Shortly after senior leadership participated in The Leadership Challenge Workshop®, Citizens Energy Group in Indianapolis embarked on a huge undertaking: the acquisition of the city's water and wastewater assets. The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® and Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI®) provided a context through which leaders drove a successful integration and continue to keep the company on course as it embarks on its new future.
Acquisitions and mergers can be tremendously daunting—blending systems and processes, people and cultures, vision and values. They also can represent a golden opportunity to fuse new energy, ideas, and viewpoints into a fully redesigned business enterprise that delivers far more combined than either organization was capable of delivering on its own.
Just over one year ago, when Indianapolis-based Citizens Energy Group acquired the community’s water and wastewater utilities, it proved to be a watershed moment in the non-profit’s long history of improving the quality of life in the community while fueling economic development for the greater Indianapolis area it serves. With a clear vision, excellent communication, active participation by all stakeholders, and exemplary leadership throughout the transition, Citizens Energy Group has successfully integrated more than 400 new water and wastewater employees, created combined billing and call center functions, significantly expanded its public outreach and customer service capabilities, and increased the overall transparency of its operations to its customers. At the same time, synergies available through the acquisition have achieved more than $80 million of savings that will be passed on to customers.
For a company that in 2012 was honored for the second straight year with a J.D. Power Award for customer service, Citizens Energy Group takes seriously its commitment to its employees, customers, and the community. With strong leadership at every level—beginning at the very top with President and Chief Executive Officer Carey Lykins—the organization took steps right from the start to prepare both utility groups for the merger, communicating clearly with customers and staff and celebrating milestones along the way.
Anticipating that the acquisition could create anxiety for staff, a Change Management Team was established to thoughtfully plan the integration, oversee the implementation and operational details and, most importantly, maintain the focus on involving employees in defining what was needed to make the transition as easy and successful as possible. Employing one of Citizens Energy Group’s core values—teamwork—also was important to the company’s success in rolling out this integration process in such a short period of time. A dozen teams made up of more than 100 employees from across both organizations contributed ideas about the process and were critical to solving whatever problems or challenges arose.
“Our vision for this acquisition was compelling and clear,” Lykins said. “This was a unique opportunity for us to greatly expand our mission and to have an even greater impact on the affordability of life in our community by providing a variety of reliable, affordable utility services. It was easy for employees to see value in that and it was easy to communicate. In fact, we worked very hard at communicating in as many ways and at as many times as possible to keep everyone informed. We reinforced messages about being open to change, to doing things in new ways at every opportunity. We were doing things we’d never done before.”
To mark communication around the integration, Citizens Energy Group created its own brand
Employees came to know that communication bearing the CSI: Indy logo was important—to the organization and to each individual. It served as a way of flagging information employees needed to know about the acquisition that would help them understand how changes would impact them and their role in the new organization.
Citizens Energy Group also created a variety of two-way dialogue opportunities for the transition team and others to listen to employees and customers alike—from officer coffee talks to site visits by senior leaders who gathered insights and questions from those in the field. Answers to employees’ questions were then published in newsletters, memos, and in other media.
To support the organization’s ambitious communication strategies, Human Resources Director Jodi Underwood took charge of equipping leaders with change management tools and techniques, including specific training around change management and Key Messages cards to help maintain a focused approach to communication. “We made sure that our managers and senior leaders met regularly with our soon-to-be new employees at their sites,” Ms. Underwood recalled. “Our main objective was to have our new employees feel welcome. We wanted to make sure they knew that they were coming into a company that truly wanted them and respected their opinions. As a result, we made a very strong effort to treat them with dignity and respect, and to listen carefully to what they had to say.”
“What we learned during this monumental transition is that leadership is foundational,” she added. “You cannot wait until change is going to occur to start leadership training or start preparing leaders for the next phase. Our leaders were prepared to step up and do what they needed to do because we already had a very focused approach that was based on The Leadership Challenge and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.”
Through the lens of the integration, Citizens Energy Group incorporated The Five Practices into essential messages that came to help drive its success:
- “People follow first the person, then the plan” - Model the Way
- “The vision is the force that invents the future”- Inspire a Shared Vision
- “The work of the leader is change – the best leaders are the best learners”- Challenge the Process
- “Exemplary leaders strengthen everyone’s capacity to deliver on the promises they make” - Enable Others to Act
- “Encouragement is, curiously, serious business” - Encourage the Heart
Reflecting on the important lessons learned throughout the transition, Lykins concluded, “While there are many things that contributed to our success, at the end of the day it was leadership—I don’t mean my leadership but the leadership on those 12 teams that were so dedicated and the perseverance of every employee throughout the organization. Failure was never an option. I don’t think it even occurred to anyone along the way. We stayed the course and, as a result, now have an exciting and bright future ahead of us.”
Terri Armstrong Welch is an independent writer and editor contributing to the marketing and editorial programs at Pfeiffer, including The Leadership Challenge product line. A former member of the Jossey-Bass team, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://yourrockstarwriter.wordpress.com.