Dena House had her work cut out when joining Adverum Biotechnologies in 2019. The company, which aspires to establish gene therapy as the new standard of functional cures for debilitating, highly prevalent ocular diseases, went public just three years after launching. The move exacerbated an already-existing, unacceptably high, and imperiling turnover rate. Not only did employee surveys indicate low favorability in engagement across the organization, but the company’s rudimentary human resources assets complicated the situation.
“Adverum didn’t really have an HR department,” says the senior vice president of human resources, organizational development, and learning. “Different groups performed the tasks for different pieces of the HR function. Given the size of the company and the fact that it was public, we had to bring the basics of HR into one department and implement an HRIS [human resources information system.]”
That all meant House and her new team had to gain an understanding of the turnover problem, piece together an HR department from disparate parts, and tackle the corporate culture problem. Simultaneously.
The remedy started with a leadership change, including new faces in the CEO and other C-suite positions. Then the passionate HR veteran diagnosed the morale problem by conducting numerous focus groups and informal meetings with employees at different levels. One of the most troubling findings: the employees’ low rating of a company-fostered, collaborative culture.
Changing this required participation from all levels of the organization. As a result, the leadership team prioritized improvements and committed to creating an engaged workplace. The SVP then brought in the voice of the employees with a cross-functional team of volunteers to dig into the data and create a plan together.
Under House’s direction, the Adverum Culture Transformers (ACT) devised a comprehensive plan focusing on four major areas:
- Creating clear job descriptions, individual goals, and clearly delineating the roles of various groups and departments
- Implementing skills development and career growth programs
- Providing more transparency and clarity around corporate information, strategies and goals
- Clarifying missions, vision, and values.
Clearer job descriptions at all levels, groups responsibility delineations, a more defined company mission statement, and clearer goals and values provided much-needed guidance for employees. The team also redirected staff to the proper leadership and channels for answers on key matters, as well as helping them define their own roles.
Another critical component centered on how and what leadership communicated. At times, the company released guidance and information to investors without much information as to the impact on employees. “People would wonder, ‘How does it change our goals and milestones,’” House shares. The uncertainty sometimes fueled the rumor mill and the feeling of organization instability. “This is how infighting starts, eating away at collaboration.”
To increase transparency on strategy and policies, the company launched an intranet with weekly video updates on business developments from executives and held more frequent company-wide and intradepartmental meetings. When the COVID-19 shutdown began, weekly all-hands meetings and biweekly newsletters kept staff apprised of all company ongoings. These also served as a tool for connectivity and community building across the organization by featuring various employee pictures, work-from-home setups, and summaries of company-hosted virtual events.
House, her team, and the ACT kept a pulse on the organization throughout COVID, ensuring the culture improvements were being implemented, adjustments made based on employees’ changing needs, and continued assessment on improvements in collaboration and engagement.
In the hot field of biotechnology, employees have their pick of potential employers in the San Francisco area. Knowing this, the HR lead found providing skill development opportunities a critical retention strategy. Adverum University proved to be a key tool for cultural transformation. One component, Learning Forums, offers a knowledge- and skill-sharing venue for internal experts. A central hub of education and program development benefiting both individuals and the organization, alike.
Recognizing the need to improve the company’s welcoming of newcomers, House and her team bolstered the orientation and onboarding program. The formal process steeps new employees in the company goals and provides success training, including writing one’s own annual objectives. COVID especially highlighted the importance of continued high-touch, individualized care of new hires. The team implemented thirty-, sixty-, and ninety-day interviews with each individual to stay abreast of what processes worked and what roadblocks required removal.
The efforts of the ATC paid off: employee engagement surveys significantly improved and continue an upward trajectory, while turnover decreased below industry benchmark. “Something we’re proud of at Adverum is that given the engagement work we’ve done and improvements in our scores, we actually made it on the Bay Area News Group’s Best Places to Work in 2021,” House says. “We did this within eighteen months of focusing on engagement, even through a pandemic!”
“PMLG [Project Management Leadership Group] is extremely proud to support Dena in rapidly maturing the skills of Adverum’s leaders with our unique, experiential-based leadership training,” says Bill Stewart, president and CEO at PMLG. “Creating teams of collaborative current and future leaders is the key to achieving strategic execution excellence.”
While proud of her many accomplishments, House says more needs to be done given labor pressures. “I’m concerned about what’s happening in the world post-COVID,” she says. “People are exhausted and making life changes.”
House has also observed that employees are even leaving the labor market or changing careers, exacerbating the battle for talent. “Our goals are to help our people develop their careers and make sure they know they are valued.”
Congratulations to Dena House for her commitment to developing employees so they can discover their full potential. Torchiana is proud of our collaborative partnership with Dena. For over 40 years, our Smarts + Hearts™ approach to Leadership Development, Executive Coaching, and Career Management has helped leaders and organizations thrive.