Maintaining Our Unique Culture
Our people have always been the beating heart of EPM’s business. Our leadership and culture tenets of care and empathy are not only at the core of who we are as a company, they help us attract and retain customers, as well as employees, in ways our competitors can’t. But while these beliefs are critical to the success and longevity of our business, I have to admit they’ve been put to the test as we’ve continued to grow.
I recently noticed that some aspects of our amazing culture were languishing. We were quick to prioritize these issues, and I’m happy to now be in a position to share the steps we took along the way so others might learn from our experience.
Growth Brings Changes
I’ve always believed the best way to care for our customers is to first care for our employees. That has not changed, but how we care for them has evolved with our company’s growth. When EPM was smaller, with only a dozen or so employees, I knew each team member personally. I worked and interacted with them regularly, allowing me to keep a pulse on the team and how each member was doing and feeling. If something was amiss in their personal or work life, I recognized it right away and would work with them to devise an individualized plan to get things back on track.
Over this past year, EPM surpassed 50 employees. While it has been exciting to expand our team and to be able to serve more of our community, I was killing myself trying to know each team member as intimately as I did when we were a much smaller company. It was time to make some changes in how we were managing our now larger staff so we promoted several team members to management roles. That way I could concentrate on leading that group of managers while they, in turn, would be in a position to form those close relationships with their team members and to teach them our tenets of care and empathy.
During this period, we also reviewed our processes and standard operating procedures. We have always done a pretty good job of this, but with so many new employees – and especially for those out in the field whom we couldn’t see or interact with as often as we’d always like – we knew it was important to renew key performance indicators and success metrics.
Our Learning Curve
In theory, putting those new managers and standard operating procedures in place was absolutely necessary. In practice, however, it was a little rocky.
First, I noticed one or two of our most caring and empathetic employees were not acting themselves. They weren’t adjusting well to the change in structure. I did a little investigating and learned that in our effort to standardize our processes – which have always been essential to maintaining our high standards for excellent customer service – we weren’t clearly communicating what our underlying expectations were. Some team members felt that efficiency and key performance indicators had supplanted our focus on exceptional customer service.
I also realized that we hadn’t given our newly promoted managers the tools they needed to be great at leading – and to be able to teach our important tenets of care and empathy to others. We had promoted them because they had been exemplary at caring for our customers, but we hadn’t fully understood that managing others requires a whole new skill set.
And finally, we hadn’t correctly calculated how much time and bandwidth is required to effectively manage others. We had been asking our new managers to perform all the tasks they had before we promoted them, while also coaching and developing others. We were expecting them to do the impossible, and they – and their employees – were feeling it.
Setting Our Managers Up for Success
Recognizing that our unique culture, and some of our people, had been negatively impacted by some of the unintended consequences of our growth, we’ve taken measures to balance the “heart” and “head” of our business, while entrusting our newly promoted managers to carry the culture forward.
First, to make sure ‘we know as we grow,’ we’ve instituted “stay interviews” with all our employees. These are proactive exit-type interviews that help us see where problems are occurring before attitudes decline and we lose an employee.
Next, we formed an employee engagement committee that allows us to focus on the “heart” in our day-to-day operations. Instead of only hearing about standard operating procedures and success metrics, our team members also know we value them for their unique abilities and personalities, and that we care about them as individuals.
We’ve also begun empowering our newly-promoted managers to lead. When I hear that an employee is struggling or unhappy. Instead of going directly to that individual, I start with their manager to coach them on how to deal with the situation. We’ve even instituted a mantra of “What would Karen do?” to help managers be the kind of caring, empathetic leader to their people that I strive to be to them.
Another important step was to invest in professional leadership training. Civilis Consulting customized a 20-hour leadership training program for EPM. It includes a practice of managers regularly asking their team members how they are feeling, and it teaches them to ask probing questions to understand the underlying issues contributing to an employee’s emotional, mental and physical well-being. Now we are very intentional about giving our managers the time and space to learn and practice their new skills.
Finally, we are staffing up. The additional employees we bring on will handle many of the day-to-day responsibilities that our new managers had before they got promoted. We understand now that managers need time to manage. They need to be able to spend time with their people and constantly listen to, observe, coach and reinforce those “what would Karen do” behaviors. We are creating a work environment where they have the support they need and can focus on and grow in their new roles.
Listen and Learn
I appreciate more than ever how important it is to make the time to simply listen. Our people, whether our employees or customers, are the best barometers for what’s going well… and what’s not. Being a great leader means listening more and directing less. If your business is growing – and especially if your unique culture might be being a little stressed – I hope you find my experience helpful. Please reach out anytime to share your own leadership experiences or even just to chat.