The Power of Culture Change: Our City of Memphis HR Strategy

By Alex Smith

There are many stereotypes about government, you’ve heard them, “it is bureaucratic…slow…political.” Despite the myths and perceptions, government is also a Multi-Million dollar enterprise with thousands of employees. For the City of Memphis; we have a revenue of $680 M and 6500+ employees – the same as many large-size private sector companies. However, even with our size and revenue, many do not see the City of Memphis as a major employer; instead they see it as more traditional government. Under Mayor Strickland’s Administration, our goal is to change this perception.

Since coming into office in January 2016, our mission has been to transform city government to a resident (customer)-centric organization focused on “improving the quality of life of Memphians, every day.” We provide services in one of the largest per square mile municipalities in the country that benefits a very large customer base of almost 660,000 Memphis citizens, more than 1.3M metro-residents, and more than 12M visitors per year. Employee engagement is directly tied to productivity and other important metrics to drive efficiency in our operations and serve our customers. Peter Drucker’s famously attributed quote that “Culture eats strategy for lunch” absolutely applies in the public sector just as much as the private sector.

To aid in shifting the perception and performance of the City’s government, we have taken an inside out approach — focusing our attention on culture change and placing emphasis on new values centered on innovation, collaboration, accountability, and service.

We first began our culture work with our organizational structure. When coming into office, Mayor Strickland was intentional and wanted a new leadership model for the City to help him have more line of sight and better collaboration across key areas. The Mayor established a “c-suite” model where he placed six senior executives (Chief Operating Officer, Chief Communications Officer, Chief Legal Officer, Chief Human Resources Officer, Chief of Police Services, and Chief Financial Officer) reporting directly to him and functioning as a senior leadership team working together to implement his vision. This model was very different from other administration models that had a Chief Administrative Officer who led all the division directors, creating a layer between the Mayor and all the divisions. Our experience with the new c-suite model is that this flatter org structure has been pivotal in fostering collaboration, adaptability, effective communication, information sharing, and enabling issues to be presented and resolved in real-time. This organization design change has been a catalyst for culture change. We now have more partnership, collaboration and cross-functional projects across divisions, enabling us to achieve amazing results. For example, in March 2017 HR and MPD strengthened their partnership and, together, were able to hire the largest police recruiting class in the last seven years.

While focusing on top leadership is an important place to start, we quickly realized that true culture change starts from the bottom up, thus making it critical that we focus on overall employee engagement to see a true culture change. Like any good HR person, we started the employee engagement work with engagement surveys and focus groups, quickly discovering that our major barrier in achieving culture change was being halted in two areas – eroded trust and employees not feeling valued. From there a powerful talent management strategy was born focused on four key areas:

  1. Paying competitively for amazing performance
  2. Keeping employees well and safe
  3. Developing and growing employees
  4. Creating an inclusive and equitable work environment

Our strategy around growing and developing employees is particularly important in our value proposition for attracting and retaining talent. My number one goal as the new HR leader for the City was to lower commissioned officer turnover. From 2013 to 2015, turnover for commissioned officers increased by 60% (from 115 in 2013 to 185 in 2015). This police turnover was a result of building frustration within MPD due to the lack of manpower, promotions and significant benefit changes that were made to tackle Other Post Employment Benefit Obligations (OPEB), and other benefit challenges that many public sector entities are facing. Our benefits are still very competitive compared to many entities, but still innovation and communication was needed to help support our talent and culture strategies. To do this, we employed many strategies from appreciation events, enhanced compensation, increased wellness incentives, enhanced retiree health insurance subsidies, as well as increasing our tuition reimbursement program, but with our challenges, I felt strongly that we needed more innovation.

We know that professional development and degree attainment is important to our workforce. This combined with the fact that according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, student loan debt in Memphis grew by 5% in 2016, led me to look for a compelling solution to help our employees manage student loan debt in a new way. In the spirit of innovation, and taking a new look at old problems, we were able to partner with in offering a student loan reduction program, becoming the first municipality in the US to offer this benefit. This benefit has helped our employees with their student loan debt lessening their financial burden, therein demonstrating that we are an employer who listens and cares, not to mention our recruiting numbers have increased since this new benefit offering was announced, which helps us attract new interest in public service. Overall, these examples show that innovation plus culture strategy equals magic for an organization. The decision to fully embrace innovation and culture change holistically across all areas has been an important one to aid us in our journey of “making life better for Memphians, every day.”

Alex Smith is currently the Chief HR Officer for the City of Memphis. She is a career HR professional with notable HR management experience from Microsoft Corp and Target Corp. The City of Memphis partners with firms such as HRO Partners to support and drive HR Strategy.