The Academy for Professional Excellence, a project of San Diego State University School of Social Work, is driven by its mission to provide exceptional learning and workforce development for the transformation of individuals, organizations and communities. The Academy provides over 80,000 learning experiences annually to the health and human services community in Southern California and beyond.

Over the last quarter century, it has become increasingly evident that, in order to achieve sustainable change in employee behaviors and practices, an organization’s culture must support employee growth and well-being. As the Academy has undergone periods of rapid growth and change, leadership has been intentional in developing and implementing a framework to define and depict the strategies and processes present throughout the course of an employees’ journey – including recruiting, onboarding, developing, retaining and separating.

The I3 framework is designed to tell the story of how the organization inquires, inspires and impacts employees. Agency leaders want to ensure that the promise made to create experiences that are transformative in heart, mind and practice applies to both staff and stakeholders. Therefore, leadership invests a great deal of time and energy into the creation of an innovative work environment that promotes staff well-being and that embraces the strengths of its diverse staff. This, in turn, enhances the employee experience and the quality of services being delivered.

The Academy uses the I3 framework to ensure staff are connected to its mission, purpose and core values and understand how these guide interactions with partners and co-workers. The strategies encompassed in the I3 framework are designed to cultivate genuine connections among staff, beginning with a welcoming and inclusive interview process.

The Employee Experience

The employee experience begins with strategies intentionally designed for recruiting candidates who resonate with the organization’s mission, purpose and values. New employees are quickly grounded in the organization’s core ideology through a comprehensive and personalized onboarding process. By regularly communicating, modeling and reinforcing the organization’s mission and core values, it is possible to attract and retain staff who uphold them on a daily basis.

A learning culture, in which developing employees is prioritized, is fundamental to the organization’s operation. By inquiring with humility, opportunities to be involved in strategic planning and creative problem solving are made available to staff, enhancing service delivery and encouraging personal and professional growth. Employees are engaged in a variety of feedback mechanisms that drive the organization’s work, and steps are taken to acknowledge ways in which staff members’ efforts contribute to the Academy’s mission, vision and values. This has proven essential to retaining employees.

The process of separating from the organization is equally valuable to the employee journey. When holding employees accountable to the agency’s core values, some may choose to leave the organization. At that juncture, we work with those employees to explore growth and development opportunities outside of the agency. Exit interviews are conducted to hear about the employee’s experiences, and feedback is used to inform improvement to the organizational culture and processes.

Meaningful Impact

Implementation of strategies is regularly monitored and assessed for effectiveness. An internal analysis is routinely conducted and continues to reveal positive results – such as evidence of genuine connections among staff through shared commitment to one another and their work, increased levels of innovation, and higher retention rates.

In addition to emergent themes, the impact of the I3 framework can be seen in sentiments shared by employees:

“Our team can see the parallels between the work we do to support health and human service leaders who are building healthy organizations and the work our agency does to provide excellent services and maintain good working relationships characterized by trust.”

The Academy has conducted similar assessments with its customers and found that the employee experience is connected to quality service provision. This was true across various workforce development modalities, including training facilitation, coaching and culturally responsive practices. Feedback from customers often identifies factors that can be traced back to strategies in the I3 framework and the Academy’s core values, as reflected in words shared by a health and human service executive leader:

“I have undoubtedly been inspired to take my leadership efforts and the evolution of my organization to the next level! Each of their staff behaves with integrity. They engage; they follow up; they inquire; they lift one’s thinking. As a result, I’m able to inspire innovation, courageous leadership and collaboration.”

Aligning Mission, Vision and Values

The core of this framework upholds a recognition that organizational health is a tool for aligning around a shared mission, vision and values, which can lead to increased creativity and innovation. Companies perform better when employee well-being is prioritized and seen as the vehicle for optimal service delivery. The following are ways organizations can make intentional shifts in practice to create transformative learning experiences and workforce development opportunities.

Connect employees to the mission, vision and values at recruitment and have multiple measures in place to allow for course correction and feedback to enhance the organization’s approach. Explore that connection throughout all points of the employee experience, from onboarding to separation. For example, retention strategies may include employing evidence-based supervision practices, cross-program committees or creative feedback opportunities. Measurement may include employee engagement survey results, staff turnover, use of sick and vacation time, and attendance at events.

Establish inquiry methods that include feedback from service delivery recipients and provide transparent follow up regarding changes made based on their feedback. It can enhance the relationship between your organization and your client base, as well as inspire innovation.

Make your core values the building blocks of your organizational culture. Think about shifting away from hiring based on culture “fit” to culture “add” to match personal values to company values.

Ensure leaders understand the importance of treating employees as individuals, and give them flexibility to support the agency’s mission. Use of open and transparent communication, followed by responses to expressed needs and ideas can deepen the employee’s connection to their work.

Go into this process with the acceptance that you are on a journey. Facilitate ongoing inquiry to inform essential course corrections. Organizational health is not a destination; it’s a multifaceted practice used to change the hearts and minds of your employees and customers. It’s about rethinking how we connect and engage with each other to inspire meaningful experiences – thus enhancing deliverables.

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