In 1997, the business imperative in the Ernst & Young Healthcare Consulting Practice was to reduce turnover at the staff and senior consultant levels, which at the time exceeded 20%.  Staff and Senior Consultants were the two entry-level roles in the Health Care Consulting practice—the wide, lower section of a hierarchical pyramid featuring equity partners at the top. I had the good fortune to be asked by our regional managing partner to take on this people and culture challenge.

Our solution was to create a Staff Advisory Council (SAC), which included representatives from each of our seven regional offices, based on number of consultants in each office. The SAC was designed to improve internal communications and engagement and increase transparency around decision-making.

SAC members traveled to each office to listen and gather feedback from staff and senior consultants. We aggregated commentary by issue area and shared our findings with the partners. SAC members in each office scheduled culture-building activities such as happy hours, volunteer projects, lunch-and-learns and we established new hire coordinators in each regional office.

As with any change management project, we encountered obstacles. Clearly, not everyone in leadership was a fan of this approach.  I recall one particularly un-evolved Senior Manager commenting, “We can’t let the animals run the zoo”.  And, certain problems persisted no matter how much light we shone on them.  There were challenges that either took a lot of time to work through or were unresolvable as they were simply intrinsic to the profession.

So, why was our effort ultimately a success?

  • We had an executive sponsor willing to try something new to solve an old problem.  Those at the pinnacle of our leadership were willing to be transparent and to set the expectation that this new way of communicating across the organization was not “a one off” and that the voices of staff at the entry level were valuable.
  • We had a budget.  We had a charge code (the holy grail in billable work) so the hours spent on these people and culture building efforts were tracked.  And, we had dollars allocated for travel to the staff events and listening sessions.
  • We focused on matching problems and solutions—our gatherings were not just bitch sessions. We presented our findings to our regional managing partner, reported back to staff and seniors throughout the region via our SAC members.  Some issues could be resolved, such as changing the culture around “ghosting” hours, but others were merely an intrinsic feature of the job that might be mitigated but were never going away, such as travel.
  • We were guided by values.  Our practice group had four stated values:
  1. We own the business
  2. We add value (to our clients, to our people, to the partnership)
  3. We act as one national business
  4. We are committed to each other’s success

“We own the business” was certainly aspirational, but practically incorrect for those at the staff and senior consultant level. These SAC forums provided a way for the consultants that were at the lower levels of the organization to provide the de facto owners with our input on how they should run the business. “We add value (to our people)” and “We are committed to each other’s success” were clearly the catalyzing values for the SAC effort.

  • We defaulted to action.  This effort achieved a virtuous circle of gathering feedback, presenting problems/solutions, reporting on partners’ responses and actions and then gathering more feedback.
  • We over communicated.  From emails and voice messages (called EYCOMMs back in the day) from our SAC and our Executive Sponsor to a LotusNotes discussion database (think an ancient version of Slack) and live presentations at any and all staff meetings, we told people what we planned to do, we told them what we did and then we told them what was next. It was an internal corporate communications juggernaut.
  • We understood the business.  SAC members were active consultants on client projects.  We could relate, entirely, with all of the issues that our colleagues were facing because we had faced them ourselves. This was not a theoretical exercise for any of us.
  • We built a strong team. SAC members became the culture champions/ambassadors in their offices serving a quasi-HR role of helping new hires assimilate, surveying the professional staff, and leading a change management effort that was people-and culture-focused.  We also learned a heck of a lot about managing up and managing sideways.

Last week, I had the good fortune to attend a small gathering with Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia.  After her remarks, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that twenty years ago, our Staff Advisory Committee (later Roundtables) added the heart to our business at EY. As I paged through my yellowed SAC binder from 1997-1998, I was filled with tremendous gratitude for the opportunity that Lewis Redd provided me with when he asked me to take on this challenge and to {Shoma Banerjee, Gus Cawley, Chip Cummins, Brian Driskell, Susan Economou, Thea Chamberlain, Pauline Jones Goodgame, Grant Hoffman, Adele Jackson, Mary Ann Jackson, Clark Knapp, Paula Miller, Jackie Molino, Lance Robinson, Stephen Rosenbaum, Todd Runkle, Danielle Tutt, Shannon Vitello} who joined the team and contributed their time and their hearts to the effort.

How do you bring the heart to your workplace? How are you listening to your team? What can you do, starting today?