How Enerplus HR executive Lisa Ower turned around a corporate culture beset by an identity crisis, micromanagement and a communications breakdown
When Lisa Ower arrived at Enerplus in early 2014, she was presented with a formidable challenge. After all, she was entering a workplace that lacked a clear identity, faced a communications gap at both the executive and managerial levels and had a mediocre level of employee engagement. Worst of all, perhaps, its senior managers were floundering amid a hostile culture of micromanagement and a general feeling that they were unequipped with the tools and strategies they needed to lead.
In her initial interview, Ower pressed the CEO on what specific trait or ability he was seeking in Human Resources. The answer: He was looking for an injection of “awesome” – passion and innovation and forward-thinking – and it just so happens that “awesome” is precisely what Ower delivers.
What does that mean in the context of an oil and gas company’s HR department? For Ower, who has a master’s degree in psychology, it means having the ability to assess individuals, hone in on their needs, identify which skills and abilities have been underused and create a space where each person feels empowered to engage, experiment and grow. She doesn’t try to determine what makes every person tick. Instead, Ower works to identify what needs to change in order for a whole workplace to click.
It’s this grasp of how to best enable individuals, in combination with a firm belief in collaboration, consultation and data-driven decision making, which allowed her to successfully overhaul Enerplus’s outdated culture and replace it with a modern, collaborative work environment. That meant some major changes to what had been a conventional white-collar workplace. For example, trust became a leading tenet of the new culture, and so it seemed counterintuitive to continue imposing an exhaustive set of employee rules. Policing attire, for instance, was not suggestive of mutual trust, so the workplace dress code was shelved.
Under Ower’s guidance, Enerplus moved away from the traditional vacation policy, instead embracing a results-oriented strategy called OURtime that encouraged employees to pursue a healthier work-life balance through day-to-day flexibility. Under this system, the number of hours worked were no longer the focus. Instead, it was all about the quality of the results that those hours yielded. When conditions allow for people to function at their best, Ower says, the results will reflect the effort.
Ower also says that understanding employees – what motivates them, what inspires them – is one of an organization’s keys to success. Person-to-person interaction between all levels in a company strengthens morale and ensures constructive dialogue is ongoing and engagement is a constant. When employees are sought for input and their feedback is valued, they are empowered, she says.
Jacob Morgan, author of The Future Of Work, was clearly impressed with the changes at Enerplus under Ower’s guidance. Recently, he published an interview with the HR whiz on the secrets to Enerplus’s success in Forbes magazine.
Ower, meanwhile, says the results she gets speak for themselves. “Our 2015 employee engagement survey came back with an astonishing double-digit increase in engagement,” Ower says. The jump was from 67 per cent before her arrival in 2013, to 87 per cent last year. “Imagine that.”
A strong showing in the Bakken in 2015 drove Enerplus’s third-quarter crude output up 20 per cent over the previous quarter, and drove its crude and natural gas liquids production up eight per cent to 50,000 barrels per day (bpd). To maintain that momentum, Enerplus announced it would sell some of its non-operated North Dakota properties for US$80 million to invest in the acreage it does operate. Its assets include low-decline water-flood oil fields in Alberta and Saskatchewan. These three regions, plus shale gas investments in the Marcellus, are the main work horses in the Enerplus stable, yielding 90 per cent of the company’s total production.
The firm also has a growing undeveloped land position in the liquids-rich Deep Basin along the Alberta-B.C. border.
Enerplus invested in more than just its land assets in 2015, gaining a new CFO in Jodi Jenson Labrie who rose through the ranks from VP Finance in 2013.
Q + A with our HR Executive of the Year: Lisa Ower
What is the most important quality that a senior executive can have?
Most people would say things like strategic orientation, results focused or transformational leadership and they’d be right. However, right now in the market we find ourselves in, I believe resilience is key. The ability to persevere and stay the course is just as important, if not more than, in good times.
What is the least important quality that a senior executive can have?
I would say being out of touch with your employees. Throughout my career I have seen that the least effective senior leaders are the ones that don’t get to know their employees, don’t build relationships and fail to understand what motivates them. If leaders don’t know their employees they will not be able to inspire them to do their best and achieve their best.
What is your greatest fear?
I’m not driven by fear; in fact I try to use it to my advantage. In my career I have always tended to choose the next thing that scared me the most, whether it is a new position, a move across the continent, or an innovative project. That little twinge of fear we all experience when we are faced with making decisions big or small is something I have always embraced. If it doesn’t scare me, it’s not worth doing. I think that is how you grow.
Which living person do you admire most?
I know it sounds cliché, but it would have to be my parents. They both worked hard and sacrificed for me and my two brothers so we would have the opportunities that they didn’t. I learned the meaning of hard work and perseverance from them. They thought me that life is short and to be sure to have adventures.
What is your greatest extravagance?
This would have to be spending time with my family. These days the balance between work and life can be non-existent. I strive to spend quality time with my family and it is that time that I can’t put a price on. It’s priceless and dear to me.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I embrace change. I actually thrive in it. As I reflect on my career and life, I feel that each experience, relationship, and emotion that I have had over the years has made me who I am today. I view myself as a work in progress, ever changing, learning
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I feel as though I have had many achievements over my career, but the one I am most proud of today is what my team and I have achieved at Enerplus. We have helped transform and evolve Enerplus’ culture in such a short period of time. I am not your typical HR executive. I tend to go boldly where others only dip their toe. I am inspired by what the future of work holds.
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