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Emplify’s Pixie Dust at Work: How One Team Went from Least to Most Engaged


Morrison-Maierle’s Chief Human Resources Officer Letha Ebelt used to think of employee engagement as “the pixie dust that moves teams forward” — powerful, but a little mysterious. Then she helped drive the department’s first-ever employee engagement initiative. More than three years into the process, she views it as not just a scientific pursuit but a collaborative effort that applies a thoughtful, human element to the data.

“At this point, we feel like 15five is part of our team,” Ebelt said. “They’re as invested as we are, and they never fail to find those nuggets of information in the data that I haven’t seen. That support is everything.”

Uniting teams through change — and across three offices

Morrison-Maierle Systems undertook its employee engagement initiative at a time when the IT service provider was changing its mission. Rather than primarily serving its parent company, the engineering firm Morrison-Maierle, Systems was becoming an IT consulting operation for small businesses, with revamped leadership, to boot. Competition among Systems’ three offices kept employees from feeling like one team working on a single mission, and lingering personnel issues were holding back progress more than leaders realized.

A lot of change was happening while things weren’t at their most stable within the department.

At about that time, the company’s CEO, Scott Murphy, attended a conference. Murphy and Ebelt had already read and talked about employee engagement, so a presentation by 15five got them both fired up. Selling it to the company’s leadership was a little more daunting.

“We had some pretty strong critics that first time we broached the idea,” Ebelt said. “We’re engineers and scientists; we like to be able to use a formula to prove just about everything, and employee engagement was soft and squishy. The science that 15five brings in was appealing. I’m a people person, but for my engineers, they need the science.”

Building from a slow start

The initiative got the green light, but it didn’t exactly get off to a rip-roaring start. For its first survey, the team’s participation didn’t even reach 50%. But momentum started to build after a couple rounds of survey results pointed to issues that leadership had suspected, and seeing confirmation led to action. A couple of employees who weren’t an ideal culture fit were managed out, and when others saw that leadership was taking survey feedback seriously, participation grew quickly.

Ebelt called Morrison-Maierle Systems President Shaun Brown’s team “a shining example” of the progress the initiative has facilitated: “They’ve gone from among the least to most engaged,” she said. “And that’s a result of Shaun’s leadership and the success of the 15five surveying and coaching.”

Brown talks about the process as one that builds on itself: As he and the other leaders identified issues and took action, more employees bought into the process, and the information gleaned from surveys became more thorough and valuable. None of that would have been possible, he said, without investment from the company’s leaders.

“There was always the message coming to us and from us, as managers, that this wasn’t just going to sit on the shelf,” Brown said. “That’s where the success came in. We had buy-in at the very top, and so we gave it everything we had and continued to encourage our team to participate.”

“One of the many strengths of our CEO is communication,” Ebelt said. “He is very purposeful, and he had bought in 100%. We’ve been a team, and that top-down communication has been a big element of this process.”

Leaning on 15five coaches

For Brown, working with survey results and 15five coaching has meant taking a close look at some of his own areas for improvement.

“Our most recent survey was telling,” he said. “I found that a lot of my senior staff were not engaged. I set up coaching with 15five and dug into that, found that I wasn’t letting people be accountable. I was too quick to respond and didn’t let my senior staff handle issues and grow. I’m really excited to see whether the changes I’ve made have been effective.”

Brown cites the coaching he receives after survey results as adding great value in moving his management style and his team performance forward so notably. 

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” he said, “and having an 15five expert to help me understand our scores and pinpoint issues is invaluable. It’s impressive how they interpret the results and drill down into actionable items.

“A survey’s great, but it’s just information. Someone to help you decipher that information and come up with things you can actually do is the real value to me.”

Looking forward

Not only has the Systems department moved from least to most engaged, it finished 2019 with the strongest revenues they have seen in years. And because the team is functioning more cohesively and productively, they’re handling the same client load without replacing the employees who had been acting as roadblocks.

As the department moves forward, Ebelt and Brown anticipate applying what they’ve learned to the hiring process. Recognizing the impact of removing difficult employees has led them to reconsider how they screen and hire candidates.

“In the past, we have settled for people who didn’t check all the boxes, but we could get them into a seat,” Ebelt said. “We recognize now that we’re better off waiting than to plug in someone who isn’t just right.”

They’ll have plenty to work with: Their first survey results of 2020 brought the highest-ever participation. And their best-yet engagement score.

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