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One CEO’s Perspective on the Power of Recognition

February 27, 2004
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Related Topics: Recognition, Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits
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James E. Burton was the chief executive officer of CalPERS, the nation’s largest public pension fund, from 1992 to 2002. A graduate of University of San Francisco, Jim has enjoyed a successful career in California state government, having served as deputy chief of staff to Governor Jerry Brown, executive director of the Commission on State Finance and California deputy state controller.

Under Jim’s leadership, CalPERS received numerous honors and accolades. The Foundation for Accountability, a consortium of consumer organizations and health care purchasers representing 80 million Americans, presented its annual award to CalPERS. The award cited CalPERS’ leadership in publishing one of the nation’s most highly regarded health-plan enrollment guides--one of the first to include ratings of both HMO and PPO plans using performance measures.

Having helped create an environment of innovative thinking and customer focus at CalPERS for several years, Jim is now the chief executive officer of the World Gold Council, headquartered in London. Here, he reflects on his experiences with regard to recognition and communication at CalPERS.

Dear Reader,

    The obvious answer, the bottom-line answer to why I am so committed to recognition and communication, is that recognition and communication at CalPERS helped us achieve our very aggressive business goals and objectives.

    The deeper, more complex answer is that recognition and community action helped us change our organization in very profound ways.

    The very process--the journey itself--helped change the culture.

    Through employee surveys and focus groups, we learned that supervisors were viewed as secretive and competitive with one another, so we worked to foster more open dialogue.

    We learned that employees working in different divisions in the same building had conflicting understandings about their priorities, so we worked to do a much better job of communicating our business goals and objectives.

    We learned that we needed to be much more adept at listening, so we strove to make sure that staff felt valued for the work it did on a daily basis and that not only high-profile projects deserved leadership praise and recognition.

    Most significantly, we learned from our employees that they considered CalPERS to be their "work family." This profound lesson guided our leaders along the journey.

    Let’s face it, there’s no real hard line between work and personal life anymore. We all have ambitious goals and challenges and we face every-increasing demand--long hours, intense workloads, externally imposed deadlines--all of which keep us at the workplace more and more and away from our home families.

    We thought we were extremely fortunate that our people considered us their work family. And we wanted to honor that feeling with genuine forms of appreciation that gave real meaning to the work they do.

    In essence, the infrastructure of recognition helped build a caring community at CalPERS. A community where people felt their work had value--there was meaning and worth in whatever job they did; they saw their work as having a higher purpose.

    We wanted people to understand how much their day-to-day contributions meant to the overall success of the organization.

    Most importantly, we wanted them to know that our core values--quality, respect, integrity, openness and accountability--were more than just words on paper.

    Guided by our vision for a caring community, as well as the results of our first employee satisfaction survey, we made a commitment to build a recognition-based culture at CalPERS.

    We took a major step toward building that infrastructure when we allocated funds for managers and supervisors to purchase recognition items and host recognition-based events. This was not fluffy, make-‘em-feel-good thinking.

    It was a strategic business decision designed to help us retain our top performers, maintain our institutional knowledge and help us meet and exceed our ever-escalating customer demands.

    We all know how costly it is to recruit, hire and train--keeping talent is critical to every organization’s success. By maintaining our enviable status as the destination employer in state service, CalPERS saved thousands and thousands of dollars and labor hours.

    Government and most of corporate America face similar issues. We can’t continue to compete with wage hikes, bonuses and other perks--the bill gets too high, too fast.

    What we can do is provide recognition and reinforcement of those behaviors that organizations need to be excellent. And we, as leaders, can model those behaviors.

    Once CalPERS developed accountability measures to promote quality communications and recognition practices, supervisors became increasingly more accessible to their employees. I even noticed a real change in the type of questions I would get in all-staff meetings, town halls and monthly brown bag lunches. People were asking questions that reflected a better understanding of the organization, the challenges we face and our priorities.

    Spending time with your people is one of the most powerful forms of recognition you can bestow. Genuinely seeking their opinions and feedback costs nothing but your time and the dividends are priceless. You’ll see increased morale, more open communication and greater sharing of solutions to business challenges. You’ll also get to know some truly remarkable people in the process.

    People said they learned a lot about effective communication; about breaking down silos; about doing research; and about successfully completing a project.

    We leaders learned a lot, too. We learned that when we communicate, we build bridges to understanding. These bridges span branches, divisions and even personal differences. And finally, we learned that recognition is a key component to changing an organization.

    By creating a strategic plan for recognition that supported our over-all goals and objectives, we grew to value each other not only as internal customers and as part of a team, but as part of a work family.

    In short, recognition became everyone’s responsibility at CalPERS.

Reprinted from "The Magic of Employee Recognition: 10 Proven Tactics from CalPERS and Disney", by Dee Hansford, Copyright 2003 WorldatWork, all rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction or distribution is strictly prohibited.

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