creating confusion, mismatched expectations, and a clash of values. We had much to do to establish clear expectations.

Community (a sense of belonging) is one of the greatest indicators of organizational health. If you have a workplace where others feel they belong and are valued as humans and not mere contributors of products and services, they will stay for the right reasons and contribute in the right ways.

Community is also at the crux of a public power entity. When we fail to understand the unique needs of the communities we serve, we fail to remain relevant. The data showed us that Grant PUD employees felt the organization was losing its connection to our community, and that lack of connection had spilled over into the organization, too.

Intervening in Human Systems

Psychologist Kurt Lewin once said, “The best way to understand an organization is to try and change it.” When you begin implementing change, it is important to obtain the necessary executive capital (aka sponsorship) and ensure the leadership is engaged in the entire process, as opposed to just the beginning.

One of the more uncomfortable themes the data showed was that our executive team had a significant credibility problem. The day I went into the office to provide my report to Nordt, our CEO, I told my spouse half-jokingly that I would be returning home that night to brush up my résumé. At this point I was the youngest senior manager in our organization. I began without niceties and acknowledged that the data showed a need for change among the executive team. He responded without hesitation and said, “Well, I gave you a task, and if you found that we are part of the problem, I want to know.” I knew instantly that I had access to a CEO who wanted to bring about transformation and who was willing to take ownership of his respective part of the problem.

I took the same presentation and shared it across the organization over 15 times within two months (yes, even the part that said our executive team needed to improve). No one, not even elected commissioners, received “special reports” or access to certain data. It was our story, our problem, and our possibilities.

After eight months spent opening the pressure-relief valve of human experience within our organization, I was grateful to begin hiring a team devoted to the task of developing our people. Not an add-on to human resources or the training team, or new consultants, but a team devoted to sustaining the organization’s attention on individual and cultural transformation. Attention is critical because where attention goes, the organization (and individuals within it) follow. With data, sponsorship, a resourced team, and a clear purpose and plan, we got to work making seven strategic interventions.

  1. A culture of coaching. In times past, we used coaching primarily when we identified a performance gap. If you had a leadership coach, there was an associated stigma that something was wrong. This time, we enrolled each of our executive team members in coaching and cascaded this experience down the people-manager ranks until more than 120 individuals had training to help with behaviors such as listening non-defensively, asking thoughtful questions, and plugging people into their strengths.
  2. Clear leadership standards. We had to provide a consistent set of language tools and expectations for our managers. This involved hours of leadership development training in the first year focused on offering people-managers fundamentals like giving and receiving feedback nondefensively, setting up monthly one-on-ones with direct reports, having difficult conversations, and understanding different behavior styles and personalities. We also developed a leadership philosophy for our organization centered on three principles: Leadership is available, learned and relational. Once we had critical mass with our people-managers, we began to cascade the same principles and expectations down to all frontline contributors. Three years later, consistent leadership principles continue to be taught and reinforced in various meetings, programs, and micro-learnings.
  3. Embed and measure culture. To ensure that our workplace culture work was not simply a cute little program with squishy outcomes, we formed a small group of employees to develop a new strategic plan objective to be submitted to our elected board of commissioners. The resulting objective, “Design and sustain an engaging and fulfilling Grant PUD culture,” has several strategies and measurable outcomes associated with it.
  4. Translating values into behaviors. We assembled a diverse group of employees — executives, hydropower mechanics, line workers, HR professionals, shop stewards and union representatives — to establish a singular, clear set of behavioral standards. As we sat together and listened, we realized we are all different people with very similar needs. Some participants decided that this was a waste of time, but 95% stayed engaged with this group for over a year to develop our collective “Commitment to the Code of Excellence.” The group continues to meet to discuss where we are seeing our organization align with or deviate from our espoused values.
  5. Appreciation. In my listening sessions, I asked at the end of every interview, “What’s one small thing we could do tomorrow that would improve our culture?” One item that came up repeatedly was to reinstate an annual employee celebration. This request aligned with research that showed company-sponsored social events help reduce organizational attrition and boost morale.
  6. Orientation and onboarding. Onboarding employees is one of those routine activities that can make a lasting first impression about an organization. We looked outside of the public power space into nontraditional organizations in our area, such as REI, Brooks Running, Alaska Airlines and Microsoft, to see what they did to make their workplaces sought after. The result was a creative and meaningful orientation and onboarding experience for our new hires. It shifted from a simple one-day orientation to a six-month journey with ongoing touch points.
  7. Employee association. Grant PUD had an employee association founded decades ago focused on providing opportunities to serve our community and helping employees build meaningful connections. Over time, the group languished. Reinvigorated as part of this initiative, within a year it established a new mission and vision, developed a leadership board and planned several events (which were remote offerings because of the pandemic). The pent-up demand for connection generated immediate enthusiasm from this small coalition, which was committed to creating connections within the workplace and community at large. This grassroots group continues to organically evolve and find new and creative ways to make employees feel connected.

Improvement, Not Perfection

There is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” Grant PUD is a living, dynamic, complex system. As such, we will change our approach over time and based on new data that emerges from those we serve (our employees). We are not where we want to be, yet we are also not where we used to be.

Every organization is as different as those within it; not all of the interventions and approaches we took will work in your utility. Establishing clear standards for leadership will not solve your organizational woes. In fact, it can initially lead to a dip in morale. When you establish a standard, people finally have something to compare their current experience to — they can see how far they are from the “ideal state.”

There is much work ahead. Some of what we want to do will need to change, some of it won’t work, some of it won’t go as planned. What won’t change is the focus of our strategic plan objective: Designing and sustaining an engaging and fulfilling culture.

People matter — let’s go make it better.

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