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When management needs a tuneup - or an overhaul

Union Gas, based in Chatham, Ont., made a huge investment over five years to change the dynamic among its managers, says Chuck Conlon, director of employee and labour relations.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail/Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Five years ago, after some frank self-analysis, senior leaders at Union Gas Ltd. concluded that, as a team, they were somewhat dysfunctional.

Chastened, and under pressure from Houston-based parent Spectra Energy Corp., executives at Union Gas embarked on a concentrated effort to transform the Chatham, Ont.-based natural gas utility into a "high performance" company with increased efficiency and productivity, says Chuck Conlon, director of employee and labour relations.

"We began with very low levels of trust [among the executives]" Mr. Conlon said.

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"We would have issues where we had secret ballots, confidential voting ... executives wouldn't raise contentious issues with each other or with the new president," he said at a recent human resources conference, where Union Gas had been invited to present its turnaround initiative as a best-practice case study on the creation of high-performance teams.

The company had already invested heavily in state-of-the-art technology for its natural gas storage and distribution operations. At the same time, "we saw the creation of a top-performing senior leadership team as critical to our success, and we made a huge investment over the last five years," Mr. Conlon said.

Mark Tobin, an executive coach and psychologist brought in by Spectra Energy to work with Union Gas, started at the top, asking leaders to list the behaviours their colleagues should start engaging in, what they should stop and what they should continue.

"I usually do this with index cards. They wouldn't do this with me. They made me write it on a computer because they were afraid their teammates would recognize their handwriting," said Dr. Tobin, who operates a consulting firm out of Charlotte, N.C.

"Houston had a problem," he said, modifying a line from the astronaut movie Apollo 13.

Dr. Tobin moved from the executive suite and repeated the process down through the ranks, helping managers clarify their roles and responsibilities and assess how they could best support their teams and the organization as a whole.

Since then, Union Gas has exceeded every goal – safety, commercial, employee engagement – that the parent company set, Dr. Tobin said. The president, Julie Dill, went from "having a mutiny on her hands" to being voted leader of the year by the Ontario Energy Association in 2010. (She has since been promoted to another position in the Spectra organization.)

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And Houston no longer has a problem, at least as far as Union Gas is concerned. "Our improvement in productivity has contributed to Spectra Energy's success," Mr. Conlon said.

Psychologist Guy Beaudin, Toronto-based senior partner with management consulting firm RHR International, said that most senior leaders get the productivity basics right. They make sure employees are "pulling in the right direction," with clear expectations for all and an effective performance management system.

"Where leadership, I think, really drops the ball on productivity is on a whole bunch of little things that end up amounting to a lot of wasted time," Dr. Beaudin said.

At Union Gas, for example, they tightened the focus of senior leaders to four key areas – strategy, financial performance, employee engagement and organizational culture, Mr. Conlon said.

"[At meetings] if the proposed agenda item didn't fit into one of those categories, we weren't going to invest the time of our senior leaders," he said in his presentation to the Human Resources Professionals Association conference. "It's all about doing the right work at the right level."

This, Dr. Beaudin said, is where organizations tend to "undermine all the great foundational work they have done on productivity."

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"A lot of work we do with our clients is getting them to delegate the work," he said. "What often happens, particularly in technical fields, if someone gets promoted, they end up holding on to the work they were doing in the past, and they become a bottleneck. They are making decisions that really should be made two or three levels down in the organization."

The Union Gas executives realized they could spend more time on the big strategic decisions and delegate more effectively by creating high-performance teams throughout the organization.

The efforts have paid off, Mr. Conlon said. Union Gas has been cited as one of Canada's Top 100 Employers for the past two years, and employee engagement scores are consistently high. Still, there is always room for improvement. Mining the results of its more recent employee engagement surveys, the company realized that "like a lot of organizations, our communications with front-line employees needed to be improved," Mr. Conlon said.

"The front-line management was the critical linchpin to achieve enhanced employee engagement, enhanced team performance and enhanced individual performance. Therefore, we invested heavily in providing leadership development opportunities for our front-line managers.

"It it's only owned at the top, it won't achieve the results."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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