Engaging work on the world’s most liveable city

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Alan Brookbanks , HR Director of Auckland City Council told attendees to last Thursday’s Kenexa Engagement Conference, hosted by Kenexa, an IBM company, about the challenges of amalgamating 10,500 employees, eight organisations, and 3,500 IT systems.

During the first six weeks of the new organisation, from November 2010, Brookbanks and his team were focused on risks and how to manage them. “We were very clear on our risks and we knew that we had to manage; we were not ambitious,” he said of this time.

In February 2011, they took their first employee engagement survey in order to understand what staff were thinking – although they did not have very high expectations. However, there was a very high return rate and a first score of 64.5%, which was “a surprisingly good result” given the massive, recent change. The following year, this had improved by 0.5% when the council took its second employee engagement survey. “People were still feeling very lost in this huge organisation – they felt more loyal still to their legacy council,” Brookbanks explained.

At this point, Brookbanks and his team received some advice from Jack Wiley, founder and president of the Kenexa High Performance Institute. Wiley told them to keep it simple and to spark conversation with employees. The two key areas of focus for the council at this point were building a common purpose and improving two-way communication.

To address both of these, the council created ‘conversations with leaders’. “Each quarter we have a different subject and each quarter a member of the executive team…has six meetings where they go out to different parts of the organisation,” Brookbanks explained. At each meeting there is a presentation, time for questions, and debate is encouraged; the purpose is to increase the executive’s knowledge of the organisation and employees’ familiarity with their leaders. “Cynicism and lack of trust is easy whey you don’t know people – so we needed people to know us and what we were about,” Brookbanks said.

At the same time they also created a new common purpose: to make Auckland the world’s most liveable city and to deliver Aucklanders great value for money. But there was a need to bring this purpose home to employees. “So what we did is we just did a simple post-it exercise across the organisation and we asked people to think about the values and what they meant to them,” Brookbanks said. All these were posted to the council’s intranet and there was some very honest feedback regarding people’s views on the council’s values. “We just wanted people to start talking to each other about values and how they supported our common purpose and how they were relevant,” Brookbanks said.

This year, Auckland City Council’s staff engagement score moved five percent, having the gap between themselves and their benchmark organisations. And, specifically, the score improved significantly in those areas that they council had focused on, including the common purpose and values, and two-way communication. “If there’s one message I would leave with you today, [it] is that focus actually works … and understanding your key priorities and what your employees think is important is fundamental,” Brookbanks said.

Key HR Takeaway:

 

  • “We have recognised right from the word go that engagement is important, and if you don’t measure it you don’t manage it.” Brookbanks also noted the importance of benchmarking and aspirational goals, and having the executive leadership team take responsibility for these.
  • It is important to establish realistic timeframes for organisational change.
  • “Keep it simple, tight, and very focused. Two goals per year, that’s enough.”
  • Aim to achieve some change each year, but not dramatic change.
  • And tell people about what you are doing!

 

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