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The Importance of Employee Engagement for Operating Model transformation in Utility companies

“Leading is easy, it’s following that’s hard”

“No one likes change”

It’s a pretty damning statement for someone who is building a career specialising in leading Change to be facing, but unfortunately it’s the truth for the majority of us. I have spent the last 5 years working in the UK utilities industry where, I believe, this aversion is particularly prevalent.

Utility companies pro-actively value their workforce; with many Utility CEOs seeking employee views on business strategy as well as relying on them to build effective stakeholder relationships.  While there are many advantages, my experience is that this close knit working culture can create a real challenge when aiming to land the changes of an operating model transformation.  These are the top four challenges I have encountered:

Risk aversion

People working in the utilities industry, are responsible for critical services. Any interruptions or variation in customer supply, could have epic repercussions (e.g. hospitals). The employees I have met feel every ounce of that responsibility in their day to day jobs. Therefore any changes, front or back office, which pose a risk to continuity of service are naturally resisted. Engagement, to steer understanding of the drivers and vision for Operating Model transformations, is crucial to abate this risk aversion.

Analytical minds

If we’re going to stereo-type or generalise employees of utility companies, many fall into the “Engineer” category of thinking. Inquisitive and analytical by nature, satisfying their need to feel informed is vital to gaining their compliance with Change endeavours. A particularly inspiring Engagement Manager I once worked with said successful engagement is only achieved if employees feel connected to a Change Programme.  Two-way communication channels are crucial to achieve this. I have seen the use of Change Networks, establishing a virtual community of employees embedded across an organisation to champion change, work particularly well to build this relationship between Change Programme and staff.

Arrogance

It may sound harsh, but historically, utility companies have been arrogant about their capability and value. Born out of the confidence of pre-privatisation operation, when customers were captive and their service had no substitutes, the utility companies called the shots. British Gas was even once seen by the British public as a “National Treasure”, at this time the story really was theirs to dictate. Since privatisation of the Energy industry in 1986, and Water in 1989, competition within these markets has only grown. Now the power has shifted to lie with consumers, and with the regulator. Utility companies, in part, are still adapting, and the “sitting pretty/ why change” mentality of old still holds true. A shift of thinking is required to truly enable change; this shift needs to be fostered through Employee Engagement.

Figureheads

Employees work for utility companies for a long time. This is not a criticism, these individuals are fiercely loyal and dedicated to their company, and the packages are often good (e.g. final salary pensions). These individuals follow a positive career trajectory and more often than not become a figurehead for their peers, whether in a formal position of leadership or not. They are often critical swing individuals in facilitating the success of Operating Model Programmes. Their buy- in brings an army of followers, mirroring their support and open to change. The resistance of these figureheads would equally be followed, and the subsequent wall of opposition, hard to overcome. Early engagement of these key swing members will encourage a groundswell of support, so is essential as an initial activity.

As I reflect on these challenges, a key enabler emerges as a worthy force to overcome them; Engagement. Establishing early connections with employees, ensuring transparency and exchange of information, and fostering support of key influencers, will promote the behavioural and mindset changes needed for operating model acceptance and implementation.

Leading Change is not tricky. There are many tools, methodologies and theories which act as a vehicle for leading change. What is difficult is becoming a follower. Leaders have decided to lead; followers have to be convinced to follow. The first followers are the most critical to successful change; they make it safe and acceptable to follow, so others find the decision to support the transition easier.

To convince employees to follow a change initiative, you have to inform, to connect, to build understanding, to reduce the risk, to engage.

About the author

Helen Jackson
Helen Jackson
Helen is Senior Performance Improvement and Operating Model consultant, with over 6 years experience specialising on delivery in the Energy and Utilities industry. Helen’s specialism is leading Business Change for operating model transformation. Through exceptional stakeholder management, she enables and encourages organisations to engage effectively with employees, to prepare them for change programmes implications, ultimately leading to successful and smooth implementation.

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