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Recognizing the Unsung Heroes

November 1, 2004

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Kousidis found a message on her voice mail from Bob Catell, the chairman and CEO of KeySpan Corp., where she works as an administrative assistant in sales and marketing. "He told me I was one of the company’s unsung heroes," she says. "He even called me Betty, which is what everyone around here calls me. I was so surprised and happy."

    Kousidis isn’t the first person at KeySpan to be singled out for such praise. In fact, Catell has been delivering messages of appreciation nearly every week for the last four years to employees who have been recognized--anonymously--by their managers for a job well done. His personal thumbs-up is not the only way that good work is acknowledged at the fifth-largest distributor of natural gas in the United States, but it reflects a corporate culture that is finding new ways to say thank-you to those who probably don’t hear it enough.

A Culture in Transition
    In 1998, Brooklyn Union Gas, a New York City-based utility company of which Catell was president, merged with Long Island Lighting Co. to become KeySpan and went from 3,000 employees to 8,000 almost overnight. Two subsequent acquisitions pushed the largely unionized workforce above 10,000. No longer protected by a regulated environment and dealing with significant growth, KeySpan faced some daunting challenges.

    Catell has spent his entire professional career with Brooklyn Union and KeySpan, starting as a junior engineer in 1958. He anticipated the changes brought by deregulation and began positioning the utility as a more entrepreneurial business several years before KeySpan’s genesis as a new company. He also realized that the Brooklyn Union culture needed a major overhaul, and when the merger took place with Long Island Lighting Co., he knew it was "time to form the KeySpan culture, a single company that is performance-oriented."

    Catell’s efforts were documented in a book by Kenny Moore (co-authored with Catell and business journalist Glenn Rifkin) called The CEO and the Monk, which tells the story of the company’s renewal during its years of growth and transition. Moore also happens to be KeySpan’s corporate ombudsman; he started in the human resources department more than 20 years ago, after 15 years in a monastic community. It was Moore who officiated at "the funeral," a company-wide event that marked the passing of Brooklyn Union, but Catell who validated it by opening the ceremony. Catell’s presence, says Moore, was an important turning point for the company.

    "It made him vulnerable and public," says Moore, "a real human being. He was essentially saying, ‘Join us in this new direction.’ "

    That new direction, it turns out, fine-tuned the company’s basic approach to employee recognition, but also generated some unusual add-ons that set KeySpan apart from other companies.

Everyone’s a Hero
    In pre-deregulation days, says Catell, KeySpan used traditional recognition and compensation plans, relying mostly on salary "and some modest incentive programs." Those rewards, adds Moore, "were operationally driven, tied to output and budgets and customer retention." The imminence of deregulation spawned incentive-compensation programs for senior management.

    "It was about creating accountability and a risk/reward environment," Moore says.

    Then came the mergers and the organizational challenges of growth, integration and new marketplace realities. Moore’s perspective began to shift. "I spent a lot of time with employees who cared a lot more for the company than their paychecks seemed to warrant. I reasoned that passion had something to do with it."

    Moore shared his impressions with Catell, urging the CEO to help him find ways to keep that emotional buy-in alive as the company adjusted to a new world. Catell was receptive, "the funeral" was held, and the boss started spending more time on the shop floor. A short time later came the attacks on the World Trade Center, an epochal event that confirmed Moore’s belief that employee recognition should be "broader and deeper" than the quid-pro-quo approach that typifies most American businesses.

    "9/11 made heroes of everyone," he recalls. At KeySpan, "I wanted to start rewarding people for who they are, not for what they do. I looked for ways to recognize employees in good times and bad, for things seen and unseen. Everyone is deserving at some point."

    One of Moore’s first initiatives was actually inspired by a children’s book, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, in which a deeply doubting protagonist ultimately realizes that people care about him. "What would happen if Mr. Hatch showed up in corporate America?" Moore asked himself. He then sent flowers to two unsuspecting employees, one of them a manager. Their delighted responses encouraged him to continue, as he does to this day, despite the doubts of a colleague who felt that the gesture "did not acknowledge a specific behavior. ‘Your flowers don’t discriminate!’" Moore recalls her saying.

    Which is exactly his point. Bouquet recipients may not have stood out in a particular high-profile project, but they were still members of the team, working in the shadow of more visible accomplishments by others but indispensable to the company’s success.

    This "unsung hero" aspect of recognition has been integrated into monthly Break Bread dinners, hosted by Catell and Moore and attended by as many as 10 middle managers for an evening of no-pressure shop talk. Selected guests represent a cross section of KeySpan’s workforce: organizationally, functionally, by gender and so on. Dinners rotate through the company’s three regional offices and are held at local eating establishments.

    "We do it in a social setting with no real agenda," says Catell. "Everything is off the record and free-flowing." Managers are assured that there will be no retribution for anything said.

    Mark de Yoanna, manager of strategic planning, attended one such dinner in April and came away with a stronger sense of who his boss is, a positive feeling about his own particular role and how it fits in with the company’s mission, and a better sense of the roles and personalities of his colleagues, most of whom he hadn’t met before. "It’s a rare thing to sit down with the guy at the helm," he says.


"9/11 made heroes of everyone. I wanted to start rewarding people for who they are, not for what they do.
I looked for ways to recognize employees in good times and bad,
for things seen and unseen.
Everyone is deserving at some point."


    There have been few surprises at these meetings, Moore says. "It’s rare that we hear something we haven’t heard before [through other channels], but we do look for patterns in the issues raised."

    At the end of these dinners, Catell asks the managers to write down the name of an unsung hero in their department. He calls each one the next week.

    "I’ve gotten some very interesting reactions," he says, chuckling. "Usually they don’t believe it’s me."

A Model Program
   KeySpan’s "unofficial approach" to employee recognition may be somewhat unconventional, but its official approach is a model of best practices. According to Wirthlin Worldwide, a research firm headquartered in McLean, Virginia, the key elements of a successful program are senior management participation, recognition in front of peers and timely delivery of the recognition. A recent Bank of America benchmarking of 118 companies on recognition found that a mix of programs--peer-to-peer, manager-to-employee and company-to-employee--worked best for most companies. KeySpan’s programs do all the above:

  • The CEO Award, given collectively once a year, honors approximately 200 employees selected by their peers for exemplary contributions to corporate goals.

  • The Above & Beyond Award honors managers and employees for exceeding "corporate expectations in support of Department/Division goals and project delivery."

  • The Pride in Workmanship Award cites employees who exemplify corporate values, personal commitment, site leadership and work support.

  • The People’s Choice Award recognizes both individuals and teams.

  • Successful new ideas, whether they yield qualitative or quantitative results, are given Suggestion Awards.

    Most of the the programs are open to both managers and employees, rely on nominations from peers as well as department heads, and feature gifts and cash awards of up to $5,000.

Still Evolving
    "There are two sides to the reward relationship with employees," says Elaine Weinstein, senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer for KeySpan. "There are overt financial rewards--the hard-dollar side--and intrinsic rewards, those that develop company loyalty."

    She says that an employee survey would yield some insight on how well the various programs are working at KeySpan, but the company has been distracted by the changes of recent years, and such surveys have been one of the casualties. "We’re getting ready to do one this year," she says.

    There nevertheless appear to be some indicators of success. KeySpan was named the top gas utility in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index and was honored with a Brandweek 2004 Customer Loyalty Award. Brand Keys has ranked KeySpan No. 1 in customer loyalty in its "Energy Provider" category for six straight years.

    "Trust me," Weinstein says, "with dissatisfied employees, you won’t have happy customers at the end of the day."

Workforce Management, November 2004, pp. 82-84 -- Subscribe Now!