Implementing a Strategic Human Resources Program: ASA s In the Trenches Experience Becoming an Employer of Choice. Authors:

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1 Implementing a Strategic Human Resources Program: ASA s In the Trenches Experience Becoming an Employer of Choice Authors: Karen Pallansch General Manager Alexandria Sanitation Authority 1500 Eisenhower Avenue Alexandria, VA Abstract: Denise O Berry Senior Consultant EMA, Inc N. Dale Mabry Hwy, Suite 200 Tampa, FL National and local labor force demographics are a driving force behind the urgency for positioning utilities to be an employer of choice. The reality of an aging population, along with the demands of a younger generation of workers with different values and goals, requires a shift in utility actions to address the business needs of the future. This environment is driving organizations to take a different approach to human resources (HR) if they are to survive and thrive. To position themselves as an employer of choice, utilities must have the right leadership, culture and best practices to recruit and retain today s top talent to achieve their strategic business objectives. This requires the utility to move from a tactical human resource process to a more strategically focused effort. The Alexandria Sanitation Authority (ASA) embarked on a multi-year organization change effort to position themselves as an employer of choice. Over the past two years, the organization has gone through significant change, including implementing a new organization structure and new leadership at all levels. This paper will provide overviews of approaches to strategic HR along with ideas for out of the box, outside the rules thinking on recruiting, retention, and career development. Strategic HR Today s Workplace Requirements Public agencies have a long history of command and control structure. This was developed over time to insure that their public service missions, often involving protecting public health, national and local security, environmental protection and the 1 P age

2 like. Because of their apparent success for the agencies, this format was also employed in the human relations arenas as well. Unfortunately, this approach was not as successful in the people area. As utilities faced the threat of privatization in the mid to late 1990 s, forward thinking utilities realized that an immediate change was needed in their human resource divisions to run the utility successfully and effectively eliminate the threat of a privatizer. This led to a different way of thinking one focused more on strategy than on tradition. Leading private companies were examined to learn from their already successful operations and see what could effectively be transferred to the public arena. The chart below shows the difference in these two areas. Traditional HR Role Reactive Employee advocate Operational issues Qualitative measures Stability How? (tactical) People as expenses HR s Strategic Role Proactive Business partner Strategic issues Quantitative measures Constant change Why? (Strategic) People as assets Source: Holbechke, L. (2001) Aligning human resources and business strategy. Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann It is no longer sufficient for human resources to stay on the sidelines and react to the changes in the organization. HR must have a seat at the senior leadership table. They must be the driver to help the organization achieve its strategic business goals by taking a long term approach to human resource management developing and implementing HR programs that solve business problems and contribute to the success of strategic business objectives. ASA Takes Action Alexandria Sanitation Authority (ASA) embarked on a multi-year organization change effort to position themselves as an employer of choice. Over the past two years, the 2 P age

3 organization has gone through significant change, including implementing a new organization structure and new leadership at all levels. To insure the continual culture change expressed in their Vision Environment and People, The Best of Both ASA recognized their HR function must develop into a strategic partner with ASA leadership. This partnership was necessary to drive the organization towards their goal of being one of the premier wastewater utilities in the country. To accomplish this goal, ASA redefined the HR Manager s organizational role and began to redefine their HR department s focus and strategies. This included defining an HR vision which aligns with the organization s vision, development of HR metrics, training and education in new ways to do business and develop new procedures and practices such as recruiting and outreach, onboarding and orientation, talent development (leaders and technical), succession planning, and workforce planning. Step One Redefining How to Provide Critical Public Service ASA faced a daunting task as a medium sized agency in the highly competitive DC market how to implement a successful change from a fully manual to a fully automated facility in less than 8 years while enduring no layoffs, insuring that existing staff had the requisite skills needed and creating a flexible organization that focused on excellent public service. The organization created a team based approach to solving these issues. In particular, one team was created to learn from other utilities about the best way to utilize the multi skilled and specialist technicians being created to service the newly built highly automated facility. It was this team that created ASA s team based organization, a system of four divisions comprised of process teams that manage defined plant areas, plant processes, or staff processes. These four divisions overlap to help insure complete communication and generate the needed shared dialogue and ideas to foster continued success. Once in place, the organization was quick to realize that the current functioning of the existing HR staff was not responsive to the needs of the new organizational structure. It was actually an impediment to doing business effectively and efficiently. Step Two Redefining Why Human Resources Exists At ASA, the HR team was a subset of a general services type of division, entitled Employee, Customer and Fiscal Services or ECFS for short. The HR team included two senior HR specialists, one Training Coordinator, one Training Specialist and a half time administrative assistant. This team had been together for many years and embraced the previous management styles noted in the chart above. After bringing in a consultant to provide new ideas to the Division director and HR staff, it became 3 P age

4 apparent that a vibrant new face was needed that embodied the vision of the new ASA HR function. Therefore, with the support of the ASA Board of Directors, a new Employee Services (ES) Manager position was created. This position was just recently filled. Armed with a new vision for HR that fundamentally supports both the ASA vision and core values as well as strategic HR elements, new ways of doing business in HR have been jump started, with significant positive morale increases throughout the organization. Step Three Redefining Why Staff are Hired The recruitment and selection of staff are now critical to ASA s current and future success due to the reliance on a team based structure and a decision to keep staffing levels at an absolute minimum because of the urban nature and high level of automation of the facility. Staff must have the ability to learn, be nimble and quick on their feet in terms of being proactive to the data and process as well as successfully reactive when an incident outside the norm happens. The first critical hire was that of the ES Manager. Because ASA had not yet thought beyond the traditional forms for hiring, EMA, Inc. was engaged to assist the Authority with devising and implementing a new recruitment system. The first step was to define in detail how this person needed to function for example, when they were in their role, just what would the General Manager see in terms of a person, an attitude, as well as deliverables. From this an all encompassing job description was created. EMA then utilized a staff person, seasoned in executive level hiring for private firms, to place ads and more importantly, screen applicants and conduct at least one telephone interview. This information was summed up and sent to the General Manager for review. An interview team consisting of another director, an ES staff person and an EMA consultant held interviews. Final interviews were conducted by the General Manager. The interview questions ranged from the typical type about work products, schedule, delegation and traditional HR to more intuitive questions aiming to determine the prospective ES manager s level of emotional intelligence. Because of this vetting, an excellent person was selected and in less than six months has changed the course of the HR department, creating a partnership with the other divisions on people related issues and fostering ideas and information flow to encourage people related successes. This format, with the exception of the use of EMA for initial phone interviewing, is now being used to hire all staff for ASA. This is critical because ASA currently has a need to hire entry level staff. These staff provide the basis for the future of the organization. The selection of not just the right technical skills but more importantly the correct learning vocation and critical attitude and values are keys to the long term success of ASA, especially in today s climate of lack of vocational skills training. 4 P age

5 Step Four Redefining Why Staff are Trained Once the organization interviews and selects the best candidate based on emotional intelligence, core values, desire to learn and ability to utilize that learning, and basic skills based competencies, a system of training is developed for the employee. The training is outlined by position, which provides the starting point for the Training Coordinator and other supervisory and management staff as well as the employee to create a short and long term training agenda for the new hire. This helps insure their positive entry into the ASA team culture while providing a focus for future learning and engagement in the organization over a longer term. The ASA Training Coordinator retired in the spring and that position has not been filled as of yet so this process is not nearly as defined as needed. However the basic tenets are in place and will be enhanced through the next three years in order to meet HR performance metrics. Step Five Redefining Why HR Metrics are Important and Needed The HR function at ASA had very few people focused metrics prior to the hiring of the new ES Manager. Previous HR metrics included turning in forms on time (regardless of quality) and not having to contact legal assistance for an employee related issue. The metrics were driven by the personality of the then division director (since retired and prior to the team s merger into the ECFS division), were aligned with the old way of the HR function, and had no relevance to the Authority s current vision, mission or values. To remedy this situation, one of the first endeavors of the new ES Manager was the creation of an HR team vision and mission that aligned with those of the Authority. From these, the ES Manager and the EMA consulting team are working to develop sound metrics that also serve to enhance the Authority s Business Plan Objectives. This is an on going process with significant and tangible progress yet to be determined. Conclusion: Any successful business entity, public or private, understands the need for exceptional and strategic HR functionality to be successful in today s business environment. HR must be a part of the business process to enable the people in key roles, their leadership and mentoring to support both the staff and business entity they serve. It takes strategic HR leadership with ideas for out of the box, outside the rules thinking on recruiting, retention, and career development to be a success today to position an organization to be an employer of choice for the future. This paper offers just a few of the many ideas and options available all tailored to the culture of the business unit to realize that vision. 5 P age

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