Engineering an HR Evolution

Engineering an HR Evolution | Human Resource Executive Online To stop the bursting dam of staff departures and low morale, Bridget Atkinson instituted programs that gave management and staff a clear vision of their future career promise.

By Paul Gallagher

Bridget Atkinson knows what it's like to work in a company with a crushing turnover rate, plummeting stock price and dreadful morale. Several years ago, so many employees were rushing for the exit at the government-services company GTSI, there might as well have been a turnstile instead of a door.

Among the departing was Atkinson.

But her respite lasted three weeks. When James Leto took the helm as the company's new CEO in 2006 and promised a commitment to managing and retaining talent, Atkinson returned to her role as vice president of HR and organizational development for the Chantilly, Va.-based GTSI.

Since then, Atkinson, one of this year's HR Honor Roll inductees, has stanched the hemorrhaging from a whopping 54 percent in February 2006 to a mere 7 percent as of December 2007. Her dedication to creating an engaged staff that sees long-term value in their careers has helped earn GTSI solid financials in the marketplace and a newfound reputation as a successful business.

With 700 employees, GTSI exists to connect technology companies with federal, state and local government customers; industry heavyweights such as Sun, Cisco and others depend on GTSI to help them submit bids and proposals and win contracts with the government.

Their product is ultimately their people, and their ability to deliver the connections between the private sector and the government.

"We've got a 200-plus salesperson organization that are brilliant at building strategic relationships," says Atkinson.

After her return in 2006, Atkinson wasted little time in formulating and implementing a human capital management plan that focused on employee engagement and provided the staff with a long view of their careers.

She created wellness programs, ongoing performance feedback and training opportunities.

In an environment immersed in highly technical engineering and sales, the "softer side" of HR such as wellness and training might be a tough sell, but Atkinson admits to being a bit of an engineering type herself. Her husband and father are also engineers, so she naturally found a way to connect with the staff.

"I'd say, 'Do you have a plan for your career?' and 'Do you have a plan for your retirement?' and 'Do you have a plan for your wellness?' So, our plan is three-faceted, and that appeals to everybody -- especially an engineer," she says.

In addition to wellness programs that have so far attracted more than 50 percent of staff participation, Atkinson instituted 360-degree assessments and personalized employee development plans, tailored to show every employee which skills they need to advance their careers at GTSI. With a competency assessment, specific goals and quarterly performance reviews, Atkinson opened what she terms a career "line-of-sight" for employees.

"Now, we're really pressing their belief button," she says. "They can see that they can have a long-term career here at the organization and continue to grow and evolve within the organization."

In less than two years, not only has the turnover been halted, but employee satisfaction and commitment has increased 52 percent, from 40 percent to 92 percent, as measured by the Human Capital Capability Scorecard, an employee survey from McBassi & Company, of Golden, Colo. There was a 92 percent voluntary participation rate for the survey.

Atkinson has spread the gospel of human capital beyond the staff and into the leadership roles as well, and has begun educating the executives and managers on the value of investing in staff through career assessments, succession planning and a commitment to coaching on career goals.

Ken Carnes, from Dallas-based management consultant Cornerstone Leadership Institute, worked with Atkinson to bolster GTSI's leadership coaching programs. Carnes says Atkinson understood that both the rank-and-file and the management had to see the value of a long-term vision.

In 2007, along with the individualized career-development plans, GTSI unveiled specialized leadership and management programs, and began to offer more than 300 online training courses for managers and other staff.

"She has been just a tremendous supporter," says Carnes, who also credits Atkinson with the "ability to identify the strengths of her team and to use those to the best of their abilities."

Atkinson says the company was ripe for an HR makeover, and it was easy to get buy-in from the top down. "We had a situation here," she says. "The house was on fire, so I had a catalyst to have the senior team rally around and have 100 percent support moving forward."

So impressive has the turnaround been that the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business is going to publish a case study centered on GTSI for the school's executive training program.

Atkinson came to her HR role through "the back door," she says, beginning in sales and marketing. She started at GTSI in 1998 as a director of recruiting.

She counts the last two years with GTSI as her most satisfying, and credits Leto with supporting the key strategic HR programs.

Leto says Atkinson's resourcefulness helped sell the value of employee engagement. "Her prior industry experience in sales and marketing allowed her to engage strategically and in a manner that was viewed as credible by her peers," says Leto.

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