Edison Takes a Timeout for Self-esteem and Renewal

To the casual observer, the scene looked more like a garden wedding than a workplace meeting. There were white chairs, refreshments and corporate dignitaries at hand, as well as regular, everyday individuals. There was even a grand piano, and a noted composer played while people talked and mingled.

The event? Not a wedding, but rather a unique gathering of managers, vice presidents, workers and consultants who were assembled to talk about one thing: Employees’ futures in the context of something quite unusual—a new book called “Heart at Work: Stories and Strategies for Building Self-Esteem and Reawakening the Soul at Work” (McGraw-Hill 1996.)

Edison’s Redondo Generating Station in Redondo Beach, California, was the scene of this unusual workplace discussion on March 5, 1997, the first in a series of three such meetings. Edison International, a large power company in Southern California, is facing deregulation of an industry that, up until now, has been a monopoly. The California Public Utilities Commission decided in 1994 the industry would need to begin deregulation in late 1997. On Nov. 21, 1996, Edison International’s board of directors approved Southern California Edison’s plan to divest all of its oil- and gas-fueled power plants. The 12 plants are being sold through a series of auctions that began last summer.

“We’re basically having to divest or sell off a significant part of our generation assets so they can be owned by independent power companies,” explains Larry Hamlin, vice president of power production for Edison International, who introduced the discussion session and championed the programs that were designed to help employees deal with a changing future.

“This [deregulation process] has put our employees on pins and needles for a long time,” says Hamlin. Edison workers have been living with the constant fear that things were going to change—drastically. Did they have a future? Would they lose their jobs? “It just builds a lot of apprehension and a lot of stress in people,” says Hamlin.

Dealing with the uncertainty of a rapidly changing business was exactly what this meeting and two others just like it were all about. Edison managers called in some communications experts for help. “What we wanted to do was to come in and proactively do something to [help Edison] drive fear and insecurity out of the workplace and to create a dialogue and a place where people could talk about their truths and the things that were really bothering them,” says Jacqueline Miller, co-author of “Heart at Work” who helped lead the discussions.

Miller, a former human resources executive at Sara Lee Corp., PHH Corp. and other firms, got involved in writing the book after leaving the corporate scene. The San Francisco-based author was disheartened by all the heartache she had witnessed in Corporate America. Through consulting practice, she now strives to infuse workers with a greater sense of self-esteem and help them gain greater emotional literacy, facilitating their discovery of a higher purpose for their lives.

Accomplished musician Michael Jones co-facilitated the workshops. The Canadian-based consultant played selections from his own original musical repertoire and offered insights from his other area of specialty: the practice of dialogue and skillful conversation. Said Jones at the meeting: “We each have a song within us that only we can sing.” His view is that people can’t always write the musical score the way they want to, especially in business. But each person can call upon the “artist within” to help him or her make sense of and navigate uncertain territories.

“Most companies think that heart and emotion, and things that nourish the soul, are soft,” says Miller. She has spent the past eight years developing strategies to boost workers’ self-esteem and emotional quotients (EQs) at her firm called Partnerships for Change. “In [my] research, I’ve proven with statistical data and hard-core numbers that [these things] really do impact the bottom line.” Miller shared stories about what it’s like to be in the throes of corporate earthquakes (read: change initiatives). “They were survival stories,” says Miller. For example, she told the story of a plant manager for Shasta Beverages Inc. who decided to stay with the firm through a sale. The new owners later made him president. “He wouldn’t have had that opportunity if he hadn’t stuck around,” says Miller. The lesson for Edison employees: Others have been through the battle and have won the war. They aren’t alone.

At the “Creating Our Future” meetings, approximately 500 of the 1,200 Edison employees who will be affected by the sale of the plants have chosen to participate in sharing their turmoil, airing their frustrations and learning their options. The HR staff handed out booklets that made employees aware of the resources available in exploring new career options, figuring out their skills and competencies, getting counseling or training, or seeking other job options—either inside or outside Edison.

The meetings have created a deep sense of healing and represent a type of management that’s often forgotten in today’s fast-paced, love ’em and leave ’em, business environment.

Using the whole-person approach to change management.
“There has been an effort among the management group led by Larry Hamlin —I think quite an enlightened one—to recognize the whole person and not just deal with [employees] in fragmented ways,” says Lillian Gorman, vice president of HR for Edison International. Instead of throwing more “stuff” at workers during the transition, such as career information, Edison’s HR managers teamed with the companies’ communications task team and other managers to assemble a strategy to really help employees through the change process in a more humanistic way. “They’ve tried very hard not to forget the soul and spirit of workers during a time when the technical parts of work are changing so much,” says Gorman. “They’re trying to deal with the whole person and the concerns about job security and career development in a time of major uncertainty.”

It’s an idea whose time has come. But it’s not always the most popular approach. “There are executives who tend to think of employees as a cost problem,” explains Hamlin. “I see it the other way around: People are the most important element that makes a business a success. You have to approach them in a way that’s not just dictating to them what they have to do, but rather inviting them to become a part of the challenge that your business is facing.” It’s the idea that people bring their whole selves to work. And issues that affect people at the core of their beings—such as an impending corporate takeover—is an emotional issue that people need to talk about in the context of work. Adds Cathy Cukar, communications task-team leader for Edison’s power production business, “We had to come up with something that was creative enough to address the emotional state of employees.”

Hamlin isn’t afraid that such meetings may be perceived as touchy-feely. If 40 percent of his workforce is helped by such initiatives, he thinks that’s significant. “A lot of people may confuse these sessions as [events] where people went just to feel good and hug,” says Hamlin. They were actually sessions to help employees not feel like victims. He believes that helping people understand they have choices about their future is a purposeful business message. It gets employees involved in finding solutions rather than wallowing in the past. Giving employees time to reflect on the opportunities that lie ahead—and to perhaps mourn the loss of what’s already behind them—seems to be the way that Edison managers have chosen to energize themselves for the future. It’s a powerful step —even for a power company.

Workforce, March 1998, Vol. 77, No. 3, pp. 85-86.