September 30, 2022
DatePublished: 09-30-2022 09:00:00
DateModified: 11-04-2022 06:19:22
In the early 2000s, leaders at the Michigan-based electricity provider Consumers Energy decided to confront a long-standing safety challenge for utilities—the expected number
of workers who could be involved in accidents each year. They recognized that what had been acceptable in the industry could no longer be tolerated. The impact of this acceptance could be felt across the organization, in morale and in performance.
It was time to put employee safety above all else, a decision that would change the company forever.
At the time, it wasn’t clear if the utility was prepared to tackle the issue head-on with the speed and efficiency required to execute real change. Yet, without any evidence to support it, the company’s president challenged his team to come
together. He declared a breakthrough stand to “make every day a safe day.”
Longtime employee Leslie Roth, the company’s leader of Co-Worker Connections, recalls the president saying, “We keep hurting people and can’t quite figure out how to fix it.” This was no longer acceptable. The challenge now was to figure out how to deliver something that had never been done before.
Spurred on by this exemplary leadership, Consumers partnered with Gap International—a management consultancy known for working with clients to achieve breakthrough performance. The firm’s approach enables transformative leaps toward organizational objectives and fosters team growth.
The utility activated to come up with actionable solutions. Instead of setting a course to make incremental improvements every year that might steadily drive down employee injuries, the president challenged the organization to set a more audacious goal
in motion. And it worked.
“It would not have been predictable for us at one time to say, ‘We’re going to be a top-performing safety company,’” says Roth. “But now we’ve delivered an 80% improvement in safety from when we started our journey. Our commitment to breakthrough has created a culture where we deliver improvements in safety each year, seeing fewer injuries each year.”
A RELIABLE ANCHOR
So how did Consumers Energy pull off this transformation? What can other companies learn from this to cause their own transformation? How does an organization go out on a limb to set an ambitious target and achieve it?
According to Gap International, success comes from alignment. Alignment is at the heart of resilience. When alignment is embedded into the foundation of an organization, companies are resilient—they can solve big problems and rebound from unexpected events. It’s an approach that’s particularly promising for firms today as they navigate a tumultuous business era riddled with challenges and uncertainty.
Covid-triggered supply chain and labor disruptions abound. War and political brinkmanship in Europe is radiating through global markets and food and fuel supplies. Increasingly convoluted regulatory environments are shifting ground while investors and
customers demand that companies attain environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals as they grow profits.
Many leaders intuitively understand that addressing the above and succeeding amid volatility demands being resilient. And now, a new report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Gap International further emphasizes just how important alignment and resilience are for today’s companies.
The study asked 620 senior leaders about their organization’s performance throughout the pandemic. Results showed that 65% of firms self-reported weathering the pandemic, but 35% said they didn’t exhibit resilience and were actually doing
worse than before Covid-19 upended business.
Gap International Vice President Alex Topakbashian
says the report reinforces a fact he’s come to understand throughout his decades of collaborating with leading companies. Alignment is a fundamental medium for individuals to move forward powerfully in any circumstance.
“Alignment is the fabric of resilience. It’s essential,” Topakbashian says. “The leader has to care about it and demand it. To be resilient, you have to act as one.”
A BLUEPRINT FOR COHESION AND RESILIENCE
But the report also highlights a hard truth: Many organizations must devote significantly more thought, energy and resources to boost their resilience.
One of the most impactful ways to do that? Creating an environment where alignment can happen. This kind of environment—a Breakthrough Performance Environment—has the right conditions for people to be effective regardless of the current situation. Creating it starts with the mindset of the organization.
“It’s a human condition to rely on your past and experience to move you forward,” Topakbashian says. “Much of our work is about unleashing people from what’s limiting them from their past. The organizations that are not entrenched in a history that keeps them from seeing new opportunities and possibilities—they’re the ones more likely to have an advantage. Organizational resilience in the face of adversity is absolutely a mindset.”
Topakbashian says businesses are constantly facing uncertainty and events beyond their control. That’s why he counsels leaders to focus on five factors they can manage and drive to create a Breakthrough Performance Environment: Affinity, Ownership, Interdependence, Purpose and Risk.
These factors can be measured to indicate an organization’s overall alignment. Together, they create the right conditions to build an environment that enables organizational resilience and breakthrough performance:
- Affinity: The strength and quality of authentic relationships between people
- Ownership: How individuals hold themselves personally accountable for the performance of their leader, team or organization
- Interdependence: The degree to which team members solicit and integrate diverse points of view to solve problems and create new things
- Purpose: How individuals within the organization connect to its reason for existing
- Risk: The willingness of employees to challenge the status quo, communicate unorthodox ideas and take bold actions
Topakbashian says alignment scores are based on a firm’s combination of these factors. Interestingly, companies typically attain the lowest scores in Interdependence.
“Interdependence refers to the way in which co-workers think together to address issues and tackle business challenges,” says Topakbashian. “The higher the Interdependence, the higher the quality of business outcomes because, after all, the best thinking in the organization is being utilized.”
Topakbashian continues, “There’s a general mindset among employees that you must do things and come up with answers on your own. But the focus is on the thinking that happens together rather than on who gets credit for the thought. We see
the greatest innovations happen when people take a problem to unlikely colleagues and ask them how they would approach it.” Just like the former president of Consumers Energy did when he called on the entire organization to start addressing
safety concerns together.
Roth of Consumers Energy says company leaders took a big gamble on the breakthrough performance approach back when they applied it to their worker safety issues years ago. But today, she’s sold on its value, the alignment it creates and the resilience it builds.
With the foundational success first achieved in overcoming one of the biggest problems in company history, Consumers Energy continues to use the approach and five factors—now embedded within the organization—to improve its response to curveballs
with companywide collaboration and creativity. This was critical as it weathered the pandemic and the social protests that engulfed the country in 2020, for example.
“Our safety culture and knowing we can work safe in all conditions was critical in the early days of Covid. We recognized very quickly that we had to keep our people safe and
working or we’d have no power in Michigan,” Roth says. “A differentiating factor for us was having deep relationships and an organizational culture with high Affinity where people speak frankly with one another.”
While the pandemic and social protests were a one-two punch that damaged or shuttered many businesses, for Consumers Energy, the moment provided an opportunity to leverage its alignment, including the strong relationships it had cultivated across job
functions, teams and communities.
When an organization is aligned, the environment is conditioned for the extraordinary to happen, repeatedly. This makes the organization sustainable and competitive, even in adverse circumstances. Perhaps alignment is the key to building resilience within
an organization, and therefore the key to building a business that thrives over time.
As originally published in Forbes.