Consistent Leadership in Times of Change

Several years ago amid a period of tremendous growth, Powder River Energy Corporation (PRECorp) was struggling to keep up with its changing work environment. Growth had occurred so quickly and was so large in scope that organizational processes were breaking down and employees were under a tremendous amount of stress. Mike Easley, CEO, led a transformational change process that guided the company through its challenges.

Fast forward five years: the landscape had changed again. This time, the energy industry was in major decline. But Easley knew that what got them through a period of exponential growth would serve them just as well in a downturn. “A strong foundation of leadership keeps a company buoyant through the ups and the downs,” he explains.

A Look Back

To get a true understanding of what his company needed to improve performance, Easley gathered data with an employee opinion survey. The results were not easy to take. He found that people were not positive about their organization or their leader. “Part of becoming equipped to lead involves facing reality—getting your finger on the pulse of your people and learning how they feel about both the organization and your leadership,” says Easley. He admits that some of the feedback—especially the personal attacks—were hard to read. But the experience helped him find the courage to begin his own servant leadership journey. He enrolled in the Ken Blanchard Executive MBA program and began his quest to lead at a higher level, which led to the improvement and change management process that ultimately kept the company afloat.

At the beginning of Easley’s servant leadership journey, he needed his staff to embrace his long-term vision of becoming a strategically aligned, values focused, member centric organization with highly engaged employees. This required strong, respected leaders as well as motivated individual achievers. Easley was familiar with the concepts of both Situational Leadership® II and Self Leadership from The Ken Blanchard Companies and brought these training programs into his organization.

Situational Leadership® II teaches leaders how to set clear, attainable goals with each direct report, diagnose their development level on each task, and provide the appropriate leadership style to help them be successful. Self Leadership helps direct reports learn how to ask their leaders for support and direction by teaching a mindset and skillset of taking personal responsibility for getting their needs met.

“These two programs are based on improving communication between leaders and direct reports by providing a common leadership language to guide conversations,” says Easley. “I believe leadership is a partnership. By giving everyone the same tools to use when communicating, we have been able to build strong leaders who develop the competence, motivation, and confidence of their staff—and individual achievers who take responsibility for their own initiative and results.

“Ken Blanchard says leadership is not something you do to people—it’s something you do with people,” continues Easley. “Using these two programs together has allowed our leaders to become true partners with their direct reports.” The PRECorp leadership team believes leaders worth following seek continual feedback and use that feedback to keep improving.

The employees of PRECorp worked diligently to put the skills they learned in training into practice in the workplace. Over time, the skills of Situational Leadership® II and Self Leadership have been completely embedded into the culture of the organization. “Monthly one-on one meetings are so much a part of our culture at this point that most people in the company would tell you it was an in-house idea instead of something that began with the training. Situational Leadership® II terms are not buzzwords here—they are part of our vocabulary,” Easley says.

But the training didn’t stop there. To develop leadership and communications skills even further, Easley brought in two additional programs from Blanchard: Challenging Conversations and Building Trust. “We realized that when people needed to deliver a difficult message, give performance feedback, or confront challenging behavior, they required another set of communication skills,” explains Easley. People learned to use the five-step SPEAK model taught in Challenging Conversations to have difficult discussions without alienating others and to resolve conflicts. They also learned the ABCD Trust model, which teaches people how to build trusting relationships and how to repair trust if it has been broken. “Trust is at the heart of every relationship—and some of us weren’t even aware that our actions can either build or erode trust,” Easley continues. “Learning that difference was the first step and using the skills from the program helped us work together even better.” Using all the programs together allowed PRECorp to create a foundation for trusting relationships and an engaged, committed, high performing workforce.

Initial Results and the Next Challenge

During the challenging demands of the rapid growth phase years earlier, Easley and his team were able to manage the changing environment. An employee opinion survey showed improvement in scores in categories such as Executive Staff, Communication, Cooperation, Teamwork, and Employee Satisfaction. In addition, their American Consumer Satisfaction Index scores showed continuous incremental improvement in customer service from year to year.  “The relationship between improvements in our scores and the assimilation of the skills we learned from Blanchard was compelling,” Easley says.

Then PRECorp was hit with the next challenge: major declines in the energy industry—and the collateral damage to their business. Instead of dealing with rapid growth, Easley and his team were now facing the opposite: cost efficiency efforts and reductions.

Because PRECorp operates as a nonprofit cooperative, their members are their customers. During the downturn, Easley directed his team to focus on how they could continue to serve their membership rather than be served by their membership. He asked everyone to rely on the leadership skills they had worked hard to develop and to trust in their values and processes.  By keeping that focus, they were able to keep a balance between the needs of employees, members, and the organization. The results? One of PRECorp’s most financially challenging years on record was also one of its best operations years on record. “Had it not been for our strong and well established leadership foundation, we would not have come out of such a challenging year in such good shape,” Easley says.

When companies face challenges—rapid growth, declining industry trends, or just trying to keep pace—the one thing they must be able to rely on is strong, trustworthy leadership. With a solid foundation of leadership skills entrenched in the culture, the people of PRECorp were equipped to handle their latest challenge as a community—and know they have what it takes to tackle any challenges that may arise in the future.