The Great Reset: How One City Transcended Turmoil

Posted on October 3, 2022

Great Reset

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kayla Barber-Perrotta, Budget & Performance Manager for the City of Brighton, CO. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

  • What I’m Listening to: 90s Kids by Jax
  • What I’m Reading: Articles on growing peppers indoors
  • What I’m Watching: House of the Dragon
  • What I’m Doing: Preparing for our first Performance and Leadership Academy graduation tomorrow

2018 was a bad year for the City of Brighton. We had a water fund scandal. 2019 wasn’t great, either. The water scandal blew up into a full-fledged firing of a city manager, a mayoral recall, and significant turnover of key staff across the organization. 2020 was, well, not exactly as planned for any of us.

Then in 2021, we had turnover once again at the city manager and director level. I’m not sure saying we’d hit a low even comes close to doing the situation justice. The staff was exhausted, stressed, and in many cases, disengaged. I mean who wouldn’t be when the ship is being steered in one direction, then backtracking, then taking a hard left, all while dodging the plague and getting swamped by a storm? Your work begins to feel like it has no purpose, silos are erected between departments, and the organization’s culture suffers.

Late 2021 was a decision point for the City. Not only were we emerging from the pandemic, and employees were returning to the office, but we had additional turnover at the top of the organization. The choice was in our hands, continue to spiral as we had the last several years, or choose a different path. As you can guess from the title, we chose the latter. I’ve heard the work of the last year called many things– breaking the wheel a la Game of Thrones, a quantum leap, hope–but I like to think of it as our Great Reset.

Our journey from being “that organization” to one of the best-kept secrets in the Denver Metro was not an easy one. It involved taking a deep and introspective look at what was and was not working about our organization and recognizing things that needed to change. Acknowledging you have a problem is the first step to recovery after all.

That work came immediately following our new City Manager being named in October 2021. I still remember sitting in his office with my notes from the last two years-common threads discussed in virtual town halls, reasons people left the organization, and results from my engagement work with my department. They were pain points he, too, was familiar with as he’d heard them extensively from his leadership team and exit interview data. It was clear things needed to change, and we were both committed to making that happen.

From that initial meeting, things moved swiftly, a testament to what we knew would be a limited period of natural change momentum we needed to capitalize on and extend. My team was reorganized within the City Manager’s Office to oversee organizational performance and tasked to create a plan for training our employees on Lean.

We took it further, proposing a full Performance and Leadership Academy to address the many pain points we were facing. It didn’t make sense to invest heavily in lengthy data and process improvement training if we’d simply continue to bleed that knowledge. Between February and April, we got our team trained to facilitate and designed a full academy experience. Our goal–a full reset, not a series of bandaids.

Organizational culture was the biggest pain point we heard from employees. It had been great pre-2019, even being described as a “family,” but in the ensuing years, it became more common to hear that employees could not trust other departments and leadership. There was no clear vision or direction, and communication had broken down to the point that information was hoarded, and departments were deeply suspicious of one another.

As such, week one was designed to address positive culture as the foundation of a successful organization. This includes discussing its value in terms of turnover and productivity and techniques to enhance and reinforce it. From there, week two moves into the employee cycle, covering the moment the City identifies a need to fill a position until the employee exits the organization. It is about finding a good fit and maximizing the employee experience as quickly as possible.

Hence, the City has a chance to grow and improve rather than constantly being stuck in training mode. Additionally, we discuss our employer brand and how to create brand ambassadors since word of mouth is the most powerful recruitment tool available to us.

Cohort 1

Weeks three, four, and five shift us to continuous process improvement techniques through the introduction of Lean and Six Sigma. These are techniques popularized in the private sector that empower employees to make small changes to their daily processes to reduce waste and ultimately build toward greater innovations.

For the City of Brighton, these techniques have already helped us to identify $63k in projected annual cost savings. This early success can be tied back to the lens we use to discuss these tools. Instead of leading with the waste, we ask employees to think about their pain points. What frustrates them in their work? Where do they get discouraged? These are more personal and more real to them than process waste and thus create better intrinsic motivation.

We also delve into leadership techniques and operate under a mantra that one can lead from any seat; you don’t have to be a manager to lead, and in fact, front-line and mid-level employees can often know their processes better than their superiors who haven’t had to physically do them in a while.

This ties to another pain point for the organization that due to extensive turnover, people were often moved up in the organization without ever getting the leadership training necessary to help them succeed. Finally, we teach strategic planning and work plan execution. How does one manage all these improvements as well as their daily work? It was important to ensure that the teachings of the Performance and Leadership Academy did not just become another buzz item that burst brightly into the organization, only to burn out and be shelved. It could not become another ship lost at sea.

Overall, the changes experienced by the City of Brighton this last year have been nothing short of amazing. I have watched the organizational rhetoric shift from anger and resentment to hope and excitement. We just had our 3EEE’s Team approach us to ask how they can be more involved and help to facilitate the cultural change in areas of the organization that may not have time for a five-week course. It also isn’t uncommon to hear departments now speak regarding data and strategy.

One of my proudest moments was hearing directors during the annual budget discussion describe their return on investment. I couldn’t help but smile when an employee talked about investing in their orientation and onboarding strategies because it generally costs an organization 150% of an employee’s salary to replace them. We are no longer “that organization” that elicited sympathy from others; we’ve actualized that great reset.

Cohort 2

Want to learn more about the Brighton Performance and Leadership Academy? We will present our story and how you can implement an academy in your organization at the 2022 ELGL Conference. We are also now accepting limited applicants to the Academy from outside organizations. Please reach out to Kayla Barber-Perrotta at [email protected] to learn more.

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