Seven years ago, Bill Hybels woke up to the reality that the workplace culture at Willow Creek Community Church, where he pastored, was nearly toxic. After reading comments from 350 employees from the BCWI Employee Engagement Survey, he said, “Never again is anyone who works at Willow going to feel unchallenged or disempowered. It’s just not acceptable.” What played out was more than remarkable.
What happened at Willow Creek reveals how we, as leaders, can get traction on staff engagement at the ground level throughout a large, complex organization and create a highly flourishing culture where virtually every employee enjoys coming to work and is fully engaged.
Sue Hood, a leader in human resources at Willow Creek, came alongside Colby Burke, HR director, during this turnaround. Recently she shared with me the revealing backstory of how a redefined, thriving culture takes disciplined processes and is continually at work.
Sue put her finger on the question: “How were we to going to have each of Willow’s 30 ministries follow through and fulfill the church’s overall vision to create a fantastic workplace with fantastic staff that serves a fantastic God? It couldn’t be an HR initiative; it had to be a unified commitment that each ministry could own.”
To that end, Willow created an innovative, three-step post-survey action planning process. This process allowed its ministry team leadership to use the BCWI Survey scores as a lens through which to see how specific challenges within the culture needed to be addressed and improved. Sue explains:
- First, each ministry/department leader identified and empowered a staff engagement champion. This way, each leader had a partner helping to create a fantastic culture within the department. Each staff engagement champion was selected because they carried a positive influence on the team. And this champion also was charged with understanding and conveying the BCWI Survey data to the ministry.
- Second, each staff engagement champion developed the ability to facilitate meaningful conversations and discussions with their team. The champion’s role ensured all staff members had input while keeping key questions in front of everyone: “Are we really creating a fantastic culture?” The collective ideas, insights and perspectives came together in periodic gatherings with Willow’s HR leadership. Together, we asked, “How are we doing? What are our best practices? What’s going well? What’s not? What’s hard?”At Willow, we see the overall health of our culture on a continuum. We pay close attention to what we call culture builders and culture busters. Sometimes a situation that is left unchecked can grow into a buster. This kind of awareness feeds the third step of our action process.
- Third, focus on a few important results. Willow has completed the BCWI Survey for seven consecutive years, and we plan to continue this annual pattern. Most of the low-hanging fruit of creating a thriving, flourishing culture has already been harvested. Thus, we’re asking ourselves, “What’s the remaining five to ten percent of the fruit we need to go after to grow our culture?” We are now into the muscle of what is holding us back.Each staff engagement champion is key to working with one’s ministry staff and, in partnership with the ministry leader, they focus on two annual goals that can advance each ministry’s culture. We work on those, take the BCWI Survey again the following year to see how we’ve improved, and then the process starts all over again. This is the hard blocking and tackling that organizations that really improve go through.
Sue sums up the much-desired finish line Willow’s staff culture is continuing to cross. “When we, as leaders tackle these goals and key issues of our culture, the people around us see it as movement. The axiom that ‘motion begets motion’ takes hold. Fellow colleagues will realize that what gets talked about and acted upon matters. They’ll feel listened to and heard. They’ll realize they’re actually a part of a fantastic staff in a fantastic culture that serves a fantastic God.