Innovative Leadership Institute: Recognition at the American Heart Association

By Mike Morrow Fox

Company Profile

The American Heart Association (AHA) is a multinational organization that began in 1924 and currently employs more than 3,000 employees, utilizes 22 million volunteers, and occupies 150 offices (American Heart Association [AHA], 2015).  The Great Rivers Affiliate (GRA) of the AHA includes 23 offices spanning a five-state region including Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The affiliate is a fundraising organization that sells event sponsorship to raise funds for research, community programs, and advocacy to, “To build healthier lives free of cardiovascular disease and stroke.”

Challenge / Vision

The GRA AHA Executive Vice President, John Meiners, was concerned that without high levels of employee engagement and retention, the GRA would not meet ambitious goals to increase revenues to support several promising research programs.  Meiners was looking to accomplish to accomplish four ambitious goals as they hired Michael Morrow-Fox, MBA (now of Innovative Leadership Institute):

  1. Increase employee engagement to ‘Best Place to Work’ levels of performance
  2. Increase favorable retention year over year to meet levels of 90% or better
  3. Increase revenue year over year by 10% or better
  4. Decrease training, development, and recognition expenses by 50%

John knew that increasing effectiveness while decreasing expenses required a solid strategy that included solid measurement, effective programming, and innovation.  He felt, however, that the current organizational development budget was being used ineffectively and wanted to spearhead changes that could engage and retain employees while eliminating programs that did not ‘move the needle.’

The GRA employee engagement survey utilized the Gallup Q12 Workplace Audit and the GRA had low scores specifically relating to the Gallup items:

  • In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages your development?

Meiners was a believer that you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  He was specifically seeking a solution that increased these three workplace engagement items while increasing overall engagement scores, favorable retention, and revenues.


Partnering with the Innovative Leadership Institute, Morrow-Fox (then a GRA AHA executive), went to work.  The Innovative Leadership Institute believes that workforce recognition is not a freestanding strategy but an integrated part of a larger solution. The GRA AHA recognition program specifically targeted the workforce engagement and resulting retention issues while reinforcing sales goals to enhance revenues, strengthening manager relationships with employees, and reducing overall recognition and training expenses.

The recognition program was comprised of major components: organizational recognition, daily recognition, spot bonus recognition, and length of service recognition.  Each component was supported by policies, procedures, and management education and was integrated to support workplace engagement, workforce performance management, management excellence, and sales excellence.

Organizational Recognition

The organizational recognition program centered around gathering the entire company together to recognize excellence, improve corporate communications, and strengthen the workforce commitment in the organization’s mission.  The program featured quarterly ‘town hall’ style programs, the first three 90 minutes in length and the fourth a full day program.

The agenda for the 90 minute programs featured a welcome message from the Executive Vice President, recognition interviews with employees celebrating lengths of service 20 years or longer (in increments of five years) where these employees received their length of service (LOS) gifts (described in the LOS program below); a customer recognition piece where major customers, partners, and their employee representatives could be recognized to strengthen the organizational mission; and a short program hosted by an executive on any topic of importance to highlight for the workforce.  This program was followed by a provided lunch and workforce networking session.

The yearly day long recognition event featured a ‘congratulations to the organization’ message from the Executive Vice President, the presentation of multiple awards for highest performance goals (in this case leading sales), management excellence, customer ‘thank you’ recognition, and outstanding employee recognition (in this case around the AHA values of integrity, vision, dedication, inclusiveness, and sensitivity).  Particular work and attention was paid to backstories and humor in the development of the program to ensure that it was entertaining for participants to attend.  Awards for performance goals was determined by sales metrics while awards for management excellence, customer ‘thank you’ recognition, and outstanding employee recognition were developed through a nomination process.  Nominations were accepted through email, paper, and an in-house developed web site.  Nominations were vetted by human resources to eliminate employees with disciplinary issues, a recognition committee comprised of senior managers, and a final approval of the prospective winning employee’s managers to ensure alignment between the manager’s impression and the committee’s impressions.   Awards were trophies and not monetary.

To manage the meeting logistics and expenses for all four quarterly meetings across more than 20 locations, a technological solution was developed.  Inside Business Magazine (Broder, 2009) quoted Mr. Morrow-Fox, “The aim was to “stop work and celebrate outstanding achievements,” says Morrow-Fox, the Great Rivers Affiliate vice president for human resources. ‘These employees put in extra time and extra thought-power because they feel good about their employer. In this meeting, we take time to catch people doing things right and recognize it.’ But taking into account the cost of travel to a central site, plus food and banquet space, Morrow-Fox was looking at a $60,000 tab — before hotel expenses.”   The answer was the use of six main locations and interactive video conferencing supported by a telephone listening line and video tape.  By using the six locations with additional modalities for employees that were unable to attend, travel and food expenses were reduced by over $140,000 across the four meetings.  The events were each followed by workforce surveys which received high returns and approval ratings from 84% – 96%.

Managing With Heart: Daily Recognition

The GRA AHA daily recognition program called, “Managing with Heart” provided both a formal recognition program for managers to easily recognize their employees and a way for organizational manager to become aware of recognition worthy events in the field.  The program allowed managers and employees to send a note detailing a recognition worthy action to a central email where it was broadcast out to the employee, the sender, the employee’s manager, and the Division Director.  Employees reported great pride to have their behavior recognized by their manager and Division Director.  The use of the program was monitored by the Human Resources Department where they could remind managers that did not have employees recognized on the value of recognition.  The individual program was integrated into management training, new employee onboarding, and workforce communications.  The program received annual involvement from up to 25% of the workforce.

Spot Bonus Program

The spot bonus program was an open budget approved by the Human Resource Department for recognition of ‘above and beyond’ behavior.  The recognition was approved by an employee’s manager and director for gifts up to $250 which had to be personalized to that employee.  Recognition of outstanding effort to procure an account, acts of extreme integrity, extraordinary customer service, and extreme collaboration are examples of spot bonus worthy acts.  Above and beyond recognition was rewarded with very personal and meaningful rewards. Managers gave items such as gift certificates for babysitting to new mothers, a shopping trip to a sporting goods store for the father of a little league baseball player, a night at a restaurant with a spouse arranged by the employee’s manager, and an airplane ticket to see a child that had recently gone to school.

Length of Service Recognition

LOS recognition was run in cooperation with the O. C. Tanner company.  The use of O. C. Tanner technology and gift selection was complimented by manager recognition.  Employees of 1, 3, 5, and increments of five years thereafter were notified via email that they had a LOS anniversary.  The went to the O. C. Tanner website, selected a gift, and the manager was sent the gift to present to the employee.  Managers were trained to use this time to recognize the employee for contributions as well as LOS. 


In the years after this program began, 2008 – 2012, the GRA AHA had the highest results in workforce engagement, the highest favorable retention rate, and was in the top one or two of affiliated in net revenue.  The AHA Nationally was named a Best Place to Work by NonProfit Times Magazine in 2009 and has remained on the list for the past seven years straight (The NonProfit Times, 2016) with the GRA as the top affiliate.  The training and recognition budget which included two additional FTE’s and a budget for affiliate meetings was reduced by 100% using technology for multi-office recognition and training events.