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Iowa City / County Management Association

The Innovation Edge

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Innovation Edge

Institute of Public Affairs and the Alliance for Innovation are partnered in efforts to provide members of both organizations exposure to national innovations along with sharing the innovative initiatives and projects of Iowa’s local governments.

Getting Great Results for Your Community: Start with Caring About the People Who Implement Your Mission
by Stacey Peterson, Chief People Officer, Rancho Cordova, CA

An emphasis on talent management and employee engagement is critical to better organizational performance.  In all industries there is considerable pressure to improve performance levels, especially in government where citizens are expecting more be done with fewer resources.  To expand talent capacity, the City of Rancho Cordova, an eleven-year old City near Sacramento, California, looked to the Great Place to Work® Institute.  There we learned to benchmark best practices and gain insights from years of research and experience on building employee trust, which is proven to yield significant returns on productivity, innovation and revenues.

Best companies research confirms that teams in supportive environments can perform at significantly higher levels – as much as 30 to 40 percent.  So, how can more public agencies change the work environment?  If our desire is to raise the bar of performance, we have to seek management practices that are proven to contribute to better performance.  Where do you begin?  For starters, when was the last time you surveyed your employees?  Do you know what employees value or would like to change?  Are you clear on what you can improve to build trust in the organization?

Research also tells us that people want to feel like what they do matters and, as a result, they matter.  As leaders, to attain positive results from our people, we must truly care about the thinking and feedback of the employees implementing the mission.

The City of Rancho Cordova has 70 employees and approximately 90 contract staff.  The City decided to get staff involved in creating a different government that would better serve its citizens.  To produce exceptional results, City leaders challenged employees to create the kind of systems and practices that would promote accountability, collaboration, innovation and efficiency.  This was not “top down” thinking, but open and inclusive program evolution by trial and error and extensive customer input.

Key to this strategy is having a clear mission and focusing everyone around a clear sense of purpose to create non-bureaucratic systems that produce more responsive and effective customer service.  The City mission is to serve as brokers, catalysts, facilitators, and educators in responding to issues.  City employees know that they cannot solve all problems for all citizens, so we seek to leverage resources through key partners in the community.

When the economic downturn hit, the City leadership engaged employees in budget discussions, solicited input on benefit changes, and refocused efforts around developing employee capacity to be more creative in responding to citizen issues.  A conscientious decision was made to keep training and recognition dollars to ensure that employees could continue to grow in their professional capacity and would be rewarded for extra efforts.  It was made clear to staff that everyone was in it together – leadership, City employees and contractors.  We surveyed employees to get broad input and ideas to improve the overall HR program and experience of working at the City.  This gave us great insights and more employees weighed in as they saw that input was valued.

In 2012, I decided to go a step further and submit the City for Great Place to Work® Institute review, thinking that improvement comes from benchmarking against the best!  Employees change lives every day by serving the Rancho Cordova community and we want every team member who works here to have that same life-changing experience.  We always want the focus to be about building effective relationships with our elected officials, community partners, and staff, which will put us in the best position to unite around shared community goals and work collaboratively and innovatively toward those outcomes.

Competing against hundreds of companies across the country, Rancho Cordova participated in a rigorous selection process with Great Place to Work® which included an employee Trust Index survey and an in-depth questionnaire about benefits programs and company practices across nine areas of focus.  The employee survey forms two-thirds of the score across five dimensions that can be measured in any workplace.  “It really has to authentically be great because that employee experience is such an extensive part of our methodology,” said Leslie Caccamese, associate vice president of U.S. marketing with Great Place to Work Institute.

It was with great pride that the City of Rancho Cordova accepted the honor of being named on the top 25 small business list published in Fortune Magazine for the past 3 years, the first-ever and only government agency to make the list.  This September, Rancho Cordova learned of its “3-peat” honor at the Great Place to Work Small and Medium Workplace Business conference in Washington, D.C. where Assistant City Manager Joe Chinn and I presented on “A Culture That Pays Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank” to share positive people practices that empower employees to innovate and work as a team toward better outcomes.  We emphasized the need to continuously develop the team, reward employees for great work, and make time for celebration and fun.

Great Place to Work has found that employees believe they work for great organizations when they consistently trust the people they work for, have pride in what they do, and enjoy the people they work with.  The best companies have learned that these programs cannot just be owned and delivered by human resources.  While human resources teams can champion programs that ensure broad communication, feedback and accountability, development, recognition of good work and celebration of collective accomplishments, they cannot alone foster the commitment, focus and energy needed by the entire team to build a supportive work environment.

From the beginning, Rancho Cordova’s strategy was always to create flexible practices that support the “can-do” spirit of our talent.  We focus on programs that most employees want and continuously evolve them to create a supportive environment, rather than managing to complainers.  We encourage ongoing dialogue between managers and their teams and spontaneous on-the-spot recognition that shows employees their extra effort was noticed.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It is often the little ways in which we share appreciation and build camaraderie that go a long way in making individuals feel valued for their contributions.

Great workplaces seek ways to free up staff from bureaucracy and trust them to use good judgment in addressing concerns with customers.  Rancho Cordova City leaders empower staff to solve problems at the lowest levels.  Mistakes will happen.  Hopefully, they become ways we learn and end up with better outcomes.    We remind our City staff that– outside of ethical, legal, or safety concerns– reasonable risk-taking is okay and supported by City Council.  In the end, our focus is arriving at the best solutions to community issues.

The Rancho Cordova City Council and employees are proud that prudent management and efficient government have achieved a year-end budget surplus for the 11th year in a row.  “We are delighted to be on this prestigious Great Place to Work® list for the third time,” said Rancho Cordova Mayor Dan Skoglund.  “It reinforces that we are creating a great organization to better serve our citizens.  We see the City team regularly go above and beyond in their work.”

Research from the Gallup Organization reports that engagement, when properly measured, extends beyond an assessment of how happy your employees are on the job; it also reveals whether that happiness produces superior performance.   In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor describes how doctors, sales people, and students all outperform their neutral or pessimistic counterparts, showing more intelligence and creativity.  Brains are literally hardwired to perform better when they are positive.

Management theorist Simon Sinek suggests that great leaders make their employees feel secure and draw them into a circle of trust in his recent book, Leaders Eat Last. Creating a strategy around getting to know your staff better and improving two way communication is very important.  Employees need to understand what’s expected of them, be given the resources and tools to succeed, and feel valued for the contributions they make to an organization.

How can you use this information to get great results for your community?  Look closely at your core expectations for the workforce.  Have you clearly set the expectation that all employees need to be respectful, open to different ideas and opinions, and step up as leaders across all levels to help each other?  Do you address conflicts as they arise or do you have a “fend for yourself” environment?

Getting everyone in the organization to care about the overall experience is critical to a positive culture.  Think less about managing the work, and more about managing the experience felt by your employees.   Show them you care about them as smart, committed and trustworthy people.  Tap into their passions to further engage them.  Your job is to create a rewarding and positive experience, which ultimately will inspire employees to produce better results.  While not without challenge and continuous learning, we’ve proven it is achievable and desirable in government.

To learn more, visit Great Place to Work®, see our City survey results summarized on the GreatRated! website, or contact me at 916-851-8741 or speterson@cityofranchocordova.org.

The Alliance is a network of local governments driving innovation throughout their organizations.  You can learn more about the Alliance for Innovation and or the joint Alliance and ICMA Knowledge Network at www.transformgov.org or contact our Regional Director, Greg Stopka at gstopka@transformgov.org.

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