When Paul Gaffney became president and CEO of AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah, the company had more than 4.3 million members, a century of history and $2.6 billion in revenue. At the same time, it was essentially a startup.
That summer the milestone decision had been made by the California State Automobile Association to split up its two big operating businesses, a motor club and an insurance carrier, into two separate companies.
“Whenever you have things combined that have some different business drivers, you end up being inefficient in surprising places,” says Gaffney, who assumed leadership of the auto club in 2010.
He wasn’t surprised to find that the 111-year-old company had gravitated toward a hierarchical culture, but he realized that the transition was a perfect time to reengage employees at the “new” company in a culture that was participative and would drive the kind of ideas needed to excel in the service business.
“So we really wanted to invert that leadership pyramid and put the folks who are on the front lines with our customers at the top,” Gaffney says. “That’s a change for people. People actually like where that’s going, but it’s different than their historical experience. So we’ve had to do a lot of work to explain to people what we mean by that.”
When you’re coming into hierarchical culture, not everyone in the organization may be jumping to start sharing his or her ideas. So the first step for Gaffney was to get people at all levels of the company motivated to play a more active role.
One way to do this is by reminding people how they fit into your company’s vision and mission. Because the company’s heritage had been lost a little bit when it was tied to the insurance business, Gaffney began highlighting aspects of this history using storytelling, for example, the fact that the club invented the eight-sided stop sign.
“We have a historian on staff and we try to make those rich elements of the history of the club very apparent to our employees and in our Via (member) magazine,” Gaffney says.
He encouraged his leaders in the organization to utilize meetings and other internal communications as opportunities to share member stories and anecdotes.
“One thing that we’ve done very proactively is to make sure that our club member is always front and center, even if the thing that we’re working on might seem so ‘back-officey’ that you don’t know how it could be connected to the member,” Gaffney says. “So we tell a lot of member stories. That’s a very important part of our culture, is to remind everyone why we’re here.”
Sharing stories about your company helps employees to connect to your customers and your business in a more participative way, because it facilitates a more personal response.
“It just seems to work well though because it is a tool that lowers the barriers to having dialogue versus monologue, because people can tell you what parts of a story resonate with them, what parts they have questions about and what parts trouble them,” Gaffney says. “Storytelling just seems to be a medium that unlike PowerPoint, really draws people in.”
Another way to motivate employee participation is to ask more questions. This helps draw out people who may be more reserved in bringing their ideas to the table.
“When you ask folks, they usually have things they want to tell you, but when you don’t ask they generally don’t want to bring them up,” Gaffney says. “It’s the rare individual that will proactively bring up something that they know could be improved. But when you ask them, most people respond to that invitation.”
Gaffney now asks everyone in a leadership role at the company to double their question-to-statement ratio.
“The way we find inefficiencies is we try to make the environment one that is really conducive to everyone being curious, because you can’t find inefficiencies by having some specialized group looking for them or by expecting that a couple people at the top will do things,” Gaffney says. “You actually have to have the whole company constantly looking at things and saying, ‘Why do we do this that way? Could we do this more efficiently?’ That has yielded for us a lot of great opportunities that we might not have otherwise uncovered.”
Get with your top people
Gaffney knew his top leaders were historically used to a top-down culture. So to facilitate the transition, he has spent a lot of time coaching the company’s management to help them shift toward a bottom-up leadership structure.
“I spend a lot of time with the folks at the top couple layers of the official org chart, just talking to them about what it means to be in service to the folks who are in service to our customers — so in service to them rather than in charge of them,” Gaffney says.
Providing a model for what you want leadership to look like is important in helping people evolve their approaches and buy into the changes.
One way Gaffney offered this was by implementing a training program to help people examine different approaches to leading. He also decided to run the program personally.
“It’s a leadership development program that is based on reading about leaders in other situations and engaging in a group dialogue of how did those leaders approach the situation, and how did they model the kind of leadership that we’re looking for,” Gaffney says.
In the process, Gaffney realized he had to make some changes in his own leadership style to be more inclusive. As CEO, you are the number one model your managers will look to copy.
“In wanting to be a great role model for how we want every manager and leader around here to behave, that’s helped me even more focus on ‘Hey, am I asking enough questions and reducing the amount of statements that I make?” Gaffney says. “Becoming more aware of that boundary line of when do you really need to tell the organization to do something versus giving it a lot of room to be a healthy organism — that’s a line that is difficult for any CEO to find.”
Because his ideas could easily dominate the conversation, Gaffney says he must make a concerted effort to delegate lower level projects and push decision-making out in the company.
“I don’t think there’s any circumstance where the CEO doesn’t make a couple calls, but out of 100 things, is it 12?” Gaffney says. “Certainly a couple years ago, I think I would have been more toward the ‘We’ve got to get this done and we should do this this way,’ and moved more toward ‘You know what there are only a few things that I’m actually going to weigh directly in on and I’m going to work more aggressively on the other things to make sure that the way that those decisions are getting made is as participative as possible.’”
Although it may require some personnel changes — which it did at AAA — Gaffney says that the real driver of the change in your leadership team is getting people to see the benefit of doing things differently. And this is a more gradual process.
“What I try to do and what I encourage the people who report directly to me to do is to be very aware that we’re asking for a transition in a collection of learned behaviors,” Gaffney says. “To me, the successful way to coach folks through that is not to criticize their historical approach but to ask them some questions about how they might do things differently if they really wanted to be in service to others rather than in charge of others. That takes a lot of time but it can be a very important ingredient in the transformation.”
In this kind of transformation, Gaffney recommends making sure that your top leaders are high in their sense of urgency. Those will be the people who will be worth the big investment of your time.
“Do they tend to be the kind of person who when there’s something to work on, they own it?” Gaffney says. “When there’s something to work on, they believe they have the capacity either to work on it themselves or find the right kind of help to work on it, versus someone who has low urgency and someone who tends to look at circumstances outside themselves to explain why they can or cannot fix something. It’s very difficult to help someone if they’re low in their own sense of urgency. It’s very unlikely that my investment in them is going to help make any change.”
Create an idea system
A bottom-up culture is most successful when you can actually implement ideas into your company to solve problems, innovate and improve. So with more people involved in the decision-making process, you need to teach employees how to evaluate ideas so the best ones rise to the top.
“Everyone is in touch with the emotional goodness of coming up with an idea,” Gaffney says. “It’s a little bit more of a challenge to get people to balance their emotional enthusiasm for something that sounds right and seems to intuitively be a really good idea and then put it through the rigor of could it possibly be big enough for us to actually work on and be excited about.”
Gaffney says to first acknowledge the quality of the idea, particularly if it’s being delivered enthusiastically, then ask questions to turn the thought process back on the employee.
“When trying to flesh out an idea — even if I know instinctively that it could never be big enough or it couldn’t make a profit — instead of sharing my point of view, I try to be in a place where I ask the employee, ‘OK, if you were to run this business, how much do you think you’d sell this for, and how much do you think you’d sell, and how would you go about figuring that out, and what did you think the costs of this thing would be?’ Really what I’m trying to do is get all 2,200 of these folks to think through those things all the time, even in their day-to-day operation.”
Even if the idea doesn’t end up working, pushing employees to find solutions themselves teaches people how to come up with ideas that will work.
“I’m sure there are some people who would rather not have to do that, but those ideas don’t make it anywhere anyway,” Gaffney says. “I think a lot of people react to that by realizing, ‘OK maybe this one wasn’t good enough, but I now know a lot more about what ingredients need to be in my next idea.’”
That also pushes decision-making down in the organizations, which frees your senior leaders up to focus on other priorities and pursue new opportunities as well.
“I think the number one advantage is people have wider ranges of responsibility now,” Gaffney says. “They go to fewer meetings. They have to prepare fewer presentations and that inspires them to just get things done.”
As an example, the company was able to deploy its new finance, HR and payroll backbone in just four short months.
“We were able to do that that quickly because the people that had to do the work had that insight that ‘Hey, there are so many opportunities here, we need to unlock them right away and take a little bit of risk in moving quickly onto a new platform,’” Gaffney says.
“It’s perhaps an inevitable consequence of making an organization leaner, but it’s also the kind of environment that you encounter in a startup, where there’s more work to do than there are people and you have good people in the roles. You give them authority. You let them make decisions; and in my experience people embrace that kind of environment with great enthusiasm.”
How to reach: AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah, www.csaa.com or (800) 922-8228
1. Engage people through dialogue
2. Be a model of participative leadership
3. Help people evaluate their own ideas
The Gaffney File
President & CEO
AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah
Education: AB in Computer Science from Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve gotten?
Essentially to never stop learning. That has come in a variety of forms, some of them more harsh than others. One of them is to remember that even in moments of great success, you’re just a human being and something else is going to go wrong tomorrow and you better not rest for any period of time on success.
Why do people like working for you?
I’d hope they would tell you that we try to do this in a pretty fun way, and it’s an environment where all 2,200 people in the company speak to everyone else on a first-name basis. I’m Paul out in the field. I’m not the president. And I think that helps people see their work as a pretty natural extension of their life.
What do you like most about your job?
What I love about this company and the businesses that we’re in and the people that are in it is we have no inherent conflict between any other party and the needs of our customers. We don’t have stockholders to please – this company is essentially owned by its members. We have a pretty clear business model that articulates making just a small amount of profit each year that helps sustain the long-term viability of the company and provides great value to members. We don’t sell anything, and as long as I’m here we won’t sell anything where the nature of the sale benefits someone in a way disproportionate to how it benefits the customer. It’s really a blessing to not have any of those conflicts. And most other business it’s not nefarious, it’s just easy for those conflicts to creep up.