A learning journey leads frontline leaders to be better listeners and more effective managers.
At BC Hydro, an electric utility in British Columbia, Canada, frontline leaders are learning how to listen.
For Aaron Ferguson, a former electrician for BC Hydro who became a manager for the first time in 2011, learning how to listen has meant getting better at empathizing with his team members without necessarily agreeing with them—a delicate balancing act that even many experienced managers have trouble mastering.
For Enrico Petrucci, a maintenance program manager for dam safety, it has meant learning that “listening isn’t just sitting there quietly and then responding with, ‘I heard your idea and it sounds pretty good, but it’s not practical.’ It’s very easy to say that. But to actually hear them and consider what they’re saying.”
And for Marianne Berkey, who manages 10 people in a department that deals with environmental risk, it has meant overcoming her natural tendency to dominate conversations. “I’ve noticed that I can get much more out of people if I quiet myself, and listen to the people I’m talking to,” she says. “They have contributions that they can’t ever make if I’m always the one telling them what I think. And it actually takes the burden off me if I allow them to come forward, and it makes us much better as a team.”
All three credit their newfound listening skills to BC Hydro’s innovative development program for frontline leaders, Leading for Generations. The program is tailored to the specific challenges new managers face. And it was launched at BC Hydro to meet a pressing need: The company was having a hard time persuading individual contributors—often electricians and power line technicians—to step up and take frontline leadership positions. Those who did make the move often left the job after just six months.
Christy Innes“They didn’t feel like we were setting them up for success when they moved into those roles,” says Christy Innes, senior manager for enterprise learning. “They felt like they were being thrust into the role with no tools and unclear expectations.”
The need for frontline leader training got additional attention when a safety task force, made up of dedicated, safety-minded employees from different operational backgrounds and business groups (frontline employees to executives) offered recommendations on how to reduce accidents and injuries.
"We needed managers who had the ability to listen, so that employees could speak up if there was something unsafe in the workplace, and so that everyone felt they had a voice when it came to safety,” says Innes.
Prompted by the high attrition rate of frontline leaders, as well as the “burning platform” of worker safety, BC Hydro worked with DDI to develop a program for “the group that needed the help and support the most,” says Innes.
Changing the Frontline Culture
BC Hydro, as a government-owned, unionized utility, faced several challenges in changing its frontline culture. More than 2,000 of its 5,800 employees work in the field, maintaining power lines and facilities, work that Innes describes as “dangerous, complex, physical, and technical.” Many are veteran employees—the average tenure is 18 years—and have been accustomed to doing their jobs a certain way.
Because frontline leaders in the field need technical experience, they are typically drawn from the ranks, and often end up supervising many of the people with whom they had previously worked side-by-side. These new leaders needed to be able to gain the trust of their crews and, particularly when it came to safety, they needed “the courage to intervene,” says senior HR advisor Alison King.
The voluntary program targets four different groups: frontline managers, crew leaders who are considered good candidates for management, individual contributors who have leadership potential, and engineering team leads.
BC Hydro recognized that if the program was to be successful, it needed to be geared toward long-term change, says King. “We didn’t want this to be a one-hit wonder, where people take the course, then they shut their books and go back and get busy, and don’t take the time to think about and implement what they’ve learned. So the question was, how do we make this a journey?”
Whereas previous leadership programs ran for a week, the new frontline leader program unfolds over nine months. There is prep work, then a two-day session of classes held at central locations. These are followed by six months of activities to help leaders apply their learning, and then another on-site session that lasts one day. After that, the journey continues with ongoing development activities.
But it’s not just the length of the program that’s critical. It’s also the effort to get frontline leaders and their managers fully engaged in the development process, an effort that begins before the first session.
“HR holds calls with participants and their managers to explain why the program is important, what they can expect in terms of time commitment, and what they need to do throughout the process,” says King.
Another pre-session component is DDI’s Manager Ready® assessment, which each participant completes.
“This is a four-hour, intense online assessment that really simulates a day in the life of what the leader would encounter,” says Innes. “The idea is to identify participants’ strengths and weaknesses, so they can work with their managers and HR to set personal development goals for the program. We encourage them to focus on one to two areas of growth, rather than worrying about them all.”
From Setting Goals to Leading Change
The first on-site session in the frontline leader program features four half-day courses from DDI’s Interaction Management® leadership development system. The courses include Setting Goals and Reviewing Results, Your Leadership Journey, Communicating for Leadership Success, and Coaching for Peak Performance. King says she was surprised by how much the participants enjoyed the role-playing elements of the classes that provide opportunities to practice their new skills in a safe environment.
“Everybody is just so rushed in their day-to-day, flying around from one thing to another, they just really appreciate the time to sit down and think through a difficult situation and practice it with another person.”
During the six months prior to the second on-site session, participants take part in a number of activities to reinforce their learning, such as webinars, peer discussion groups, and online simulations. Innes says these activities are important to promote ongoing application of the new skills.
The second on-site session, which runs one day, features the DDI courses Developing Yourself and Others, and Leading Change. At the end of the session, participants receive a completion certificate, and meet with their managers to discuss ways to continue their development.
Measurable Results: Effective Leaders and Communicators
About 400 people have completed or are currently enrolled in the frontline leader program, and the results so far have been impressive. Prior to training, less than half of the participants rated themselves as effective leaders. But after the training, 84 percent felt they were effective. Their managers, peers and direct reports saw the same kind of improvement–their rating of the participants’ effectiveness jumped from 65 percent to 85 percent.
In addition, the program significantly improved communication between frontline leaders and their teams. Nearly 90 percent of the participants’ direct reports say that as a result of the program their managers have made them feel more valuable as employees. At the same time, employee engagement of the leaders participating in the program has jumped 38 percent since the program’s inception. “I think we’ve really moved the needle on engagement,” says Innes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the attrition rate of frontline managers has substantially declined—achieving one of the primary goals of the program. There have also been improvements in critical safety numbers—an accomplishment partly attributable to the leadership development program and the new skills of frontline leaders, and partly to the overall culture of safety that BC Hydro has been working hard to foster.
Growing Empathetic Leaders
Enrico Petrucci, Leading for Generations participant.
“I think the program has also done a great job of equipping our leaders with the skills to help them have effective conversations,” says Innes. “Our frontline leaders really place a value on empathetic leadership, which is something we needed to build more of in our culture.”
Participants agree. Petrucci recalls that, prior to the training, a member of his team was undergoing a great deal of difficulty both at home and at work, and eventually took “stress leave.” Petrucci says the development program prompted him to look back on conversations he had with the employee, and think about how he could have better handled the situation. “If I had done more actual listening,” he says, “my hope is that I would have recognized a bit earlier that there was a problem, and maybe pulled back on his tasks a little. I hope that now I could pick up on that a lot sooner.”
Ferguson said the program helped him to understand what empathy really means. He used to have difficulty with team members he disagreed with, in some cases “not really showing any compassion at all.” Now, he says, “when I have an employee who is very frustrated, very upset, and they’re arguing a point that I don’t agree with, I know how to bring it down to a state of comfort and calm, where they feel like they’ve been heard, but without giving them the impression that I agree. I now understand how to be empathetic in the majority of situations.”
Berkey says she’s gained a great deal from the program as well. Prior to the training she had not received any formal guidance on how to do her job. And while she had been able to learn various administrative tasks on her own, “working with people on a team was something that I guess you were just sort of meant to intuit.”
Berkey recognized that she had difficulty delegating—not because she didn’t trust her people, but because “I struggled with feelings of guilt in asking them to do things.” The frontline leader program, she says, “has allowed me to look at it through a different lens, and has given me tools to walk through things that weren’t natural to me.”
This includes learning how to listen to people on her team. “I got a ton out of the courses, but my biggest thing was trying to listen more and ask more questions—giving people credit that they have thoughts of their own, and slowing down a bit so that can come out. If I succeed in doing that, I will be a better manager.”