A leadership program at one area company helps to identify and develop the leaders of tomorrow, today.
With baby boomers fast approaching retirement, companies have the challenge of preparing younger and less-experienced employees for leadership roles. Traditionally, employees would actively work toward a leadership position on their own or transition into one naturally. With our country’s workforce changing, companies need to identify and prepare tomorrow’s leaders now.
At Illinois American Water, an important part of preparing our current and future workforce is challenging all employees to lead through a program appropriately titled “Leadership Challenge.” Based on the best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, the program is similar to a 360 review, but with an upgrade. The value-based development program uses cause-and-effect methodology and inspiring language, and it is offered to all leaders in the organization, not just upper management. This is critical, says Illinois American Water President Karla Olson Teasley. “We need full participation and understanding of our company’s core values for our employees to reach their full potential.”
In fact, if you’ve received an email from an Illinois American Water employee in the last year, you may have noticed at the bottom of the message the following: “Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, Encourage the Heart.” These are the core values of the Leadership Challenge.
“A lot of these leadership values are common sense,” Teasley continued. “Making them a part of our everyday conversations and attitude is what we need to improve.”
Through an online form, employees give and receive feedback on core value behavior. Feedback is not only received from managers, but from direct reports, coworkers and peers. The confidential feedback provides an honest opportunity for improvement. “We have great employees who truly want to lead by example,” added Teasley. “Being reminded of how and why to do that, and to do it consistently with every employee, can make all the difference.”
Once feedback is provided, employees attend an internal workshop that includes examples of leadership, inspirational stories, encouragement and team-building exercises. Teasley attends as many of the workshops as possible and shares her personal leadership challenge journey. “It is important for me and other members of management to share stories of growth. To behave as if we have no room for improvement would contradict the core of the program and would deny the opportunity it offers.”
At the end of the workshop, participants should be able to:
- Identify leadership strengths and areas to improve
- Communicate fundamental values and beliefs
- Focus people’s efforts on key values through their own actions
- Express an image of the future
- Inspire others to share a common vision
- Search for opportunities to take the risks needed for growth
- Build collaboration, teamwork and trust
- Strengthen the ability of others to excel
- Recognize the accomplishments of others.
Teasley stresses that employees take the Leadership Challenge program from the workshop into their jobs and everyday lives, implementing the value of Inspire a Shared Vision. The conversation continues in meetings, employee reviews and strategic planning. Since the program’s implementation, the company has experienced a positive shift in employee recognition, customer satisfaction and process improvement.
To help employees actively implement the core values, Encourage the Heart and Model the Way, a committee of employees worked together to create a formal rewards and recognition program. The program was adopted by leadership and rolled out to employees through meetings, posters and internal updates. In the first year of implementation, almost every office has had employees who have nominated their colleagues for “Going the Extra Mile.” Additional impacts resulting from the recognition program include higher productivity and improved communication.
Customer service has also improved. When customers were asked how satisfied they have been with their utility overall during the past 12 months, 92 percent of the respondents for June YTD (results are reported quarterly) were satisfied. This is an increase of eight percentage points compared to the year before. With encouragement for the core value of Enable Others to Act, field employees may feel more empowered to respond to customer needs in a timely fashion. “Employees are doing the right thing without feeling the need for direction every time they have a customer encounter, and that results in customer satisfaction,” said Teasley.
Processes have also been challenged and improved, supporting the core value, Challenge the Process. Within operations, employees challenged the type of tools provided on service vehicles as well as the availability of dump trucks. The issues were reviewed and a standardized inventory of tools for service trucks was developed and implemented throughout the local operation. In addition, it was determined that a dump truck would be placed in a central location to make it readily available to work crews when needed. These suggestions resulted in increased productivity. An employee was able to improve communications and customer service by challenging the process of communicating service issues. Employees use the new process to deliver information and ensure that customer issues are resolved efficiently.
The Leadership Challenge program encourages employees to take pride in their work, expertise and knowledge. The program introduces the challenge, but the employee continues his or her own leadership challenge on a personal level. Making it personal makes it valuable. It is also helping Illinois American Water identify and develop the leaders of tomorrow, today. iBi
Karen L. Cotton is manager of external affairs at Illinois American Water.