Business Center

Empowered Employees: How Change Management Fostered a Culture of Ownership

By Alex Blum, Process Improvement Intern
October 15, 2018

Tim Miles

Tim Miles
Maintenance Superintendent at Region 4

Tim Miles, the Maintenance Superintendent for the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Region 4, the northeast region of the state of Colorado, knew a thing or two about the perception of someone from the outside looking in when he accepted his position with CDOT. Serving in the Armed Forces in a previous career path, he was used to engaging with new people and new challenges all the time. Tim recognized that this skill would prove useful as he sought to change some aspects of how his new team at CDOT worked together in leading employees, working to make decisions, and serving all of their customers.

Tim wanted a more collaborative environment, one where supervisors throughout the management chain were empowered to make decisions and have open conversations with their own supervisors. He knew that this couldn’t be accomplished if his direct reports, the Deputy superintendent, didn’t support and engage in this type of leadership style. Historically, the leadership style in the Region 4 Maintenance chain of command focused more on a command and control type of style, and what Tim wanted to inspire was an empowering and supportive style of leadership, ensuring that everyone in the management chain had a voice, made quick decisions, and felt empowered to make them.  

With this in mind, the Change Management course Tim enrolled in provided one key insight that was crucial to the success of this change: while the purpose of this culture shift was to empower others to make decisions and have more autonomy, the facilitation of the change was a top-down decision, coming from a Superintendent, which meant that the impacted managers weren’t a part of the decision-making process. Tim recognized this problematic paradox, stating that “people support what they help create, and I realized in my effort to empower the LTC Ops’ decision-making authority I was, in fact, taking away their ability to make decisions. So I learned quickly to involve the people that the change was impacting, ask for their input, and let that inform the final solution.” This paradigm shift helped immensely, as they provided input into the solutions to make the managers more productive, efficient, and engaged at work. One example of this was the format of the regularly scheduled meetings of managers. Often there was no clear agenda, and non-agenda items, including external speakers, were often included without informing the meeting host. Tim’s team suggested formalizing these meetings, shortening the length of the meetings to include only key actions that need to be addressed, and organizing short focused meetings on any items not intended for that meeting’s purpose.  

Of course, that is not to say that there were not challenges along the way to a more overall empowered department. One obstacle that was not anticipated was the level of involvement from upper-level management. “I figured I could get a lot of grassroots support from my mid-level managers by engaging them in the decision-making process, showing them how their expectations would be different, offering them more autonomy, and giving them a specific platform to engage with one another as we sought to develop this new leadership style,” Tim stated, “But, I didn’t anticipate my upper level managers (Deputy Superintendents) attending these meetings also.” While the Deputies were well-intentioned, their presence created an atmosphere where the managers who were supposed to be empowered were actually nervous about sharing their potentially dissenting opinions with their supervisors in the room. Tim decided to have a separate meeting with the Deputies to explain why it was important that this level of management have a space to raise ideas and concerns without their supervisors present, and while it initially stalled the effort, once the Deputies understood the overall desired outcomes and Tim’s reasoning, everything began to fall into place.

Fast forward to today and the LTC Ops have the flexibility and autonomy to make decisions for their teams, and the Deputy Superintendents are supporting them in making those decisions. In this new environment Tim and the Deputy Superintendents are providing resources, removing barriers, and being open to conversation and feedback. Reflecting on this process, Tim highlighted the importance of thinking from different perspectives: “Sometimes when you change the culture, it is hard to measure how well you’re performing in the new way, so I’ve done my best to continue using the principles of what we tried to instill in the Region 4 Maintenance Leadership Team. I am continually asking for input from all of the managers and supervisors, engaging them in the solution-building process, and trusting them to make the best decision on a daily basis for their respective teams. Everything we do is very democratic in that way, which means most people are early adopters of change, and we identify those who need some convincing early enough to address the situation with a structured change management approach before it becomes a risk.” This continual reinforcement of the new mindset has resulted in a more collaborate, responsive, and engaged leadership team in Region 4 and that only leads to better outcomes and helps to ensure that CDOT becomes the best DOT in the country.

Want to learn more about Change Management at CDOT?
Check out our improvement efforts at the Office of Process Improvement’s website! Or, for CDOT employees, stop by the Change Hub on our Intranet!