Chamber Executive Article Archive

Greater Louisville Inc. has created a culture where top talent thrives

By Kent Oyler

When I took the helm of Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI) back in 2014, I knew I faced an uphill climb. Several years of interim CEOs, leadership transitions, negative press coverage over cutbacks and a rift with the city allowed negativity to seep into our workplace culture. The result was a decidedly unhappy staff. I knew that I had to make major changes internally if I wanted to energize our staff and change the course of our region.

Recognizing that good staff morale leads to strong operations, I set out to develop a program to improve our culture at the chamber of commerce. First, I asked my leadership team to check all egos at the door. We each knew there was a problem and only by talking to current employees about shortcomings could we begin to correct course. An important first step was to administer a confidential employee survey to measure morale and gather feedback on where improvement was most needed. The data and comments from the first survey were dismal; the criticism frank. Clearly there was much work to do, but now we had a place to start.

We began by updating our vision and mission statements and got everyone on board with a bold new direction. We rebranded the chamber in everything but our name and made it feel ‘different’ than the GLI of the past. To gain better alignment, every person in the organization changed offices. The change in mission and physical offices allowed us to make a clean mental break from the dysfunction of our past.

The GLI leadership team created complimentary ‘values’ cards for staff to give to others on staff when they deserved a “thumbs up” by exhibiting one of those values. This small act created not only an appreciative environment, but also comradery between departments that did not work together daily.

Progress to reduce turnover and increase staff satisfaction accelerated through 2015 and into the next year. GLI introduced an employee professional development plan which has now grown to $500 annually in budgeted professional development funds for every staff member. And partnerships with other nonprofits and community organizations have allowed us to leverage professional development dollars. Because of these partnerships, GLI now offers everything from traditional leadership development programs to public speaking training to mindfulness through meditation courses hosted in our boardroom. The response by the staff has been overwhelmingly positive.

We also adjusted scheduling so that employees can experience a better work-life balance. Remote technology provides an opportunity for employees to work from home one day a week, if their schedule allows. During the week of Kentucky Derby — the biggest event of the year for our region — we operate on an amended schedule because many employees are out of the office, representing GLI in the community. Additional days off are awarded when employee participation reaches 100 percent for GLI’s Fund for the Arts and the United Way fundraising campaign goal.

All-staff meetings have been updated to be more fun and cross-functional. Front-line employees now give departmental updates. We include a professional development moment where an employee shares a development experience. And we have shout-outs at the meeting’s end, which now seem to go on forever as employees give applause to each other for kudos-worthy action.

With an increase in new hiring (70 percent of GLI staff is new since 2014), there is a recognized need to recruit people who are aligned with GLI’s mission and vision, and to get them excited about organizational goals right away. GLI developed a robust on-boarding process for every new hire. It includes meetings and training sessions with each department to ensure staff knows how their role fits into the big picture. A comprehensive employee manual ensures a smooth transition into the GLI culture for new employees, and benefits existing staff as a refresher. Connect-4-Lunches, which are a new initiative since 2014, provide a forum for three new employees and me to become acquainted on a more personal level.

We also revisited our five core staff values:

  • Results-oriented, with an emphasis on pursuing excellence
  • Collaborative, in that we are all united in work and spirit
  • Flexible, always expect the unexpected
  • Passionate, our staff is driven to achieve
  • Fun, in that we enjoy the journey

Brittain Skinner, EnterpriseCorp director, and Sydney Doctor, events director, save the day at the annual 5Across pitch competition

GLI staff & CEO Kent Oyler participate in scavenger hunt to raise money for Metro United Way

EnterpriseCorp’s Ellie Pucket & pup, Pepper, enjoy Frequent Friday Fidos in the GLI office

GLI staff gather to celebrate small businesses at the 2017 Inc.credibe Awards event


Employee benefits and pay — two particularly low points on our survey — have been addressed through a salary survey and subsequent salary adjustments, as necessary, to align compensation to our market pay policy. We relaunched our 401(k) plan match, and have increased the match as budget has allowed. With the help of Louisville-based Humana, a new insurance plan has resulted in substantially-reduced premiums for many employees. And notably, our gain-share program splits the first annual surplus—monies above our budgeted surplus—in half with employees. In 2016, about $50,000 was distributed among all GLI employees through the gain-share program. Now everyone is more focused on revenue generation and cost control.

Importantly, we have taken time to discuss each of the employee surveys (six so far) with staff and we explain all changes that are made based on employee feedback. Now three years into the work, it’s only by looking back that we can fully appreciate how far we’ve come.

In addition to professional development opportunities, GLI created staff-run committees to improve our workplace. GLI’s leadership team facilitated the process, but it’s our staff’s entrepreneurism that is often responsible for many of the changes. These newly-developed staff committees offer something for everyone.

As the name suggests, GLI’s Fun Committee provides leadership and planning for activities that are fun, and budget-friendly. Monthly lunches — affectionately known here as Fat Fridays — take staffers to restaurants across the region that are unique and sometimes off the beaten path. In addition to serving as fun, inexpensive bonding moments, these outings allow staff members to support local, small businesses. And to help staffers get their doggy fix, the Fun Committee oversees Fidos Friday, which brings wagging tails and smiling faces to the office. Monthly events — like group bowling, Thirsty Thursdays (an in-office happy hour) and holiday parties — contribute to positive staff morale.

The Facilities Committee works together to improve our workspace, both aesthetically and functionally. Now we have tasty, local coffee, a Zen Den for midday decompression (a repurposed space in a previously-unused office) and a ping pong table for us to “bounce” around ideas during breaks away from the screen. GLI staffers enjoy gathering in a now remodeled breakroom, which has gone from a drab kitchen to a welcoming space. A more “millennial-friendly” dress code, which allows employees to pay to wear jeans, has been warmly received by staff. Money collected is donated to local charities each year.

Lastly, GLI’s Community Impact Committee encourages and develops a spirit of giving in the community. This committee organizes volunteer and charitable fundraising opportunities. Outside of normal work hours this year, employees gathered trash as part of a community beautification effort (Operation Brightside), donated blood during to American Red Cross and collected school supplies for students in the community. These activities give a face to the Metro Chamber of Commerce and put a spotlight on our organization-wide commitment to supporting the community.

I’m proud that employee satisfaction has improved 40 percent since 2014, based on results of a semi-annual employee survey. Today, a whopping 96 percent of my colleagues would recommend GLI to a friend as a good place to work.

While there’s still work to do, I’m humbled and energized by the progress that has been made since making employee satisfaction a key focus. It’s hard to ignore signs of improvement, shown on the faces of staff around the office. Staff happiness is reflected, too, in marked improvement in service to investors and partners. Now our goal is to return to the ranks of Best Places to Work in Kentucky.

Wonderful Workplaces

At the Grapevine Chamber of Commerce in Texas, team members enjoy a flexible schedule that allows for time out of the office to attend important events, like their child’s school play or medical appointments. CEO RaDonna Hessel thinks it’s much more important for the six team members to get the job done, than it is to sit behind a desk from 9-to-5 every work day. Additionally, a “generous” paid time off (PTO) policy allows team members to roll over up to 60 days. Yes, 60!

Employees of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce in Ithaca, New York are encouraged to find work-life balance through flexible scheduling and opportunities to work remotely. The chamber celebrates special occasions, like birthdays, with an office party, and the staff occasionally gets together for a cocktail hour. Monthly in-office chair massages, occasional theatre tickets and pet visits make the chamber of commerce an attractive place to work, says President & CEO Jennifer Tavares.

Chris Romer, president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership in Colorado, has implemented a results-oriented workplace environment (affectionately referred to as R.O.W.E.). Team members can take as many days off as they need—just like Netflix, the chamber of com-merce in the mountainous resort community offers unlimited time off. And, through the support of members, employees have access to ski passes and are encouraged to enjoy the many amenities the community offers.

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