'Chief of Anything' Program Develops Skills, Workplace Community

'Chief of Anything' Program Develops Skills, Workplace Community

 

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek April 12, 2018
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This is the first in a series of articles on creative training and development initiatives. Have one you think deserves consideration? Contact this reporter at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

Want to be a chief wine officer? How about a chief green officer or chief adventure officer?

West Monroe Partners, a wholly employee-owned consulting firm headquartered in Chicago, has had employees hold these titles as part of the company's "chiefs" program it developed to build leadership skills and employee engagement.

The 15-year-old company, which Great Place to Work named one of the best midsize workplaces in the U.S. in 2017, allots $1 million annually for its "chiefs program." The firm's 925 employees may submit formal proposals for consideration and must include a budget and a charter, and once approved, recruit team members, if necessary. A chief can oversee his or her program for up to two years.

​The initiative is cited in Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010) as an example of how to unleash talent and showcase leadership skills by allowing employees to try "everything from convening book clubs to tackling the stickiest business issues." 

"If you're passionate about an idea, you can bring it forward," said Susan Stelter, chief people officer at West Monroe Partners. "We see it as a way for [employees] to build their confidence and build their skills. … It's all about learning. We know when we tie into people's passions, [we build a] stronger culture and build relationships and feel supportive at work." 

Ty Frost, who played golf in college, turned his interest for the sport into a program he started one year after joining the company's Chicago office, where he is an experienced consultant. Now in his second year as chief golf officer, he has a budget of about $4,000 for the program's events that have included clinics with a certified instructor, a driving range outing and nine-hole games.

"We're asking them to think through the idea all the way to the executive level and work with the appropriate parties within our firm," said Stelter, who is one of the firm's co-founders. "We wanted everyone to feel the same level of ownership as we did, and we didn't think your [job] level had to be a deterrent to display that leadership. Everyone has the ability to be a leader and the ability to own and grow something."

It's also about developing a culture and sense of community throughout the firm that also has offices in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio. It's not about getting the company to foot the bill for a work clique's outing.

"We like the chiefs to drive the culture based on [the] office," said Ben Baenen, senior manager at the Chicago office. He has served as "chief of the chiefs" at the main office for five years. When Frost approached him with his idea, Baenen recalled advising him, "This can't be your six buddies going to play golf on Saturday. You've got to find ways to get [other employees] involved."

The result: Frost has done "a phenomenal job of making a largely unapproachable sport very approachable," Baenen said.

Things That People Care About

The intent, size and scale of a program vary, according to Stelter. The chief adventure officer created a series of activities in which Chicago employees could go indoor skydiving, fish at Lake Michigan, and attempt circus skills such as juggling and riding a unicycle. The chief wine officer researches new wineries in the San Francisco office's region and invites employees to tastings. 

In Chicago, the chief hot sauce officer orders and stocks different sauce brands, while a chief brewing officer conducts beer events and brewery tours on the weekends. A chief keg officer ensures that the office kegs are stocked and seasonally rotated along with the cold-brew and kombucha taps. The chief wellness officer started a virtual step competition and a yoga class that were followed by an in-office juice happy hour.

"All of this work is in addition to our day jobs. We all are serving clients all day, but we choose to spend the extra effort on chiefs because it's important to us and part of our culture," Baenen said. 

He receives about 25 chief proposals every year, which he then presents to the leadership team. Most are approved, with some tweaks. He's noticed that the things employees care about, which develop into programs, have changed over the years. The chief running and fitness officer didn't exist six years ago; today it's one of the company's largest programs, he noted. The chief green officer introduced composting to the Chicago office and sponsored various Earth Day events; that program has been replicated at other offices. The chief podcast officer focuses on professional development.

Skill Development

Everyone and anyone can be a leader—even employees at the most junior level, Stelter noted. Millennials—those born between 1982 and 2004—make up more than 60 percent of the company's employees, followed by Generation X employees, born between 1965 and 1984, who make up about 30 percent. Baby Boomers make up less than 20 percent of West Monroe's workforce, according to Great Place to Work data. Nearly 50 percent of employees have worked at the company for two years or less. 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Management]

While some of the larger initiatives tend to be led by those at the managerial level, Stelter said the program helps younger employees take on leadership and budget management responsibilities that accelerate their career development. An employee's performance review does not include how successful he or she may have been as a chief, but the company takes note that "they're learning and understanding the operations of the business," she said.

"Some of our highest-performing leaders held some sort of position as a chief early in their career. You see who steps up and takes initiative, takes leadership. … We see it as a way for them to build their confidence and build their skills."

Frost said driving an idea to execution has given him an opportunity to develop skills that a 24-year-old in his position would not otherwise have. Telling friends and family he's the chief golf officer "sounds cool, sounds unique, but for me one of the biggest takeaways … [was] to put those ideas on paper, commit to them and be able to share those [ideas] with the rest of the organization and see if [they] had some legs."

Overseeing a budget, he added, underscored for him the "need to be a good steward of that money. … It's taught me how to manage a budget alongside [program] expectations."

Baenen advised other employers looking to replicate the program to start small and not overthink it.

"Don't try to overengineer this thing. The end goal is to give employees the opportunity to own the culture within the office. If you try to make it perfect … it's not going to get done. Our leaders trust us enough to run with it."   

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