When committees and councils are driving the decision-making process, it is imperative to provide employees with learning that delivers results. Two years ago, Adams established Naperville Employee University (NEU) to help connect learning with city strategy. She established performance competencies for the organization and used those as a basis for a performance evaluation system, as well as the “corporate” university, bringing competencies and curriculum strategy together. “That focused around the city business plan and strategic plan,” Adams said. “I felt that a lot of people didn’t seem to have a good understanding of what the city’s goals were or where the city was headed, so I try to incorporate that into a lot of the learning and try to help them connect what they do to what the city is doing to give them that bigger picture.”
In addition to required compliance training, NEU offers employee and leadership development. These courses are adaptable to the needs of the city, and the curriculum tends to look different every year. To help develop leaders, NEU offers a Leadership Certificate program in partnership with North Central College. The program takes a cohort group of 10 high-potential employees through a one-year program that includes graduate classes at the college, a mandatory number of council meetings and a research project to get the cohort into the community, so they can better understand the citizens they serve. “The end product of that research is a program, initiative or information that somehow benefits the city,” Adams said. “We feel like we’re giving them some new experiences and new challenges to prepare them for future leadership roles in the city. They learn to work together, and we bring 10 people from 10 different departments, and they may or may not have known each other before, but they probably didn’t know exactly what the other person did. And when they’re done, these 10 people stay connected. They still get together once a month. They are working on projects together in the city that they might not have worked on before.”
By working across departments, NEU learners build better-functioning teams. “We’re trying to move toward a more team-oriented organization,” Adams said. “As our city manager would say, we’re trying to remove some silos that have isolated some departments or some people, and we’re trying to have more cross-departmental teams work on projects. The result is the project has more perspective built in from the beginning, and we’ve seen the projects come to a more successful conclusion—not always faster, because you have more things to consider, but a more successful conclusion.”
Adams benchmarks NEU against other organizations and tracks the returns on several courses every year. In addition, employees are encouraged to save money for the city through a gain-sharing program. “The basis of this program is that front-line employees come up with cost-saving ideas, and then share in those savings for the first two years of the implementation,” Adams explained. “We’ve had the program in our public works department for two years, and it’s been very successful. They just had their third project approved. They have learned so much about how things get done in the city, but I think just as important as the cost-cutting is the whole employee development piece. They’re working together as a team. They’re learning how things are done. They’re talking with the legal department and the finance department. They’re being connected with people they never would have been connected with before.” Adams added that these types of programs really help make a connection between strategy and leaning.
“What I’m interested in is a very systematic approach to learning, and it connects everything from performance evaluations to our university learning and city strategies,” Adams said. “You can’t have a good learning program if you don’t hold people accountable through the performance evaluation system. Learning isn’t one piece, creating strategy isn’t another piece, and evaluation isn’t another piece—it all goes together. We’re implementing the balanced scorecard here, and it’s very much about looking at the big picture, making connection and holding people accountable and measuring results.”