53: The Value of Engaged Employees (Part 3) with Kate Donahue
The third conversation in our four-part series: this time with Kate Donahue, President and CEO of the Hampford Research Group. Subscribe to Thrive by Design on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google Play.
Kate Donahue [00:00:03] Well, I think they’ve seen that we walk the walk and talk the talk. It’s not just lip service. They’ve seen us flip some people like literally move them, some disengage to engage, but also deal with the people that for whatever reason used to be engaged. And it’s a happy place to be. We enjoy coming to work. I talk to people about I don’t just want you to be happy here ……I want your spouses, your significant other, to be happy that you work at Hanford Research.
Don [00:00:37] My name is Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High Performance Cultures. I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement, and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and valued. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive. Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And you’re listening to Thrive by Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders tips, strategies and tools needed to create an engaged culture at work.
Don [00:01:38] Welcome. I’m your host, Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions. Today, the next conversation in our new series with industry leaders about the challenges of employee engagement. I’m delighted to welcome Kate Donahue, the President and CEO of the Hanford Research Group, which specializes in chemicals for multiple industries including electronics, printing and personal care through many years of leadership. Kate is committed to creating a work environment which leverages the experience and expertise of her staff to encourage both personal and professional development. Welcome, Kate. And thanks for being here today. Kate, would you start by just telling us a little bit about the Hanford Research Group, how long the company has been in existence and what you do?
Kate Donahue [00:02:23] Well, first of all, thank you for inviting me on your podcast. I am thrilled to be here today. Hampton Research is a 35 year old, second generation specialty chemical manufacturer located in Connecticut. And we make things that go into a variety of important items that people use every day. So, for instance, smartphones and computers, a whole bunch of personal care materials like makeups, lotions and creams. We make a lot of specialized materials for adhesives and coatings. And if you’ve ever had a composite dental selling, we make a number of materials that go into that now.
Don [00:03:04] And how many employees do you have, Kate?
Kate Donahue [00:03:06] Thirty five.
Don [00:03:07] OK. You’ve been with us a number of years. You started measuring engagement in your organization several years ago. What was it about employee engagement, measuring it and do something about it that resonated with you?
Kate Donahue [00:03:19] Well, I think a couple of things. We had started on a journey of continuous improvement and employee engagement came up as an idea. It made sense to me to try to figure out how do we get more engagement from people? What does that even mean? I actually started, Don, when you presented to a group that I said I belong to a CTO, peer to peer group. And I was so intrigued by the topic and your presentation about the way the brain works and how engagement between people works that I said this is something that I think actually helped us. And I can’t even begin to enumerate the ways that it has. But I will if you’d like me to.
Don [00:04:04] I will ask you to a little bit later on. I don’t want to dove into that too quickly. I’m really interested primarily in the leaders that make the decision to invest in employee engagement. And I don’t mean invest in terms of just money. I mean that mental investment, the intellectual investment, the the being intentional about it is something that you did early on. And I don’t know what it is about a chemical company where I didn’t expect it to happen there, which is the same as in other production of manufacturing, which has had kind of a traditional mindset of employees or are just parts of the machine. And if they don’t work out, we pop a mountain, put someone new in. But it is true, over five years ago, you saw this as something that could be crucial for creating the kind of company where you would leave a legacy you were proud of.
Kate Donahue [00:04:53] That’s exactly right. I mean, I think you kind of hit on one of the touch points for me, which was that my dad founded the company. I took over 12 years ago, literally months before he passed away. And I’m neither a chemist for a chemical engineer. So I came into this from 20 years in another industry. So I really had to find a way to run the company that worked for me. And that obviously wasn’t gonna be exactly the same way as he had because I was a chemist. That wasn’t even within the realm of possibility. But over time, I had to change a lot about the way the company ran. And by the time I stumbled upon you and your approach, I had realized that we had changed a lot of things about the company. But there was still this niggling piece about it wasn’t just about what employees were doing, which which I had done a lot of work on the why and the how. And when I got your presentation, there was this light bulb coming off that said, OK, this might be a way for me to try to figure out this final piece that I don’t quite understand right now. So we did the survey the first year. It was honestly disappointing results, right. It was not happy with our scores. But because of the way that you organized this structure, it there were some very clear areas where we knew if we focused on them, we could probably be a little bit better. And that has been the way we’ve approached this year in and year out. We have looked at the areas where our scores of the lowest or scores have dropped from one year to another and said there’s only going to be three to five things we’re going to focus on as a management team. And we have seen the progress, I think, on top of that. You also gave us the tools. So not just: Oh, OK. here’s numerically where you stand. But then here’s the things you can do about it. So the bucket of resources for training, assessment tools that you offer, the ongoing support has just been incredible. What what we’ve been able to do and it’s been I think mostly by having the tools that you gave us to understand where we are and then the tools to try to address the things that we want to change. And we have now, I think, created a culture that is so deeply embedded that now we don’t even hire people unless they’ve gone through the assessment process so that we make sure they’re going to be capable and interesting of being engaged in the way that we expect all our employees to be now.
Don [00:07:23] Well, on that and that’s just brilliant because we know that the issue of whether an employee is going to be a successful new hire has much less to do with their resumé than it does with their fit with the culture. And the last thing you want to do is bring in someone who is technically competent, maybe with years of experience and what you need them to do, but they’re just ripping your culture apart at every chance they get. That kind of a person can be very, very damaging.
Kate Donahue [00:07:50] But what we realized was that people that are disengaged, if you don’t deal with them, you’re virtually giving everybody else permission to be disengaged. And then when you flip the dynamic where the majority of the people are engaged and the minority are disengaged and the pressure just continues to mount to be either be engaged or to move on. And we’ve actually been able, I think, very humanely and fairly and able to continue to make the changes with our team that have allowed us to move out. The people, for whatever reason, don’t want to be engaged again humanely and fairly and bring in continue to bring in people and get better at bringing in people that actually want to be in our kind of company. Not saying that the way we do things is for everybody, but it works for us now really well.
Don [00:08:46] Well, you’ve identified something really important that when we allow disengaged behaviors to continue in an organization that does lower the bar. And what I try to tell managers and leaders or clients that anything, any behavior that you accept, you’ve endorsed. Exactly. Any behavior you accept, you’ve endorsed. And so one of the most corrosive things about disengagement and having disengaged employees is what it does to the street cred of leaders. Employees wonder why won’t my leaders take care of this? And I’m just curious if you had any just specific feedback. Kate, as you’ve been doing this steadily now for the last several years, do you sense a change in how employees view you as a leader, being a non chemist and just taking over the company? Do people look at you differently today?
Kate Donahue [00:09:37] Well, I think they’ve seen that we walk the walk and talks the talk. It’s not just lip service. They’ve seen us flip. Some people like literally move them, some disengaged to engage, but also deal with the people that for whatever reason, refuse to be engaged. And it’s what’s a happy place to be. We enjoy coming to work. I talk to people about I don’t want to just be that you are happy here. I want your spouses or your significant other to be happy that you work at Hanford Research. Well, not that every day is perfect. And every day you come home, you know, happy singing praises. But by and large, that’s the way it feels that you come home feeling appreciated, that you’ve got satisfaction, that you work, you work, you know why your work matters and that you’ve got the training and the tools you need to do your job. We have a summer picnic every year that we invite all the families to. And that’s what I hear so often, some from the spouses and significant others, you know, like my husband, my wife loves working there.
Don [00:10:42] Yeah. And Kate, you’ve hit on something so, so very important. And it’s a part of what we refer to as our narrative about why we do what we do at E3 Solutions. We know, for example, that in our client companies, retention goes up. Productivity goes up. The accident rate declines. All these wonderful things happen. But really, at the end of the day, we’re in this business because we know that when CEOs like you make these changes inside the organization, your employees are going home is better parents and better partners. And we’re literally creating healthier families in this. And it’s because people spend well. Adults spend most of their time when they’re awake with other adults at work. And so if we can help work become a place that people look forward to, where they thrive, not only are they more productive, but they’re happier. I mean, it’s a total win win when we get it right. Now, you you mentioned earlier and I want to bring this back up because I think it’s key to. To our success at E3 Solutions 11 is just everything we do is based on empirically validated research. But secondly is the way we hold our clients, if you will. That’s a therapeutic term. Most survey companies just go in and survey and they give you your data and maybe a little bit of explanation. Then they moved on to the next client. But it’s really important. No, just measuring engagement alone doesn’t mean it’s going to go up. It’s what you do in the intervals that’s so important. And so that’s why we have this very strong training component. And you have made really great use of our workshops and different trainers. And you’ve made great use of that. And then the other is this constant reinforcement that managers need in order to change habits. And it’s our manager, resource center manager, resource center dot com. And managers using those tools. And you said earlier it’s this combination of things that you think has really made a difference.
Kate Donahue [00:12:26] Exactly. And it’s the persistence. This has been five years of intent to move us forward. And even when we have improved. Yeah, I would say pretty significantly. We still look every year. Well, where did we slide? Or is there somewhere that that the numbers are not quite what we want them to be and then being very focused on what we try to address. We don’t try to fix everything. I actually think that was advice you gave us the first year, which when I was like freaked out about the numbers as I thought they were terrible. And you and your team said, do not try to fix everything at once. Pick a handful of things and work really hard at those because people will say, you know, we’ll see the intent. And we made some significant progress that first year, but that’s been really good advice going forward. One other thing I did want to mention now is, you know, we’re in business to be in business. I want this to be a great place to work, but I also want us to be profitable and successful. And this engagement absolutely transfers over to the way our customers perceive us.
Don [00:13:31] Share a little bit about that. What do you mean by that? How did customers see this?
Kate Donahue [00:13:34] They see us as incredibly engaged, especially when they come to visit us. But even in interactions where we’re just over the phone or even by email, they see how much our people care. And they see that when they come here, either for audit or annual visit or UPS or if there’s got to be a problem happening, that everybody that’s involved is engaged in the moment, not defense. Positive results oriented. I haven’t had a customer visit us or have an issue with the customer where they haven’t ended the interaction with us and say, oh my God, your team is fantastic. We love working with you guys. Yeah. Obviously offering translates into more business.
Don [00:14:22] Yes. So, so good to hear. Kate, you guys are such a success story. And and you’re right, that first year, you measure most CEOs that we do it in the first year, they’re not happy with their numbers. Two, what two things are going on there. One. Most leaders think that their organizations are more engaged than they actually are. And then, too, when you see the numbers and you realize, wow, there’s a lot of work we need to do here, does just add a sense of sort of burden in the moment. Like, how are we going to fix this and how can I do this? I’m already working so hard. How can I possibly make these shifts? We do so much for our employees and I understand that. But that’s why we just going to stick to the science. We know the conditions where people thrive and we’re going to work on a few things to improve the conditions that the data says need the most help. And all you have to do is do that with intention. And that, Kate, is one of the reasons why I’ve asked you to be on this podcast is not every company’s leadership team responds with the same intentionality that you do that you just clearly made this on top of everything else that you have to work with in a very dangerous, highly regulated industry. You got your head above above the water and said, OK, this is important for us going forward. And not every CEO does that, quite frankly.
Kate Donahue [00:15:40] Well, it works. I think that’s what I see is this is a set of tools that work. Yeah. And it’s made us a better company at every single level.
Don [00:15:51] Wow. That is so good to hear the base of what we do. The fundamental thing is to measure. I mean, that’s the first step because you can’t manage what you what you don’t measure. Just again, sort of encapsulate how important has it been to you to measure and why has that been so important?
Kate Donahue [00:16:06] Well, we’re you know, we’re a science company. So I’m you know, I got a place full of chemists and engineers and people that want to know, like people don’t give me better or OK, or what? Let’s see the numbers. So, I mean, we share our results with the entire company every year. Everybody, they wait for the results department by department. How are we doing now? They love to see the growth that we’ve had. And now it’s at the point where it’s not just me and the management team and say, oh, the here’s the things we’ve got to work on. Departments are working together. You just see that the data is not an aberration. It’s real facts that you can then work to say again. What are we going to focus on this year? And people believe when they see that if you have intent, you can actually move the needle.
Don [00:16:56] I remember in the first year that there were some doubters on your leadership team. Some of the scientists were just thinking, gosh, this is just another sort of pop leadership culture approach to how to make organizations better. But I remember when we came back the second year, they had become believers that they had really bought in.
Kate Donahue [00:17:15] Absolutely. Again, because we saw it with your advice, don’t try to fix everything. Let’s just tackle the things that we think are most obviously, you know, I remember one of them was I had the tools and resources I need to do my job well. And we scored horribly on that. And we’re like, oh, my goodness, how is that possible? And we said, all right, well, this next year, we’re just going to tell people whatever you need. You need to tell us. And within reason, we will get it for you. Well, we saw a year later and it was it was so many things. It was a bottle range for opening a drawing. It was an extra set of gloves. You know that not having the gloves for the plant in a hidden place that have it available to everybody. I a huge difference. People just felt like, oh, they’re not trying to save a dime. Every time I turn around, they’re going to give me what I need to do the job. Yeah. Huge. Huge.
Don [00:18:05] Kate, you’ve been wonderful to do this. I just want to ask you for leaders that are listening to this podcast, wondering what they should do and with whom. What what is stood out to you about working with our team?
Kate Donahue [00:18:17] How engaged you guys are. You’re a joy to work with no matter what I ask for. I get it with joy and intention. People are easy to work with. Positive again. Anything I ask for. Sometimes I ask for the data and different laid out in a different way. You guys make it very easy to use everything that you’ve got available to us. It is one of our most important relationships as a company.
Don [00:18:43] Oh, that’s so great to hear. Thank you. Kay Donahue is president and CEO of the Hanford Research Group. Kate, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kate Donahue [00:18:53] Thanks, Don. I really enjoyed it.
Don [00:19:10] That’s it for today. I’m your host, Don Rheem. Thank you for listening. Next week, the next conversation in our new series with industry leaders about the challenges of employee engagement. I’m delighted to welcome Nathan Rogge, the President and CEO of the Bank of Southern California, where he’s worked since 2006. Last year, Nathan was recognized as a most admired CEO by the San Diego Business Journal, and under his leadership, the bank was honored as one of the city’s best places to work. Join us again for the next Thrive by design.
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