Culture Change at Finance and Business Operations Division, King County, WA

Culture Change at King County

King County’s Financial and Business Operations Division’s (FBOD) journey to become the “best-run government” in the nation has earned accolades from both the public and the private sector. And recently the National Association of Counties took notice, awarding FBOD its 2016 Financial Management Achievement Award in recognition of the agency’s successful initiatives that have streamlined operations, provided value to customers, and created a work culture focused on problem-solving and respect.

  • 180+ professionals; $56+ million biennial budget
  • Provides accounting, financial management, and treasury services; administers programs related to benefits, payroll, and retirement, business development and contract compliance, and procurement and payables
  • Services 2 million residents of King County: small businesses and vendors, current and retired county employees, property owners, taxpayers, and others

Change Can Be Messy

Change can be messy. It can be hard. Sometimes—perhaps more often than not—there are false starts along the way, times when leaders must stop, reassess, and redirect—to go back to the basics. Just ask members of the King County Finance and Business Operations Division (FBOD) about the journey they’ve taken to become a truly healthy organization and an exemplary role model of efficiency and effectiveness—a journey that began with a focus on the use of continuous improvement tools and implementing Lean practices but that, ultimately, morphed into a far more robust change management initiative grounded in strong leadership development and solid cross-functional team collaboration.

False Starts and a Reboot

Responding to the call by King County executives to become the “best-run government” in the nation, FBOD set about replacing its 30-year-old legacy financial, human resource/payroll, and budget systems in 2012. The fully-integrated replacement required new training, new cross-collaborations, and new areas of accountability up-and-down the line. Three-decade-long processes were gone. Trial and error defined new standard work protocols. With mistakes and rework frustrating employees and customers alike, everything focused on fixing problems.

“Because we went in first and said we wanted to solve problems instead of creating a problem-solving culture, we erred. So, we stepped back. Thanks to the wisdom of our director, Ken Guy, the organization paused and refocused on hearing what was important to the customer and spending time in those areas. We focused on teamwork and leadership.”

— Carol Basile, then FBOD Deputy Director

Although King County executives were well-intentioned in their initial launch of Lean training to help propel agency staff through the transition, they quickly saw the need for a more comprehensive and, most importantly, sustainable approach. A dozen employees had been trained in the methodology, but it wasn’t sticking. Low morale and fear of risk-taking were widespread. Employees weren’t feeling empowered to innovate, to make change happen.

The group’s fundamental culture needed to shift. Where the agency was going wasn’t going to get them where they needed to be—to be the best. There needed to be an intentional focus on resetting the culture in four key areas: enabling leadership behaviors and values, continuous improvement, enterprise alignment, and customer-focused results. That’s when they reached out to Integris Performance Advisors for counsel, coaching, and its expertise in leadership development and helping organizations become great places to work. Over the next nine months, Integris helped FBOD focus on preparing managers, supervisors, and others to be cultural enablers of leadership and respect with two-day The Leadership ChallengeWorkshops, administration of the accompanying 360-degree feedback tool, LPI®: Leadership Practices Inventory®, one-to-one coaching, teambuilding and community celebration events, and customer outreach and employee focus groups.

The Road to Alignment

The group’s first step was to develop a division-wide Clarity Map that, according to Director Ken Guy, set the standard for leader behavior and increased enterprise alignment. With employees spread across multiple floors and buildings, working in five separate lines of business, Ken knew he needed to create one community within the division, and not have different silos that weren’t connected. And the Clarity Map, developed in partnership with the FBOD management team and input from employee focus groups, achieved the goals of fully aligning the agency’s Vision, Mission, and Values with established five-year Outcome Goals and Priorities.

Work on the Clarity Map also raised awareness of how the agency’s stated Values would shape expected behaviors in this new respect-based culture. “The values piece was perhaps the most important,” Ken said, “because values connect most directly to the behaviors you want to promote, what you want people to aspire to, and also establish the boundary lines for what’s NOT acceptable.”

When the group next turned its attention to launching a comprehensive leadership development program, The Leadership Challenge was front-and-center to help leaders across the organization develop the essential behaviors that would reshape the culture and help FBOD live-out its values each and every day.

“The Leadership Challenge was absolutely critical because what I’ve learned over time is that your work culture for any kind of a unit is most influenced by the supervisor or manager of that unit. We wanted to create more alignment—one culture instead of 20, depending on the supervisor—and The Leadership Challenge gave us a common purpose and understanding of what is expected of a leader in our environment. It gave us a construct that helped us achieve our vision: these are The Five Practices of an exemplary leader in this healthy organization and this is how you exhibit those more frequently on a daily basis.”

–Ken Guy, FBOD Director

The Leadership Challenge Workshop and the LPI

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership




The Leadership Challenge and its evidence-based leadership development model, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, became the framework for creating new expectations for leaders. And training in this new discipline started at the top. Beginning with the LPI 360 that provided a powerful self-assessment tool and gathered insight from peers, direct reports, and others, Director Ken Guy and his six direct reports were the first to engage in The Leadership Challenge® Workshop. Over the course of two days, the group explored the valuable insight provided in their customized LPI reports, and explored in-depth each of The Five Practices—Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. They examined their leadership strengths, the frequency with which they were practicing each of the 30 essential leadership behaviors, and developed plans to improve their effectiveness as leaders.

The next step became clear once the first cohort of leaders was back on-the-job, putting into practice what they had learned. The power of The Leadership Challenge moved deeper into the organization with more workshops. An additional 40 leaders are now on-the-ground reshaping the culture, creating a common language of leadership, and bringing The Five Practices to life with staff, peers, and customers alike.

For Section Manager Mary Beth Short, she believes that building a fundamental respect for everyone is essential to creating a healthy organization—a goal The Leadership Challenge has helped to achieve. “I really try to Encourage the Heart by giving more and more over to individual employees—to present, to show what they’re doing, to show the data they’re collecting, what it means—so they can feel that they can act, that they can act successfully and fail successfully, too, because those failures are as important as the successes.”

A firm belief in the notion that “leaders go first” is what inspires FBOD Supervisor Christy Trautman to continue to make a real difference for the FBOD team. “You can’t make progress on your journey without leaders knowing the role they play in it. We can’t do it all but we have to Model the Way. We have to show there is a change and these are the Practices that will get us there. Otherwise, the staff won’t buy into it. When they see supervisors stepping in and how we do our work, it encourages them to say, “This may work! Let’s see if we can take a chance on it.”

Moving The Five Practices Deeper into the Workplace

Knowing that leadership development isn’t a one-time training event—that it takes on-going practice and commitment—a newly created Executive Leadership Team, comprised of graduate leaders of The Leadership Challenge training, has taken extra care to make sure everyone keeps a daily focused on The Five Practices. The group formed five non-hierarchical cross-sectional dyads (each led by two managers) whose charge is to promote initiatives that support their specific leadership Practice throughout the workplace. Meeting each quarter, they collaborate and share ideas about how The Five Practices can be implemented to support the continued strengthening of the agency’s culture. They now also report out their progress at bi-monthly FBOD leadership meetings.

In addition, leadership embarked on an agency listening tour and hosted routine meetings with customers to seek feedback and insight into how best to meet their requirements and deliver on the promise of exemplary service. Employee focus groups helped provide much-needed improvements to the agency’s communication strategies.

And changes are visible everywhere. Where once buildings and floors separated co-workers from one another, where strict functional lines discouraged collaboration and trust, division-wide activities now bring everyone together to create a spirit of community with festivities that celebrate milestones, honor service award recipients, or to simply have fun—from Halloween parties to ice cream socials.

Informal huddles happen in breakrooms and hallways, allowing teams to quickly surface issues for discussion and input or table for the next team meeting. Managers are coaching, not commanding. The customer is the center of everything. And tier boards share progress toward goals for everyone to see—even those colleagues on other teams.

“I think it’s huge to be part of a movement of change you can actually see….a living, breathing thing. Not many people get to see that happen, especially in a large corporation. And then to see it WORK! It makes you feel better about expressing yourself, about being part of a team, about improving and offering suggestions…it improves the overall morale.”

–Amy Pierce, Procurement Buyer

Delivering Results That Matter

By nearly every measure, FBOD’s culture of leadership and respect has made a profound difference in employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and bottom-line performance.

  • 99 % of respondents to a 2016 King County employee engagement survey indicated a willingness to go above and beyond the minimum required by their job description—to give their “discretionary effort”
  • 93% of taxpayers rate their level of satisfaction as Very Good or Good
  • Output is up in Accounts Payable and invoice payment cycle time has been reduced from 30 days to 2 days, resulting in substantially-improved customer satisfaction
  • $7.1 million in process savings in 2015 was a result of improvements in the use of the County’s electronic purchasing P-Cards with reduced cycle time (from 13.4 days to 8.4 days) while volume increased by 57%

And there are softer metrics, too! As Procurement Card Program Manager Kelly Hunsaker sees it, there is much to celebrate—and share with others. “I’ve been in the public sector my entire career, which I’ve always seen as something like a glacial ridge. You know it’s changing but you can’t really see it. But I see FBOD as the ship that plows through the ice. I’ve never seen such a rate of change happen in a public section organization. And it’s exciting. Even the private sector is looking at us, going, “Wow! Look at what they’re doing. How can we implement this in our organization?”

And according to Director Guy, Integris Performance Advisors played an integral role in FBOD’s successful journey. “Integris mentored us as we’ve gone from being novice leaders to true practitioners, to an organization of top-notch problem solvers who really deliver benefit to our customers. We needed to shift our focus from blaming individuals to focusing on solving problems and improving processes. And with Integris’ help, we could actually see a tangible shift starting to take place after 6 months, after 12 months. We’re seeing more intentional actions on the part of supervisors to do The Five Behaviors on a more frequent basis, and that’s playing out in the level of engagement of their employees. You see a new energy in the room!


Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.