Empowerment: Moving beyond the rhetoric

June 2006 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Creating an environment where workers can question prevailing practices and actually change them to improve the workplace takes more than a reconfigured organization chart.
Todd J. Kenner, P.E.

: Miami
Number of branch offices: 70
Total number of employees: 3,800
Year firm was established: 1960
Total billings for last fiscal year: $521 million

The idea of an empowered employee is by now a textbook truism. The idea emerged in the late-1980s and early '90s when organizational structures went from pyramids to pancakes and employees were asked to start making the decisions that affected their jobs and their company's output. But creating an environment where workers can question prevailing practices and actually change them to improve the workplace takes more than a reconfigured organization chart.

PBS&J, which has a 45-year history of employee ownership, takes special pride in its employees' involvement. Our founders built the company on a premise of collegiality, and we take pains to ask our employees regularly what they think. Over the years, we've used a variety of tools â€" surveys, newsletters, videos, meetings â€" to find out what we can do to make our company the best place to work.

But as we've grown from a small cadre in Southern Florida to a national enterprise, this aspiration has become more challenging.

By the end of the 1990s, a decade in which we acquired a dozen firms, we knew that we needed a way to better acknowledge the array of interests and perspectives our new colleagues presented â€" and that we needed to provide a forum for their thoughts and ideas.

We asked our workforce, through formal employee committees dedicated to a range of workplace issues, to formulate and present ideas that would foster a unified culture. Since that time, our employees have been genuinely empowered to make the decisions that affect their welfare (and the company's overall). For example, in 2000 our Benefits Review Committee challenged our board of directors to expand medical coverage to include dependents as well as employees. Although this proposal carried a significant cost, the committee's research was compelling, the members were passionate about it, and the board followed the recommendation.

In another example, the work of PBS&J's Recruitment and Retention Committee increased the company match in our 401(k) program and decreased the time of an employee's entrance into it.

Today, PBS&J has 15 standing committees dedicated to such subjects as strategic planning; corporate diversity; benefits review; career development; the budget process; project management initiatives; information technology; and corporate environment, safety, and health. Like all good ideas, results depend upon execution, and over the years we've learned that our truly empowered committees share these characteristics:

Mission â€" The committee has a clear and defined mission focused on a critical need of the organization.

Leadership â€" Committee leadership represents two things: commitment and passion. Commitment is clearly visible and is best served through either a board-level sponsor or a senior officer sponsor, both of whom are very active in the committee's activities.

The chair of the committee, who should represent a practitioner, is the passionate driver of the committee's mission and purpose.

Resources â€" Human and financial resources are available to support the committee's mission. Committee members need the commitment from management to be able to dedicate sufficient time to bring about results. Further, based on the mission of the committee, financial resources may be required to cover meeting expenses, possible research data, outside consultants, or other needs.

Staging â€" The entire organization clearly understands the importance of the committee's mission and the individuals challenged with carrying it out. This can be accomplished through regular communication in a firm-wide newsletter and presentations in offices and to the board of directors.

Courage to act â€" Unless the firm's leadership has the courage to act on the committee's recommendations, the process of empowerment, the desire to move the organization forward will remain unfulfilled.

Employee committees require a certain amount of maintenance.

They need to be monitored for goals, membership, and, ultimately, usefulness. For example, once a committee has achieved its goal, it may have no reason to meet. Our process for keeping committees strong and effective is as follows:

• Evaluate the membership annually. Make sure everyone is an active contributor to the committee's mission.

• Establish goals and communicate the progress toward reaching the goals on a regular basis.

• Make sure the activities of multiple committees are not redundant or competing.

• Review the mission of the committee. If it hasn't been fulfilled or has become unclear, do not hesitate to sunset the committee.

In a time where surveys repeatedly report that employees want "more than just a paycheck" from their jobs, employee committees are a way for any company not only to build an involved workforce, but also to create informed allies dedicated to a common future. And with employee committees now firmly entrenched within our corporate culture, we have discovered another key benefit: As committee participants broaden their perspectives on major organizational challenges, we are also fostering the development of new leaders within the firm.

Todd J. Kenner, P.E., is the president of Miami-based PBS&J. He can be reached at tjkenner@pbsj.com or 1-702-263-7275.

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