An economic downturn, lower pay increases, and the perception of fewer opportunities. All that didn't dampen Elevations Credit Union Vice President of People Annette Matthies' outlook that each challenge presented another opportunity to do more to help staffers and ultimately the organization shine.
"I am truly blessed, because I wake up excited to come to work every day, inspired by the creativity, passion and commitment of great colleagues," said Matthies. "To help leaders be all they can be and people live up to their full potential has become my life's work and I'm enjoying every second of it."
She joined the Boulder, Colo.-based credit union in 2003 and currently provides leadership and direction for all human resources initiatives, including organizational development, compensation, benefits, training and employee relations.
According to President/CEO Gerry Agnes, Matthies' expert counsel is guided by a combination of her energy, strategic vision, problem solving skills and genuine compassion for others.
It wasn't all good news in 2009 for human resources, as the credit union had to make the tough decision to close its Erie branch and layoff 6% of its workforce by Jan. 30, 2010, due to less than expected housing growth in the area.
"Thoughtful preparation is key, and a lot of times organizations make that hard decision too late in the game," said Matthies. "You treat the people leaving with respect, integrity and basically treat those employees exiting as you would want to be treated yourself. We focused on putting together a solid severance package and outplacement to help bridge the time between jobs and make it as painless as possible."
The credit union also hired a consultant to come in and put together training for managers and surviving employees.
"We gave employees a chance to in a way grieve. And on the day layoffs were announced, we brought in our EAP provider to help everyone through this," said Matthies. "We also let those who were let go to take their time to say their goodbyes rather than having them immediately exit as if they are not trusted."
With an eye on making the most of a challenging time, Matthies developed and launched several initiatives designed to maintain employee morale. Her team's efforts were felt throughout the $920 million credit union, resulting in the number of members reaching a level unseen at Elevations CU in its 60-year history and a net income at $11.5 million against a budget of $3.6 million.
One such initiative was a new employee benefit program called "Stakeholders," which ties employee bonus payouts directly to organizational performance. Employees earn extra money, while the organization benefits from their actions. She also took the lead in introducing and implementing a new employee review and goal setting system called "Success Factors," which has been overwhelmingly embraced by managers and employees alike, as it ties employees' activities in with the overall plans and objectives set by the board and senior leadership team.
Matthies said the challenges of 2009 provided a great opportunity to review and revise Elevations CU's core values, vision and core purpose. More importantly, Matthies said those corporate values have now been properly aligned and run throughout the organization at every level. To spread the word and keep values top of mind she said they are virtually everywhere, from name badges and computer screen savers to posters within the branches.
"We wanted ensure that employees live and breathe the value system, and it all starts at the top. If employees don't see senior management living the values, then how can they be expected to follow," said Matthies. "So it's a message that has to be ubiquitous."
She added that the values are the foundation for the leadership development system, helping provide a well-defined process of "what we do and how we do it."
"We have identified competencies for our leaders at various stages of their career development. As staffers advance in formal leadership roles, leaders will need to cultivate additional competencies," said Matthies. "This can be used as a tool to analyze their skills and gaps and determine their readiness for the next step. At each higher level there is a readiness program that has been developed to help gain the necessary competencies that will be needed at the next level of leadership. Those competencies define the behaviors of how we lead."
She added that throughout the process, communication and commitment to excellence are vital. The moves paid off, as employee retention in 2009 came in at a record high of 80%.
"Every bit helps in retention. It starts with having a culture where people are engaged, excited and passionate about what they do, so right at the onset, we make sure we bring in the right employee who'll be that great fit," said Matthies, who joked that it's tough to get hired but having truly engaged employees is worth it. "We do our best to keep our finger on the pulse of the organization with employee engagement surveys and implement changes accordingly based on employee likes, dislikes and concerns."
In addition to surveys, senior leadership spend time in various departments and branches to share strategic goals and listen to employee feedback.
"It is about increasing that two-way communication, so senior leadership brings breakfast or lunch to various departments or branches and talks to employees one-on-one. And those engagement meetings are a direct result of what employees asked for in our last employee engagement survey," said Matthies. "That two-way communication and acting on employee suggestions can only help strengthen the organization, because it fosters an environment that is motivating and supportive where everyone feels valued and respected."