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Aligning Culture for Success

June 28, 2022

By Debby Cherney, Chief Executive Officer, San Bernardino County Employees’ Retirement Association

I was recruited to take the helm of the San Bernardino County Employees’ Retirement Association (SBCERA) in 2018, at a challenging time in the fund’s history.  Though we were a well-funded multi-employer defined benefit pension plan serving more than 40,000 employees, the organization itself was suffering.  I think it’s fair to say that nearly everyone was fighting with everyone else, and the Board made clear to me that it wanted me to prioritize a broader culture alignment that recognized the importance of our employees to the success of the organization.

On day one, we started with a TED talk about how to tie your shoes the lesson of which was that “sometimes a small advantage someplace in life can yield tremendous results someplace else.”  We also talked about driving consensus among our staff on developing shared “ways of being.”  Could we agree on being professional, energetic, confident, reliable, agile, decisive and innovative?  Were there other things that were important?  Executive management started meeting each week.  The goal was simple:  to build trust among the leadership team that we hoped would set a strong tone for the rest of the organization.

It was clear that we needed to chart a direction that our team could get behind and would help focus our efforts.  I asked our department heads to join me for an offsite meeting, and to bring their lists of wants, needs, and dreams.  No idea was too small or too big.  Armed with sticky flipcharts and colorful magic markers, each team leader articulated the areas they thought were going well, the areas where they thought things were not going well, and what they thought was important moving forward.

By the end of the day, we had an enormous list of projects and priorities, along with a set of shared values for which we wanted to get buy-in from our staff and our Board.  Our shared values included integrity, accountability and transparency, commitment, effectiveness, excellence, and collaboration.

We identified specific actionable projects and programs from our giant collective list as strategic priorities, and organized them under five pillars, so each one was tied to a theme important to us as an organization. The five pillars were a means to make sure that everyone in the organization was on the same wave length, and formed a series of goals established to help coordinate the activities of the Retirement Association. They were:

  • Operational excellence and efficiency
  • Superior service experience
  • Quality employer and workplace
  • Prudent fiscal management
  • Effective communications

We then held workshops with our Board and our entire staff to gain their feedback and get inputs on revisions to the emerging plan.  Everyone agreed that it was ambitious, but the leadership team was energized and excited to move the organization forward.  By the middle of 2019, we had defined our collective vision in the form of our first Triennial Strategic Plan.

Every report that is delivered to the Board is tied to a strategic pillar.  Coalescing projects and processes around the established pillars and priorities made things easier. One of the most significant examples came in the annual budget process. It has been far smoother than in the past, because each and every item is tied to an approved priority.  The priorities inform staff and the Board on how resources may be allocated – whether staffing needs, technology investments, or supporting consulting assistance.  Every six months, we have provided a public update on our progress with the priorities, adding some additional ones along the way.

Among our undertakings were significant efforts to achieve cost savings, improve internal controls, modernize technologies, improve transparency, rebrand, implement a strategic communications plan, launch a new website, enhance self-service opportunities for our members, improve investment portfolio reporting, and refresh our workspaces.  One of our most impactful undertakings has been a multi-year effort to revamp our biggest enterprise system, the one that handles our pension administration.  This effort has tested our “shared ways of being” in virtually every possible way.  Every day, we’re learning together how to navigate conflicting ways of defining and solving problems.

Measuring our progress has been an ongoing challenge in some areas, and we are actively working to develop and track key metrics that will further inform our resource needs and approach to future strategic priorities.  The turbulence of the investment markets – coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic – have not made any of this easy, and I am unwaveringly grateful for the employees and Trustees of SBCERA for helping me make it all work.

Financially, we had a record year in 2021, posting a 33.3% investment return and hitting a funded ratio on an actuarial basis of 81.9% (91.2% on a market value basis).  Our Board adopted a new Triennial Strategic Plan in June 2022 which built on our first plan.  We remain committed to serving our members and delivering on the benefits promised to them for serving our communities.

The contents of this blog post reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the GFRC.