From the Hip: Caroline Whalen, Director of Executive Services

Employee engagement is job #1

When Dow Constantine and Fred Jarrett asked me to serve as director of the Department of Executive Services (DES) seven years ago, I frankly was overwhelmed. How could I move out of operations and project management to lead the diverse set of agencies that make up DES? I told them, “I’m the person you put in a black suit and throw out of the helicopter with a specific mission, not the person in the planning room overseeing the operation.”  But, they had confidence in me to make the transition — so I took the leap of faith.

Back then, I thought I had to “know it all” to lead 10 different lines of business delivered by eight divisions and offices with nearly 1,000 employees. What I’ve learned over the years is that knowing it all isn’t my job at all.  My real role is to bring together the very best people, provide them with a clear vision, harness their energy and ideas, ask lots of questions, supply the resources they need for success, and then stay out of their way!

Essentially, my job is to do whatever I can to engage employees and bring out their best work.

Why do I focus so much on engagement? Because the research supporting our annual employee survey shows that the most engaged workers are those who feel respected by their supervisors and peers, who enjoy their jobs, and who want to make the organization better every day. The ultimate expression of engagement would be for us to sincerely say: “Thank goodness it’s Monday!” I don’t yet hear that phrase echoing down the halls on Monday mornings — we all have bad days at work on occasion — but overall I do love my job and look forward to being with my county family.  I also understand the importance of balance and having quality time away from work to recharge my batteries.

I’ve also learned that a big part of being engaged is feeling respected. At our DES All Hands Meeting in March, we asked everyone to give us one word that describes what they need to be engaged. The clear number one response was respect.

Respect has been our department’s number one workplace value for the last four years. And, based on our Employee Survey results, this focus seems to be working. In the 2015 survey 71% of DES employees ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that they are treated with respect in the workplace and in 2016, 77% reported a positive response.  We plan to keep the focus on respect until we get to 100%.

I feel fortunate to lead a team that is Delivering Excellent Service, striving to improve every day. By being engaged in our work, we’re making a difference. The last seven years haven’t always been easy, but they have been rewarding. I’m glad that I was brave enough back in 2010 to accept the challenge and the opportunity to serve in this role. We’re on a journey in DES, and I look forward to continuing our shared pursuit of making King County a great place to work and live.