When we talk about the importance of engaging employees, we often focus on how executives, HR leaders, and managers can enact culture changes that will make employees happy. But what if the employees were in charge of developing culture?

Recently, I had the chance to pick the brain of Al Chiaradonna, senior vice president at investment solutions firm SEI, about putting corporate culture in the hands of the workforce.

Recruiter.com: Some might argue that a top-down approach is the only way to implement sweeping changes to an organization’s corporate culture. What is an employee-led approach, and how does it work?

Al Chiaradonna: Change is necessary for growth. In today’s rapidly evolving global workplace, organizational change needs to be more agile, as well as organically driven by employees who care about their growth, their customers, and the organizations they work for.

The top-down approach misses what I would consider to be the most crucial element of transformation: engagement of those who will be most influenced by these changes. By putting the reigns of idea implementation in the hands of employees, a deeper connection is formed in the workplace amongst colleagues across levels. This, in turn, fosters an unparalleled sense of camaraderie and trust within a larger group.

Taking an employee-led approach starts with a deep understanding of what employees value and ensuring prospective recruits align with the organization’s values. Just like a customer value proposition, companies need an employee value proposition. When organizational values are coupled with customer and employee value propositions, employees are empowered with tools to create a culture that best matches their own needs in the workplace. When employee values align to customer and organizational values, change becomes intrinsically motivated, and the need for top-down change programs dissipates.

For us [at SEI], building an employee-led culture began with a commitment to both employees and customers. Our employee value proposition is “responsive connectivity,” which tears down the walls of a formal organizational structure and instead adjusts to the ebbs and flows of current workplace situations. When employees of every level are met with a structure that aligns to their values, they have more ownership of their success and greater opportunities arise for employees and the company.

RC:  What are the benefits of an employee-led culture for the broader organization?

AC: An employee-led culture feeds people’s passions in the workplace, instilling a sense of purpose that is greater than their day-to-day. They become connected to each other and empowered to solve problems that will collectively make the organization, the clients they serve, and themselves better. Responsive connectivity requires a finger on society’s pulse — outside the company’s confines.

At SEI, our employee-led culture has led to increased engagement in many areas. For example, about two years ago, we put up a whiteboard in SEI’s private banking unit to allow the team to brainstorm ideas for volunteer opportunities. Within 15 minutes of putting up four projects, [the projects] were all claimed and organic teams formed to lead and tackle the projects together. The board has since evolved, with employees creating new projects and volunteers outside the private banking unit signing up simply to get exposure to something new. By giving these individuals the power to choose where they would like to allocate their time, we have found that they are more willing to further contribute to workplace initiatives alongside colleagues. The relationships subsequently formed have led to more productive meetings, conversations with clients, and problem-solving approaches to tough situations.

RC: What practices has SEI put in place since adopting this model?

AC: Since adopting this model, SEI has implemented several components within its private banking unit. As mentioned, the volunteer board has allowed employees to use their voices to create opportunities for support of causes that they personally care about most.

We also chose to implement the “Higher Gear Award” — “for the people by the people” recognition — honoring colleagues’ personal success stories. The employee volunteer group had full authority over how to structure this program, with one exception. My only criterion was that there is one winner. We have a great team full of star players, but a recognition program must be meaningful to avoid burnout. The winner of each award is voted upon by peer groups for the story that most exemplifies the company’s mission and values. All nominees’ stories are memorialized in a variety of ways.

Building on these initiatives, we created our employee value proposition: “responsive connectivity.” We met as a management team and discussed what we thought our employees valued, but the ideas were ours — not the team members’. Our HR partner thought we could get individual feedback through “stay” interviews. Unlike the typical exit interviews, stay interviews [are held with existing] employees in order to learn what keeps them at the organization. This forces management to listen, act, and stay connected to what’s working and what needs to be improved.

A volunteer team was formed to analyze the aggregated interview results, as well as propose and implement actions based on the team’s feedback. We have learned that our team values flexibility, transparency, and a deeper understanding of our company’s strategy beyond the financials. Learning about what makes our employees stay — what they value — gives us insight into how to keep and grow top talent at SEI.

The initiative’s fourth component is a workplace design revamp. SEI’s employees wanted to create a more digital and mobile work environment, so SEI executed a layout redesign to encourage more open collaboration. We began “hoteling,” adding soft phones, and getting rid of filing cabinets to bring in work tables and smart TVs. The goal was to create an open and responsive space to allow employees to easily connect, converse, and exchange ideas, while also giving them the flexibility and autonomy to do their job wherever suits them best.

RC:  How has this culture model impacted your recruiting and retention efforts?

AC: We have always built our business on the service value chain foundation. At its core, the service value chain is a belief that employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction, which in turn leads to profitability. We have since invested in the concept and put tools and processes in place to support this model. We have recruited people who are excited to be part of our employee value proposition and recognize individual growth opportunities. We continue to find and retain talent that is energized, motivated, and passionate about thinking differently and succeeding within our organization.

About five years ago, our team began as a startup within an established business. We were tasked with delivering a brand new solution to the US banking market. We started with a small team of SEI personnel who understood a startup mentality — long hours, wearing different hats, limited resources. As we grew the business and began to create this culture, we started to see a lot more employee interest from inside and outside of the organization.

Our employees have embraced the culture and continue to find ways to make it a lasting change. Since the culture’s implementation, we have seen a direct correlation between employee engagement and employee retention and loyalty.

RC: What feedback have you received from employees since implementing this model?

AC: What was once an initiative solely focused within SEI’s private banking unit is starting to catch on. Other employees are hearing about our initiatives, and many are looking for ways to incorporate similar concepts like stay interviews, volunteer boards, and recognition programs into their own team cultures.

As with anything new, there is trial and error. Hoteling is a big change, and parts of it are working while others need to be improved. But we aren’t afraid to try and fail because we learn and adjust.

Our employees have a voice and are encouraged to use it. Some have felt so strongly that they joined the volunteer team working on workspace redesign. I love that. We are seeing more and more employees want to get involved and be part of the fix.

I’m excited to see what our future holds as we grow. We’ll continue to hold stay interviews in order to ensure that we are in tune with our employees, their values, purposes, and growth. The implementation of responsive connectivity and an employee-led culture enables employees to take charge of their own culture and challenge the status quo to constantly evolve with their needs.

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