Employee Engagement is a Core Strength for Top Workplaces

by Bob Helbig

Workplace Culture Insights that Drive Success at CDI

At Community Development Institute (CDI), the employees push each other to give their best. So don’t be surprised if you visit their Denver headquarters and find them engaged in a fierce plank challenge.

Employees recently gathered in a conference space to watch a handful of coworkers down on their yoga mats testing their core strength by seeing who could hold a pose the longest. The winner was Belinda Enriquez, who earned a $15 Subway gift card. More important, she earned bragging rights. “I’m definitely going to use those as long as I can.”

We see this spirit at many Top Workplaces; organizations are passionate about doing things well and doing things right. But the bar seems that much higher at CDI, which is in the business of showing others how to improve organizational efficiency and leadership. Its high standards are intertwined with a passion for helping families in need, and its employees hold themselves to a high standard for doing things right.

“We have to practice what we preach. It’s something we are always working at,” said Yumiko Dougherty, program support manager.

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Community service
CDI is a unique non-profit business. Its task, secured by a five-year federal government contract, is to take over struggling Head Start programs around the country and turn them around.

The organization has been around for 40 years, almost as long as Head Start itself. Launched during the War on Poverty under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, Head Start is a government-funded program that supports early childhood education programs. Today, it’s an $8 billion taxpayer-funded program.

Sometimes, those community programs find themselves in trouble, with leadership issues or financial challenges. That’s where CDI comes in. It gets programs back on track. For families with few resources, this support is critical. CDI employees know they influence the lives of children and families.

In its community work, CDI uses a strength-based approach to find what’s working, and it uses that as a building block to support what’s not working. “It’s really about bringing forth the best services in a community based on what’s there,” said Mark Elliott, CDI’s CEO. “I think it’s our ‘Look at what’s good first’ kind of approach that leads to a lot of our success.”

Doing things well
CDI is “one team with one dream,” and it thrives on everything it does. In the employee survey administered by Energage, the feedback from company employees was off the charts by nearly every organizational health measure, including Alignment, Execution, and The Manager.

“We don’t have the luxury of not doing our work well,” said Janice Moore, project director.
Elliott says the organization’s workplace culture encourages it to examine how well they are doing and what more they can do.

“We feel strongly that we need to be healthy as an organization ourselves before we can really strengthen other communities’ organizations’ programs,” he said. “It really is a source of our success how well we are functioning.”

A few workplace culture insights from CDI:

Pushing themselves: In any organization, there is a natural tendency to be static. CDI employees said their workplace culture urges them to push boundaries on how they see the world and determine how to do things better.

Eliminating negativity: CDI’s workplace culture minimizes drama and helps with happiness. “When you come from a positive perspective, people respond in kind,” said Monica Buhler, accounting manager.

Being efficient: “A piece of it is the absolute buy-in from the staff for the work we do in a mission-driven organization,” Elliott said.

Getting people to work at their full potential: “We’re careful who we hire,” Elliott said. “But it’s also part of our structure; we try to have as flat of a structure as we can that emphasizes team-based solutions with high levels of communication and joint responsibility for outcomes.”

Leadership: Elliott says he focuses on trust, transparency, and communication. “I really do care how people are doing, and I try to engage the staff in a way that helps them feel safe.”

Good communication and quality meetings: “When you say you want programs to succeed, that’s one thing… but you have to walk the walk,” said Celeste Quinones, human resources coordinator for interim programs.

Joint accountability: If you have an idea, say it. “You need to speak up,” Dougherty said. “Everyone knows their ideas will be heard an acted upon,” added Tanieka Griffin, benefits coordinator.

Equality: The seventh-floor corner offices, which offer fabulous views of the mountains near Denver, are all open spaces. No executive suites. The corners are for meeting rooms or quiet rooms.

CDI has more than 100 employees, about half in the headquarters in Denver, and the other half scattered across the country. It is demanding. It requires travel, long hours, missed holidays. It can take a toll physically, emotionally, and mentally. “But when you are committed to it, the investment is easy,” Moore said.

To make up for the rigors of the job, employees get generous time off, flexibility, and good medical and dental coverage. There is a focus on wellness, taking care of yourself. Workers are clearly satisfied with pay and benefits. The positivity score for benefits was 86% higher than the national benchmark for education non-profits. For pay, CDI’s positivity scores were 67% above the benchmark.

Employee engagement was an astonishing 98% in 2015. Average engagement among Top Workplaces nationwide is 67%. For the U.S. workforce in general, it’s about 32%, according to Gallup.

“We think we’re pretty cool, but there’s always room for improvement,” Elliott said.