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Case Study

Taking Leadership in a New Direction at Western Union

Western Union's GPS program helped build mentoring teams to drive a measurably engaged and interactive performance management culture.

A new direction for leadershipAmerican money transfer company Western Union has thrived for more than 160 years by constantly looking for ways to reinvent itself. It began as a telegraph service in the 1850s and grew into a financial service company with more than 11,000 employees working in 58 countries, generating $5 billion in annual revenue.

But the firm has occasionally struggled to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace, most recently in adapting to the shifting demands of an increasingly digital consumer base. In 2010 the company brought in Hikmet Ersek as the new CEO; he implemented a 2020 plan to shift the brand from a transactional business to a more customer-centric approach, adding new electronic and mobile channels, and empowering employees to go the extra mile for customers. To support this transformation, the leadership team initiated a companywide culture change to foster a growth mindset and encourage more active talent development between leaders and their teams.

Getting managers to change the way they develop and coach their people wasn’t easy, said Josh Craver, vice president of talent management. “We really struggled to get leaders engaged.”

The Solution

The learning organization began by assessing the company’s legacy performance management program, which employed a traditional model of annual reviews and performance rankings — and a whole lot of paperwork, Craver said. The assessment showed the program cost an estimated $14 million per year in time and resources, and it was incredibly unpopular. It had an overall minus 38 percent net promoter score, and a minus 41 NPS among managers, suggesting a majority of employees were dissatisfied with the program. “It was neither meaningful nor effective enough to drive our organization’s 2020 strategy,” Craver said.

The high cost and low satisfaction rates for the existing program made change an easy sell. Craver said the learning team simply showed executives they were spending all of this time and money on a program that 95 percent of our people said was broken, then showed them how to fix it. “They said ‘Great! Go ahead.’ ”

The new program, Guide.Performance.Succeed, or GPS, requires leaders to be more hands-on in team development by setting clear expectations, providing regular real-time feedback, and holding their people — and themselves — accountable for meeting talent development goals. Craver’s team estimated the GPS system would require about half the time and resources of the old performance management model, leading to $7 million in projected savings.

It would be particularly effective among millennial employees who generally prefer ongoing feedback and clarity about opportunities for growth and professional development, said Travis Cossitt, senior manager of talent management. “Millennials will constitute 75 percent of our organization by 2020, so this was an important consideration.”

The trick was getting managers to embrace the new way of doing things and change their behavior. To ease them into the new way of managing performance, the learning and development team created Leadership in Action, a training and support program designed to build management capability and encourage GPS adoption across the organization. The program was built around leadership circles, in which diverse sets of leaders come together under a senior leader to learn specific elements of the GPS program, practice new skills and mentor each other.

Leadership in Action was launched in June 2015 for the company’s top 100 leaders. Two senior leaders were made “accountability partners” in charge of one of 10 circles and assigned eight to 10 next-generation leaders from across regions and divisions to work together to man the others. Having executives in charge of the circles was a key component for success, Craver said. “Knowing the CFO or CIO was making time to meet with them on a monthly basis made people take it more seriously than if it was led by HR.”

How It Works

Everyone was asked to commit to one hour per month to participate in group discussions about talent management. Because leaders came from all over the global company, meetings were held via videoconference for convenience. Each meeting focused on a specific GPS topic, like goal-setting, coaching or having difficult conversations.

To minimize the burden on team leaders, the learning group created monthly “meetings in a box” with pre-meeting reading materials or surveys, invitation templates, presentations, practice activities and discussion guides to facilitate the conversation. “We had to be mindful of how busy these leaders were, and to use their time as efficiently as possible,” Cossitt said.

Having the materials ahead of time and being prepared ensures meetings are engaging and worth people’s time. “GPS is all about ongoing dialogue,” said Libby Chambers, executive vice president and chief strategy and product marketing officer, who is currently leading her own circle. “It creates more opportunities to have these conversations and for managers to get the guidance they need to be successful.”

On her team, her co-leader manages presentations, and she acts as a coach, offering guidance and individual support — inside and outside of meetings. “This isn’t something you have to show up to if you don’t find value in it,” she said. “But they all continue to show up.”

Luis Filipe Rodriguez Vega, head of commercial sales U.S. in Denver, takes a similar approach. Vega was one of the original team leaders in 2015, and led a group in the 2016 program with 1,800 managers from across the company. He and his co-partner prepare for each meeting by reviewing talking points and sharing the prework with the team — though they encourage participants to drive discussions. “In the beginning there was some skepticism, but by the end of the fifth meeting the team was really engaged; we now have a lot of great discussions,” he said.

For example, in one meeting, the prework required participants to select a direct report and describe how they are delivering against their goals for the year. Then in the meeting they discussed how to assign an appropriate pay for performance for that employee using GPS tools and guidelines, how to be objective, and how to assess behavior and outcomes.

When questions arise that no one can answer, Vega and his partner do the research and get back to the team. “It is important that they know they can rely on us,” he explained.

A Stark Difference in Engagement

Along with the monthly meetings, participants can access on-demand e-learning content about GPS and how to adopt the performance management system. “We’ve had 140,000 visits from 10,000 employees since we launched the program last year,” said Cossitt.

To ensure teams stay engaged, the learning group added gamification tools, including points for attendance and hosting meetings in the desired time frame, completing e-learning courses, and participating in the Leadership in Action online discussion platform. “Gamification creates incentives for people who like competition,” said Vega — whose team was ranked no. 11 out of 200 at the time of this interview. “People pay more attention when they know they are being measured.”

Early metrics suggest the program is achieving its goals. The 2016 employee engagement survey showed 97 percent of employees have set goals for the year; 96 percent have completed an “empowerment discussion document” in the company’s Workday platform, and the NPS rating for the new performance management system is plus 40 — a roughly 80-point jump in under two years.

“From the beginning we saw stark differences in engagement among employees participating in GPS and those who weren’t,” Cossitt said. “It isn’t just a program being driven by HR. Management has taken ownership of the culture change.”

Going forward, the learning team plans to hang-on to the Leadership Circle model even after all managers have been trained in using GPS, to disseminate new training and culture change messages. “It’s a great plug and play model where managers rely on each other to share new ideas,” Craver explained. “It’s a simple idea, but it can be extremely powerful.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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