Case Study: Professional Development Planning

Two Indiana electric cooperatives recognized the need to develop and retain their current employees to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the electric cooperative industry,. Faced with high retirement rates, the loss of great institutional knowledge, and a very different labor market, the cooperatives were deliberate about implementing professional development plans for their employees.

Through conversations with their boards and staffs, the cooperatives have developed plans to expand the knowledge, skills and leadership potential of their employees. The plans encourage and support employees as they grow as employees and electric cooperative industry leaders. 

While a journey rather than a destination, the employees at these two cooperatives will have the resources to adapt to new and evolving workplace challenges, all the while meeting the needs of their memberships.

CHALLENGES

  • The remaining baby boomers (and the first of Generation X) will leave the workforce in the not-too-distant future. Their inevitable retirements will mean the loss of large amounts of experience and “institutional memory” from distribution cooperatives traditionally unaccustomed to such turnover.
  • How will cooperatives ensure the current and future needs of consumers will be met with properly trained, motivated and dedicated employees in such a rapidly changing industry?
  • How can consumer-owned not-for-profit electric distribution cooperatives in rural and small towns fill the opening vacancies and anticipated ones with qualified younger workers?

SOLUTIONS

  • Investing in a cooperative’s most valuable resource — the employees — with multiple programs in leadership and skill training and giving them opportunities to advance and empower them.
  • Encouraging employees to set self-improvement goals and aligning those goals with goals of the cooperative.
  • Show employees they are respected and valued by creating the environment for frank conversations and giving them a voice.
  • Enhance onboarding tools for new employees so they can more quickly acclimate themselves to the co-op culture and their job.

RESULTS

  • Better employee morale.
  • Better employee performance.
  • Increased employee engagement.
  • Easier to attract high-performing job candidates who will be more likely drawn to employee development opportunities.
  • Better functioning cooperative.

DECATUR COUNTY REMC

When Brett Abplanalp arrived as the new CEO at Decatur County REMC a half dozen years ago, one red flag that popped up during strategic planning was short-tenured employee metrics. “We were having very high turnover,” he says.

That was primarily driven from retirements, he notes, though, as with any new CEO and a change in culture, there were also some departures within the staff. “We knew we were going to be in a situation where tenure was going to be a problem. We were very young.”

“We knew we were going to be in a situation where tenure was going to be a problem. We were very young.

Brett Abplanalp, Decatur County REMC

Through strategic planning, one of Decatur’s main initiatives became “employee excellence,” which he said the cooperative now defines as: investing in, developing and maintaining a high performing workforce; ie: “employee excellence IS workforce development.”

One goal was setting performance standards for employees which stress excellent customer service both internally with peers and externally with members. But he noted that has to begin at the outset when new employees start. 

“We really looked at our process around how we onboard new employees because we knew we had a young-tenured group. Typically with co-ops, turnovers are not a huge thing, and our onboarding process just wasn’t that great. So, we revamped our entire onboarding process,” he noted. “We were very ‘tribal knowledge’ driven. There were not a lot of processes that I could hand somebody and say, ‘Here’s how you’re going to do your job.’ If somebody leaves or moves out of the company, you’ve got a huge gap to fill.” 

He noted two years ago the cooperative began a cross-training program. That program helped fill in gaps of knowledge if someone left, but it also allowed all employees to look around the office and consider the next step up or if they would be better suited for another role entirely.

“The program allowed current employees to think about long-term career goals and if that would be something they would enjoy long-term.”

He noted a lineman who was looking for change cross-trained to become a staking engineer. CSRs cross-trained with the linemen, not to become linemen, but just to learn more about that aspect of the industry which they could use when they talk with consumers.

“It’s a lot of investment to make,” he said. And the cooperative saw career planning/development hours per employee go from a handful a year to double digits in just a couple of years. “But I think we’re seeing some of the payoffs.”

He said those include often finding the best qualified candidate when posting for open positions coming from within. While Abplanalp said he believes cooperatives are well-positioned in the ability to attract candidates to open positions, “I think the part that we’re not well-suited for is the retaining.”

To that end, the second employee development area Abplanalp reworked was the cooperative’s performance evaluation process. Rather than focus just on how well an employee performed, it became a tool for helping employees set goals and think about career development. “Part of the performance evaluation process was setting standards on identifying employees’ goals, completing a mid-year and a yearly review. What we did as a part of that is we started aligning the company goals with our employee goals.”

In other words, he said, the cooperative wanted everyone to know how their goals and what they did in their day-to-day work helped the cooperative meet its goals. Abplanalp said during that process, they also have employees identify their strengths and weaknesses, and then help them align their career path to drive what trainings and conferences that they needed. “It was more of a discussion around: ‘OK, what are you good at? Any worries? What are you happy doing? And, how do we design your career?’”

“If we’re going to invest dollars in you, we also want you to take those next steps. We don’t want you to go to a conference and then just walk away after. so, we have a process where we have you come back with a plan of how you’re going to follow up.” 

Brett Abplanalp, Decatur County REMC

The cooperative encouraged employees to sign up for conferences and training that aligned with their career goals, and strengths and weaknesses. And, as a follow-up, employees were urged to begin incorporating the skills and knowledge they had learned. “If we’re going to invest dollars in you,” Abplanalp says, “we also want you to take those next steps. We don’t want you to go to a conference and then just walk away after. So, we have a process where we have you come back with a plan of how you’re going follow up.”

Out of the strategic planning, Decatur also started building an internship program to give potential future employees the chance to know what a cooperative does and create a pipeline to young talent and also supplement the lean resources with additional hands.

Abplanalp said employee development is critical to all a cooperative does. “If we don’t have a high performing workforce, then we’re not providing for our members.”

“If we don’t have a high performing workforce, then we’re not providing for our members.”

Brett Abplanalp, Decatur County REMC

That investment pays off, often immediately in easy-to-see ways. “It’s amazing to see somebody go to a conference and then bring something back from it; and how much more they are engaged in their job duties on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

“Why is employee development important? My number one is investment in your most important asset, which brings improved performance, increased engagement, inspired employees. The second thing is it does attract high performers. We’ve had the opportunity to be able to hire here in the last couple of years, and that’s on people’s minds when they come in for interviews. Ten to 20 years ago, those weren’t the types of questions people were asking, but now they are. The workforce is changing. And I have a program that I can show them that says, ‘Hey, we’re not going to just hire you and expect you to go to your job, we’re going to continuously invest in you.”

Abplanalp does note that, yes, sometimes training an employee will eventually lead to that employee moving on. “I want to invest in you as an employee, and I want you to ultimately be in a position that you’re happy with, you thrive in, and you’re good at. And, so, it may be at Decatur County REMC, and it may not be.” But it really boils down to showing employees that they are respected, valued, and worth investing in. And that goes back to employee performance. “An employee definitely improves their performance and you will likely be able to get them to improve their performance year after year because of some development. They’re more likely to be inspired. And, if you can inspire an employee, you’re going to get a high performing employee.

“Every employee wants to be valued, respected and heard,” Abplanalp said. “If they know we care to invest in them, it helps them feel respected and is a catalyst to the opportunities in value.”

PARKE COUNTY REMC

Chadd Jenkins echoes Brett Abplanalp’s comment on valuing employees. “Train employees and treat them well; this will empower them to serve our members.”

And he says that though he knows it’s likely the cooperative will be just a part of an individual’s career journey. 

“It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to keep all of our employees for 40-plus years. Statistics tell you, three to five years is an average, especially if you hire a new grad right now. They’re going to be with a company for three to five years, and then they’re going to move on. So, what we’re trying to do is figure out ways to challenge them, whether it’s giving them more advanced projects, whether it’s giving them leadership opportunities,” he said. “But you need to identify who are your next levels of leaders at your cooperative. The worst thing we can do is not provide the training they need to be successful.” 

“You need to identify who are your next levels of leaders at your cooperative. The worst thing we can do is not provide the training they need to be successful.”

Chadd Jenkins, Parke County REMC

Jenkins noted succession planning became part of Parke’s strategic plan several years ago, as it saw the looming retirements on the horizon. And while picking successors was not a sure thing, the cooperative could at least plan for what it would need. “The board really got behind it because they saw the number of employees retiring. If it was one or two, I don’t think it would be as big of a hurdle. But, you know, we’ve had 11 in the last five years. That was 350 years of experience walking out the door.” 

He said training is a dedicated line item in the cooperative’s budget, and, he could show the board every year every class in general that every employee went to. “So, we show them we’re going to have X number of employees going through X number of classes, and it’s going to cost X number of dollars all the way from the apprenticeship to leadership to specific trainings, whatever each department needs.”

“Starting earlier is never wrong. If you wait too long, then you’ve already fallen behind. To develop an employee doesn’t happen overnight. If you want to develop an employee, to be proficient at their job, you can’t expect to send them to a two-week class, and then they’re a leader.”

Chadd Jenkins, Parke County REMC

Jenkins suggests cooperatives looking at enhancing employee training to fill future expected openings should start as soon as they know openings are coming. “Starting earlier is never wrong. If you wait too long, then you’ve already fallen behind. To develop an employee doesn’t happen overnight. If you want to develop an employee, to be proficient at their job, you can’t expect to send them to a two-week class, and then they’re a leader.

“And then, you need to be honest with employees. Share with them what you can share with them when you can share it with them,” he says. “If you know employees are retiring, and you know where you’re going, you need to let employees know.”

In addition, honesty needs to be a two-way street. “Employees need to be honest with the cooperative. Every year we ask, ‘OK, where do you see yourself next year and in five years?’ Some people are reluctant to say, ‘Well, I want to try this,’ or ‘I want to do that.’” He said some people are perfectly content with where they are and with what they are doing. “And that’s great. And some people want to grow outside of where they are. And that’s great, too. You need both sets of employees.”

Parke has turned to Indiana Electric Cooperatives for some of its employee leadership training, beginning with the fundamental RELITE two-year program. “It gets you familiar with leadership, issues and cooperatives.” The next level is Cooperative Leadership Edge that includes a capstone project.

Jenkins said that capstone project actually deals with each participant’s specific cooperative. “They work with their manager on it, and then we actually will implement that.”

Jenkins is Parke’s first participant with the Bell Leadership Institute’s Achievers course, being taught at IEC.

To gauge potential areas of growth and interests, Jenkins said the cooperative does a personality assessment of applicants and has done all employees. “One of the things that we’re working on now is individual employee development plans, and how do their values align with what they’re doing and where they’re going? Where our cooperative’s going?

“Our industry is going through a fundamental change. We need to be able to adapt to this change.”

Chadd Jenkins, Parke County REMC

“Our industry is going through a fundamental change. We need to be able to adapt to this change,” he said.