A transformation story: Engaging employees during our transition to Xylem Watermark

The past two years have been transformative for Xylem, and our company’s social investment and corporate citizenship program, Xylem Watermark.

Launched in 2008 by ITT Corporation, Watermark began as a three-year, $4 million commitment to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene education to children and families in need, and grew into a cumulative $14.5 million investment to engage employees and serve more than 1.5 million people globally. Watermark became a core part of our company and a tangible way for employees to live ITT’s values, so when, in January 2011, ITT announced its plan to separate into three individual businesses, it was no surprise employees were concerned about the program’s future. We received questions on Watermark’s Facebook page and ITT’s intranet asking if employee volunteer trips and matching gifts would continue, and if Xylem, the new standalone water company, would maintain the program’s nonprofit partnerships.

Fortunately, our new President and Chief Executive Officer Gretchen McClain and other senior leadership recognized the importance of Watermark and the increased value it could bring Xylem now that our business and social missions were so clearly aligned. They quickly made it clear that the program would continue, and, even before the spin was complete, we announced Xylem’s commitment to take on the program as Xylem Watermark and to fulfill a $10.5 million pledge ITT had made in 2010.

Employees were incredibly responsive to our commitment and showed immediate excitement to support Xylem Watermark. We were thrilled to take on the happy challenge of engaging them in the program’s re-launch. Employees are really at the heart of Xylem Watermark and it was up to us to find new ways to include them in the program’s journey.

While we faced the challenge of refreshing a 4-year-old corporate citizenship program in the midst of a spin, I would argue that any and all companies that seek to engage their employees in creating social impact can benefit from exploring the different strategies we utilized to ensure Watermark continued to be a core part of our company’s DNA:

  • Listen, learn and change. The spin from ITT to Xylem meant our employee demographics were going to change significantly. We were previously comprised of 40,000 employees, with the majority in the U.S.; at Xylem, we are more than 12,000 strong with most of our employees overseas. While international employees were always involved in Watermark, our primary advocates and largest employee donor base was in the U.S., and we were accustomed to their engagement preferences and communication styles. To better understand all of our employees’ needs, and levels of awareness and participation in Watermark, we conducted 17 focus groups at our largest locations in France, Italy, China, India, and the U.S., and used these benchmarks to inform a truly global employee engagement plan with target engagement scores.
  • Harness the power of grassroots. While many companies have a large social investment and citizenship team, at Xylem the chief communications officer and I are the only employees who have Xylem Watermark in our job description. But that doesn’t mean we are a team of two – in fact, we are a team of hundreds. Through the Watermark Ambassador Program, we engage passionate employees as site champions in order to educate their colleagues about Watermark and drive participation locally. When the spin occurred, we expanded the Ambassador Program even further, and partnered with our network of internal communicators to keep awareness and enthusiasm for Watermark high throughout the transformation.
  • Celebrate traditions and opportunities to unite. Memorable campaigns that rally employees and their families year after year are important traditions that avoid the “flash-in-the-pan” syndrome. Since launching Watermark, employees had celebrated March 22, World Water Day, and taken action as part of a Global Impact Month. At Xylem, we are excited to continue that tradition and our first big employee engagement campaign focused on this important time for our company. We created new activation tools for our ambassadors, invested in new program collateral and compelling infographics, and drove employees to take action online and at their locations. Employees responded with messages of support for Xylem Watermark and eagerness to do more – on World Water Day and year-round.
  • Marry internal and external communications. If you are saying your corporate citizenship program is core to your business internally, you need to live it externally, too. At Xylem, our tagline is “Let’s Solve Water” and we see Xylem Watermark as a key way we deliver on our brand promise. When we launched Xylem on Oct. 31, 2011, Xylem Watermark was part of our story. We invested in a special water project to celebrate the company’s launch and as we rang the opening bell at the NYSE, more than 20,000 children and families gained access to water in a rural community outside Bangalore. Since then, we’ve taken steps to engage our business partners in Watermark, and often speak externally about the program with potential customers and thought leaders. We’ve seen that when we walk the talk, our employees do the same.

Whether your corporate citizenship program is new or old, or undergoing an exciting transformation as Xylem Watermark did, the principles to authentic and impactful employee engagement are the same. At Xylem, we see our employees as agents of change – as water-solvers and as business and philanthropic partners in our journey to solve the global water crisis. As you strive to activate your company’s citizenship efforts, I challenge you to reimagine employees not as an audience to communicate to, but as partners and friends united in a shared mission to drive social change.