Building a People-focused Co-op Culture: A Q&A with Ashley Coburn, Senior Executive Manager of Employee Development and Human Resources, Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative

The GreatCo-Ops team has been very impressed by the efforts taken by Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative (GVEC) to ensure a robust culture and high levels of employee engagement. In fact, GVEC is among the top-scoring co-ops on our comprehensive employee survey, and for good reason! Few organizations in any industry place so much emphasis on employee development, engagement, and culture as the leadership at GVEC.

Our founder and CEO, Matt Gilley, had the opportunity to speak recently with GVEC’s senior HR leader, Ashley Coburn, about what they do at GVEC that sets them apart.

Matt: Ashley, in our work together, I’ve been really impressed by the work you and your staff put into building a great co-op culture. You really “get it.” What is your philosophy or perspective on organizational culture?

Ashley: Thank you Matt! I often say, “People are our culture.” To some, that can sound strange because cultural elements are things like customs, social standards, traditions, expectations, etc. However, until we truly understand how to harness the power of allowing the people to drive those things in our organization and, thus, create the culture, we are failing in a fundamental element of business.

The keys to building a collaborative, people-focused culture for GVEC are intentional processes, accountability, and malleability. It takes time, focused effort, and extreme care. It is not a “check-off-the-list” type process. It is a living, breathing mindset that we have spent years understanding, developing, and shaping.

It takes commitment at all levels to have trust, care about how we impact one another, and to speak honestly and openly about how we can do better as one organization. And we fail, often. That is why malleability is such a key driver. When we are quick to recognize the issues, then we can be quick and flexible in helping things to go right again, which is the goal. There will always be issues; that is a given. It is recognizing them quickly and actively working to turn things around that is the true measure of success.

Matt: I’d like to hear more about what you do, from a tactical perspective, to create the positive culture and strong employee engagement that our survey shows to exist at GVEC.

Ashley: These are the things that have added the most value in our strategic focus on a people-driven culture:

• We have a Performance Management process that puts all accountability and reporting onto the employee. When an employee takes full responsibility and ownership over their work and how it is performed, there are very few issues. And all employees want this liberty.  

• We also survey the employees and DO what they ask. We do not just read their input and consider it; we implement it. If they want food trucks, we bring in the food trucks. If they want more vacation, we do the real work to see if we can accomplish it. The more an organization implements the actual things people want, the better the relationships, impact, and business. And we do not stop asking.  

• We are intentional and committed to bringing relevant personal and professional development to the organization at all levels. We don’t pick the flavor of the day or the year. We strive to bring the rich, meaty, tangible things in, spread them across the organization, and teach the leadership team how to sustain them.  

• We have a coach. It’s important to have a neutral employee or outside consultant who can coach in any and all circumstances at all levels of the organization. Let one of their primary focuses be building relationships and understanding team dynamics. This takes a special person, and it is not easy to find them. But when you have them, employees will be thankful.

Matt: Regarding bringing personal and professional development into the co-op, what topic areas have you found to be most beneficial to the development of your people and culture?

Ashley: We have found that developing employees as people, personally and professionally, has been the turning point. We focus on mindset, the root of all things that go well and wrong. The more we have focused on mindset and how we each have the responsibility to help things go right, the more we have seen positive change. A huge connector to mindset is personality. Understanding personalities can help us see people and things more clearly. And as a result, the focus stays on the problem and/or work at hand and not on the gibberish that can convolute the mind and play tricks on us.

I would be remiss if I do not mention the work and organization that has been a tremendous partner in our ability to move swiftly in this strategic focus, the Arbinger Institute. GVEC partnered with Arbinger in 2014 to put many of our behaviors and development goals into a training format. And then, because Arbinger had already accomplished this so beautifully and helpfully, we were able to make progress faster. Since 2014, we have trained every employee in the Outward Mindset way of seeing and working, and we actively sustain the Outward Mindset daily. We have annual sustainment courses in mindset and personality type for either the leadership team or all employees, we bring all new employees through our core trainings, and we have a new manager cohort that focuses on how to lead the GVEC way.

To give just a taste of the kind of results that come with sustaining an Outward Mindset culture, think the San Antonio Spurs. If you know this team, you know teamwork in its purest, most successful form. When asked what kinds of qualities the Spurs look for in players, it is players who “have gotten over themselves.” And THAT is exactly what we look for at GVEC, and we work very hard to retain. It is worth it!

Matt: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in the process of building the culture at GVEC?

Ashley: We are on the road to building a collaborative, people-focused culture. Like any road, there have been smooth parts, rocky ones, and downright curves for miles. One thing is for sure though; we have learned greatly from one another, from our challenges and our mistakes, and have shared in huge successes along the way. The most challenging part was gaining the trust and buy-in at deep, impactful levels. It took time. It took intentionality. Employees wanted to see that this was a lasting direction and needed to see the impact to themselves and their work to really begin buying into where we were headed and our commitment to it.

Matt: You mentioned successes. What would you say are some of the biggest successes GVEC has had because of your investments in culture-building and employee development? In other words, what are some examples of the benefits GVEC has seen from the effort and investment you’ve made?

Ashley: We just realized one a few weeks back. For years we have been working on the expectations, culture, and communication in a department at GVEC. There were a few things we had to tackle, but a mindset shift was the underlying need. You know you have made a shift when an employee in that department puts it into words and commends the shift and direction of the team. The shift does not happen overnight, but the outpouring of time and energy during the process is worth it for these moments and successes. I am very proud of our leadership partnering to see people as people and serve them as such. We do not “fix” a problem. We help people have greater impact and service by honoring and serving them first.

Matt: What’s next for you? What will you be doing going forward to continue to build upon the foundation of success you’ve built so far?

Ashley: When we can truly understand and value what it means to literally treat people as the greatest asset of the organization (because they are, whether you behave like they are or you do not), then we will have a greater impact in all directions of our work. We are still a work-in-progress at GVEC. “Achieved” is never a box we will check. We will remain committed to one another and to greater impact, always. For us, next, is keeping our core development and people engagement processes intact, while also digging more in order to see more clearly. In addition to leveraging surveys and impromptu conversations, we are planning to launch a random “stay interview” process. We want to engage employees across the organization in conversation around what they think we are doing well, where we need improvements, and how we can better serve one another in all directions of our work and at all levels. We are excited to see how bringing this information together further propels us as an organization.