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“The Best Place You Have Ever Worked”

Unified talent processes helped Elevations Credit Union win the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
“The Best Place You Have Ever Worked”

Annette Matthies, chief human resources officer of Elevations Credit Union, has been talking for several minutes when she politely punctuates her lengthy response to a question with a statement of self-awareness.

“I’ll take a moment and breathe. I’m really passionate about this part of our business, in case you couldn’t tell.”

The part of the business that has sparked Matthies’ passion is the range of improved talent initiatives the Boulder, Colorado-based credit union has put in place in recent years, including succession management, leadership development, talent acquisition, and new-hire orientation (see “How to … Help New Employees Start Strong” below). This spate of initiatives helped the 388-employee organization become the first-ever credit union to win the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2014, the U.S.’s highest level of recognition for performance excellence.

It’s not the Baldrige Award, however, that sets Elevations apart when it comes to talent, although the systemization, application of best practices, replicable processes, benchmarking, and metrics that led to the honor are what make Elevations an organization from which others can learn. What is most admirable is embodied by Elevations’ employee value proposition: “The best place you have ever worked.”

Interdependent Relationship

Elevations Credit Union began in 1953 with a single branch located on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Today, the credit union has more than 110,000 members, assets in excess of $1.5 billion, and 11 branches serving seven counties in and around metropolitan Denver.

While the organization experienced steady growth during its first half century, it wasn’t until Gerry Agnes came on board as president and CEO in 2008 that Elevations began taking its talent focus to a new level. The impetus was Agnes’ goal of winning the Baldrige award.

The Baldrige program, established by the U.S. Congress in 1987, recognizes manufacturers, service organizations, and small businesses for their achievements in quality and business performance. The program also aims to raise awareness about the importance of quality and performance excellence in gaining a competitive edge.

For Elevations, pursuit of the Baldrige award provided an organizational focal point, but, even more important, the effort to attain the accolade served to bring structure and discipline to its objectives around better serving the credit union’s 110,000-plus members. These member-centric objectives are part of Elevations’ five-year strategic plan, which the organization has tied directly to the architecture of its talent systems.

“It starts first with employee engagement. If our employees are engaged and giving everything they’ve got every single day, and they are happy in their jobs and fulfilled, that translates into more and stronger member loyalty,” explains Matthies. “We then have members that want to continue to do business with us, because it’s an enjoyable experience. They feel like we are trusted advisors. And the more member loyalty we have, that translates directly into financial sustainability, and we have an organization that can then take care of our employees. So, it’s really an interdependent relationship.”

To optimize this interdependent relationship, Elevations sought to bolster its existing talent processes. The first step was adopting a competency framework around which to integrate all of these processes and establish consistency and a common leadership language across all levels. The competencies also served to operationalize and reinforce the organization's strategic and cultural priorities.

“When we looked at DDI’s competencies, there were several things we liked about the model, especially how the competencies have very clear definitions,” says Matthies.

Matthies and her team worked with the Elevations’ executive team to begin proactive succession planning, using the competencies as a basis. This process entailed consulting the five-year strategic plan, and determining what the org chart would need to look like and where there were talent gaps to be addressed.

“In the Baldrige application, they asked us questions about succession planning and developing our future leaders, and doing it in a very systematic way so that it’s repeatable and that every time that we repeat it, we could then look at what we did and improve upon it and measure it,” says Matthies.

Toward addressing its talent gaps, Elevations launched a four-level pipeline leadership training initiative. The four programs in the initiative, which incorporate courses from DDI’s Interaction Management® and Business Impact Leadership® leadership development systems, include a pre-leadership track called Base Camp Leadership to prepare high-potential individual contributors for future opportunities in management and leadership. Participants in this program can choose to take elective courses that align with their career goals.

A program for new managers, Foothills Leadership, provides the skills and knowledge to be a successful leader at Elevations. All participants in this program are required to complete a curriculum covering topics such as communication, coaching, and developing others. Part of the program also includes being trained in DDI’s behavioral interviewing system, Targeted Selection®.

The program for incumbent managers, Tree Line Leadership, enhances the core skills leaders already possess. The program requires each participant to attend a course called Building a Career Development Plan and is tailored to meet the individual needs of each leader based on his or her career goals and leadership style. Upon completing 100 hours of coursework, leaders in the program complete a 360 assessment to measure the progress they’ve made throughout their leadership journey.

Seasoned senior leaders take part in a program called Summit Leadership, in which they continue to refresh and add new ideas and approaches to their leadership tool kits. As with Tree Line Leadership, this program is tailored to address each manager’s career goals and leadership style, and requires participants to collaborate with senior leaders or executive coaches to review and refresh their development plans. Once they’ve taken that step, they complete an additional 100 hours of coursework, drawing on a variety of courses and learning methodologies, and then complete a 360 assessment to measure their progress.

“Once we started on the Baldrige journey, we had a stronger leadership focus and the reason for that is the framework Baldrige provides,” says Matthies, referring to the Criteria for Performance Excellence that Elevations closely adhered to in preparing to apply for the award. “We know that employees will more likely leave their managers than their company, so the relationship with those leaders is really important. You need to have strong leaders.”

Taking Hiring Higher

The adoption of the competency framework also offered Elevations an opportunity to create a better hiring process by implementing DDI’s competency-based Targeted Selection behavioral interviewing system. Targeted Selection enabled Elevations to standardize its interviewing process across all jobs and locations. The system also provided interviewers with job-relevant questions that more accurately assess for motivational fit and an interviewing experience that makes a positive impression on candidates. Impressing candidates throughout the selection process is important to Elevations, because even those who aren’t hired are still coveted as credit union members.

“When we started looking at Targeted Selection, we saw that it would be a really nice complement,” says Matthies. “It would enable us to ensure that the talent we’re bringing into the organization is not only a good culture fit, but also a match with the competencies required for the job. And then, because we are using the same competencies for hiring that we are for development, it also ties nicely into the development that we’re doing on the succession planning side, and also for career development for all employees.”

What’s more, Elevations found that the more standardized interviewing process allowed it to more efficiently gather the information needed to make high-quality hiring decisions.

“Before, because of multiple branch locations, a candidate would need to interview with different managers and it was a time-consuming process,” says Kim Felton, senior vice president, retail banking. “When we went to Targeted Selection, with its standardized questions and data integration sessions where interviewers discuss the data they gathered from the candidates, we found that we gathered a lot more information and it really did work. We were excited about that.”

Since implementing Targeted Selection, Elevations has seen marked improvement in employee turnover. Its annual turnover rate in 2010 was 26 percent. By 2014 it had dropped to 19 percent—a figure five percentage points below the 24 percent benchmark the organization aims to match or exceed.

“We have built an incredible team, having people in place that like our culture and environment and that can succeed here,” says Felton. “I think we have found the people that really want to be here and have excelled.”

How to Win a Baldrige

Agnes believed it would take Elevations several years and multiple attempts to win the Baldrige. Instead, Elevations won the award in 2014, upon its first time applying at the national level—an outcome that was a pleasant surprise to all.

“We thought it would take 10, 15, 20 years to achieve,” says Matthies, who believes the honor came Elevations' way because the entire organization was focused on the goal and involved in the effort to make it happen.

The expectation that winning the award would be a long-term goal stemmed from all that is entailed in becoming Baldrige-worthy.

“It’s basically performance management as an organization,” says Pete Reicks, senior vice president of enterprise performance, pointing out that Elevations, in accordance with the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, systemized areas such as strategic planning and operations, in addition to its talent systems. “The Baldrige standards dictate that performance has to be trended over time and, where possible, matched to external benchmarks so we know how we’re doing relative to both in-market and in-industry benchmarks, as well as out-of-industry, world-class benchmarks. The standards are very rigorous. You can’t just tell a story. You have to have numbers that align with your story, and those numbers need to be not just how you’ve performed over time, but how you’ve performed compared with best-in-class role models.”

“Part of the Baldrige framework, I believe, is to really make sure those processes are repeatable and measurable and that you can improve on them over time,” says Matthies, alluding to Elevations’ “huge effort” since 2009 to document processes and put them in place.

“All In” Every Day

By adopting the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, Elevations made significant progress in several areas. It expanded its membership by 35 percent, grew assets 53 percent and deposits 51 percent, and increased consumer loan production 189 percent. Elevations also became the top credit union provider of mortgages in Colorado.

On the talent side, Elevations has also seen a 17-percent rise in employee engagement, a result that helped the credit union rank as finalist in the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Best Companies to Work for in Colorado competition.

While the higher engagement levels can be tied to its stronger leaders, Elevations’ organizational culture, which is rooted in its core values, and its emphasis on career planning have also contributed to these higher levels.

“If you were to walk around Elevations, you would hear story after story of people who have started in entry-level roles and have grown in the organization,” says Ellie Fordyce, assistant vice president, human resources. “I am one of them. I started as a teller, and now I help lead the department. But there are dozens of people who have found a career here because of all the tools that we’ve given our employees.”

The opportunities for upward mobility, the available tools, and the commitment to process-driven continuous improvement have combined to make Elevations not only an award-winning workplace, but a special one.

“Our goal is for this to be the best place that everyone has ever worked,” says Matthies. “Looking at our employee engagement surveys, for the vast majority of our employees, it is. But we’re still trying to get better every single day and really just truly making this an enjoyable place where you feel like you have opportunities to learn and grow every year and to have your strengths utilized.”

“I, for one, can honestly say this is the best place I’ve ever worked. I’m pretty proud of that, and I’m going to fight pretty hard to make sure it stays that way,” says Reicks. “So, I am ‘all in’ every day.”

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