Claire Howells: Engaged and Engaging

By Paul Gallagher

Why Claire Howells would trade the bejeweled islands of her home in Tasmania, Australia, for the semi-arid expanse of Salt Lake City is a mystery that only her wanderlust might explain.

Before landing in her current position as vice president of employee engagement and communications for Zions Bancorporation, Howells saw the sights in Dubai, and worked in business consulting in the United Kingdom, India and elsewhere in Asia.

But Salt Lake City, headquarters of Zions, "won my heart when I visited" in 2004, says Howells.

It's Zions' gain, and they know it. Howells is among this year's 2009 HR's Rising Stars Award winners for her innovative project-management skills and tireless enthusiasm for team building and customer service.

Witty and cheerful, Howells seems almost typecast in her role. Since receiving her M.B.A. from the University of Western Australia, earning distinctions in entrepreneurship and innovation, her career has stretched across an array of experiences, from marketing and finance to coaching and business management in an entrepreneurial environment.

"Having experience in many different facets in business and in several different industries and cultural environments allows you to have the perspective to see opportunities that you might not ordinarily see," she says.

Those opportunities are not always easily exploited in a highly decentralized business model like Zions, which manages eight distinct banking operations throughout the West. Each bank is its own employer, with its own brand, its own CEO and its own human resource leader.

Fortunately, says Howells, she created relationships with each of the banks' HR directors in 2006, when she spent months cleaning up what she terms "a train-wreck" of a project to create an employee handbook that covered all the businesses.

A year later, she was tasked with creating "engage!," an employee engagement system that integrates each of the distinct banking operations into one feedback-management system. Howells counted on her network in the banks again to help her bring the different cultures and brands together into one engagement/feedback system.

But rolling all of the independent brands through the system, from South Jordan, Utah-based Allegiance Inc., was a challenge.

While maintaining the autonomy of each brand, she had to standardize the software entry and reporting capabilities. She worked with each of the local representatives to incorporate unique data into the platform, and then worked with Allegiance to customize data into one reporting tool. Now, each bank can enter, track and share data on both customer and employee engagement.

Howells continues to host two monthly engagement telephone conferences -- one for employee engagement, and the other for employee and customer engagement. Both conferences are used to evaluate feedback from "engage!" and determine ways to positively impact employee and customer satisfaction.

"I tend to be the one in our department who is looking six months to three years ahead, and saying, 'In order to do this, we need to start on this now,' " she says. "It's about showing people how to connect the dots."

Jul 1, 2009
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