I Value: Seattle City Light’s Mission to Engage Employees with the Utility’s Values

This story was published originally in the September 2019 issue of Northwest Public Power Association Bulletin Magazine. Please note: positions and titles of contributors may have changed since the time of original publication.

What do you value?
At first glance, it’s a straightforward question, but it can challenge someone to examine the ideals for which they stand. At our core, values drive how we live and even how we work. They’re inherent to our being.

Like most utilities, Seattle City Light has a set of values along with mission and vision statements that exhibit the utility’s commitment to employees, customers, and the environment in which it operates. And like most utilities, this messaging eventually becomes background scenery across its facilities. But how do they connect with an employee’s personal values? How should employees engage with these values? This is what Senior Public Relations Specialist Valerie Szopa pondered one day while staring at City Light’s Mission, Vision, Values poster.

“I was relatively new to City Light and trying to figure out my place in this large utility,” Szopa explained. “I looked at a Mission, Vision, Values poster and thought ‘where do I see myself in these values?’”

As she read the five values—safety, environmental stewardship, innovation, excellence, and customer care—innovation resonated with her. Then, she realized that out of 1,800 employees, she probably wasn’t the only one dealing with this kind of organizational identity crisis. After all, in a land of acronyms that feel more like a bowl of alphabet soup, it’s easy to understand why someone couldn’t recite their organization’s mission, vision, values or even know when or why they were established.

This sparked Szopa’s idea for I Value, a campaign that encourages employees to reflect and declare their alignment with one of the utility’s values. Today, I Value’s presence is indelible across City Light and has grown to new levels to recognize employees who uphold its values. I Value poster campaign Szopa’s vision included a series of posters, featuring employee photos alongside their value statement (e.g. “I Value Safety because…”). As the idea began to germinate, she knew it would require collaboration and support. She looped in Greg St. Peter, City Light’s visual information specialist, who designed the Mission, Vision, Values posters. He was excited to humanize the utility’s values. Part of the final design includes a designated icon for each value. Each icon has a specific color that signifies the lauded value which is prominently featured from the rest.

“I loved the idea of promoting the values,” St. Peter said. “It reinforces why we’re here and what we’re trying to accomplish. Asking people what they value is a great way to engage employees while contributing to the utility’s culture.”

Once the design was solidified, Szopa asked employees to participate in a poster pilot. The first group included 10 participants—two per value—and highlighted employees with a wide-breadth of positions and locations.

The posters were well received. They quickly became a fixture in meeting spaces, on utility monitors, inside employee’s cubicles, and on City Light’s intranet site.

Seattle City Light I Value Posters

Value ambassadors
As Szopa and St. Peter received support for the program, another idea began to emerge. The concept of an employee recognition program had floated around the utility but hadn’t taken shape. During the initial I Value pitch meeting, St. Peter suggested using coins to represent the values. This concept evolved into City Light Value Ambassadors, a nomination based recognition program that acknowledges employees who go above and beyond to exhibit the utility’s values.

Szopa and St. Peter got back to work. They brainstormed with the Communications team to define parameters for the program. One idea was to invite other teams to be involved, making it a utility-wide collaboration. A 12-person committee was soon formed. The group, four members of the Communications team and a representative from each business unit, review submissions bimonthly. Approved nominations are sent to the recipient’s supervisor who awards the coin at a time that best suits their team (like at a morning meeting or at the individuals’ workspace). The package also includes a congratulatory handwritten note from City Light General Manager and CEO Debra Smith and a custom-made coin stand designed and built by the utility’s Shops crew as recommended by Transmission and Distribution Officer Bernie Ziemianek.

Maintaining the integrity of this program was imperative, so the committee developed a comprehensive rubric to grade each nomination and ensure the award doesn’t lose its meaning.

“Each recognized individual has truly gone above and beyond to exemplify a value. This isn’t Oprah where everyone gets a coin,” Szopa emphasized. “That would dilute the purpose; we want people to feel honored when they receive a coin.”

To date, more than 100 nominations have been received. The breadth of submissions has been eye-opening and awe-inspiring. Employees have praised their colleagues for exemplary actions like swiftly cleaning up an oil spill to providing exceptional customer service to saving a co-worker’s life with CPR. Each nomination is different, and that’s the beauty of the program; it showcases how employees are improving the utility in their unique way, whether they realize it or not.

“Our values can be displayed in any way, shape, or form,” Szopa said. “People are looking for ways to do their job better, whether it’s a process improvement, or enhancing safety standards so they can go home safely. Employees are doing great things on their own volition and this program celebrates that.”

Greg St. Peter, Visual Information Specialist and
Valerie Szopa, Senior Public Relations Specialist

More than a coin
For some, Value Ambassadors has shifted the entire culture of a team. This was the case for Program Manager Tamara Jenkins, who participated in the I Value posters, has nominated employees for Value Ambassadors and received a Value Ambassadors coin for safety. She believes these programs connect employees on a deeper level. “I Value spoke to my heart,” Jenkins said. “Projects don’t build projects; people do. I Value has connected our team and encouraged us to ask, ‘How can we show that we have each other’s backs?’ When we connect on a personal level, magical things happen. The program helped us create awareness around the core values and connect to them beyond our day-to-day work.”

Generation Operations and Engineering Director Faz Kasraie has distributed more than a dozen Value Ambassador coins on behalf of his division. The recipients’ surprised and grateful reactions reinforce the value of the program while inspiring others to embrace the utility’s values.

“Our employees love to display their coins in their workspace and truly take pride in them. They want to collect them all!” Kasraie explained. “There’s a lot of ownership in these core values. It’s fitting to have a program like this, which is a grassroots program for employees to recognize peers and co-workers.”

Starting your own program
I Value underscored the desire for an employee-recognition program at City Light. Maybe it’s no different at your own utility. If you’re thinking about establishing a similar program, Szopa and St. Peter has a few tips.

1. Establish executive buy-in
Leadership support was crucial for utility-wide adoption. With that in mind, they drafted a well-planned presentation, which led to support from their director up to the executive team. They gained more traction with each presentation and once I Value was officially announced, all levels of leadership encouraged participation. Jim Baggs, City Light’s facilities and services oversight officer, was a strong proponent of I Value because of its organic approach from the bottom up instead of a mandated initiative from the top down.

“I Value is an important tool that’s impacted the culture of City Light. The level of engagement is a strong indicator of how employees value our values. This came from excited employees saying, ‘Hey, this is a way to engage our workforce with the utility’s values. What do you think?’ That’s what made it so successful,” Baggs explained. “When a concept like this comes from employees like Valerie and Greg who’ve identified this need, it’s our job as leaders to nurture the idea as it begins to blossom.”

2. Make the process collaborative
Beyond leadership, it’s essential to garnering support from others within your utility. Szopa and St. Peter used in-house resources for every component they could: graphic design, coin stands, and committee. Being intentional of an inclusive process created more internal excitement while making the program more endemic to City Light.

“We built this program for the utility, so it was important we include as many groups as possible,” St. Peter shared.

3. Take your time
I Value was first pitched in December 2017. A year and a half later, Value Ambassadors launched. Like most important projects, it took time to grow into what it is today. According to Szopa, that’s not by accident.

“You want to get a program like this right,” Szopa said. “We took time to pull in different perspectives to ensure the program was examined through a variety of lenses. We didn’t want to miss anything.”

Without a hard deadline, I Value had the chance to mature and evolve. This was also intentional since they knew it could become so much more.

“This wasn’t a ‘check the box and be done’ project,” St. Peter explained. “It continues to build upon itself and grow. Overall, the success of it is based on the engagement of our employees. Valerie had a well-thought-out vision for this campaign which made it as successful as it is.”

The value of I Value continues
The second round of Value Ambassador coins were recently awarded, and nominations continue to come in. Other departments within the City of Seattle have taken notice and are interested in starting a similar program. Szopa, a then-new employee who created this program by asking herself, “What do I value?” hopes others will engage and affirm their employees in this unique way.

“No one can speak to your organization better than your employees; they’re your true ambassadors,” she said. “If they aren’t connecting with the organization’s values, they might not feel empowered in their work. But if they embrace the values and understand their place in this larger picture, that’s when authenticity and motivation can shine.”