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BTG Bonus: Culture in Crisis with Lori Alford

BTG Bonus: Lori Alford of Avanti Senior Living discusses tough leadership lessons learned during crisis, how her teams have rallied, and a recent legal victory for her team, residents and families.


Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas on a special week edition on culture during a crisis and we thought we were going to have Lori Alfred on the program, but I think we have Madonna. What is happening?

Lori: Yeah, right now every life is a little crazy and so we thought we’d bring some light and laughter to it, but

Josh: I love it.

Lucas: We love you, Lori. She’s here. There’s Lori. Okay. We got Lori Alford with Avanti. She’s an alumni to the podcast and one of our highest downloaded episodes of all time because of a great leader that you are in the business. Thank you so much for coming back on the program and we’ve got a lot to talk about and relating to culture during a crisis. Lori, tell our audience what has been happening at Avanti?

Lori: Well, it’s been a little bit crazy much like everybody else. You know, but what I think outside of the normal COVID word, and I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing that word. So definitely don’t want to kind of talk about that side. But on the flip side, you know, crisis causes a lot of things. Crisis causes more crisis, it exposes weaknesses, it drives change and it really spotlights strengths. And during this time we have found that our culture is really strong. And during this time our culture has gotten stronger. And truth be told, when this all started back in, you know, into February, beginning of March, I was scared. I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure how our teams were going to adapt. I wasn’t sure how our teams were going to show up. And when the States were basically saying, Hey, at the end of the day, no matter what, you’re still responsible to maintain your staffing.
I laid awake quite a bit at night wondering what we were going to do. Should we have, you know, our team not really show up because they were afraid. And I knew that every other operator in my markets and around the country were thinking the same thing. So, you know, it was trying to think of ways to be different. And honestly I’m not sure I came up with a great game plan, but what I do know is I haven’t had to use them. Because our teams have showed up, they’ve showed up. They continue to show up. We have the lowest overtime in the history, the company, we have the least amount of call offs. Our positions are filled and I’m really extraordinarily proud of our teams. And not just Avanti’s teams, but really any, any frontline team member or folks that work in the community just in our industry, just really proud of them during this time.

Lucas: Well, I know that a part of that is, as we talked a little bit off mic, is that you’ve created what I would call like a safe place, a safe environment where your team feels like they’re safe and they’re willing to give their all. How at the beginning of this crisis, what are a couple of things that you did tangibly to make them feel that way?

Lori: Certainly. So, bigger picture is if you, if you really study war time or times of crisis, meaning like World War II or the financial crisis or 9/11 people, people look to their leader to provide direction, to provide hope and to provide the clear path in a very simple way, but in a very confident way that’s going to get them there. And so very early on with this, that was really kind of our structure around everything that we did. And part of that was how do we create safety for our team members. And our mantra was kind of, our people come first because if our people are safe and their families are safe because that’s who they go home to, and ultimately our residents will be safe. So how do we create safety for everyone? And very early on, before the states mandated, before the market, other competitors kind of set the path.
We bubbled up our buildings. And what “bubbled up our buildings” meant to us was not just limiting family members from coming in and out or vendors. We basically said, hey, let’s choose one home health company, one hospice company, and from those companies, one person. So we called those companies whoever it was in each of our marketplace and said, we need you to designate us one person seven days a week. And that person, we only want them coming to Avanti. We don’t want them going to service people at another community. We don’t want them going into someone else’s home or a hospital. We want them to go from their home to Avanti. And that’s it. And we were very fortunate that we have great partners and relationships. And we were, each of the vendor of choice provided that and we switched all of our residents in the building to that one home health person or that one hospice person, whichever was needed.
But it was a way that we again helped to eliminate the people coming and going into our building, which then decreased the odds of people being asymptomatic and shedding the virus onto not just our residents but also onto our team members. And so that was a big pivot in, in truth be told that was very difficult for the team to wrap their head around. Our wellness directors, they got the concept of it. They liked the concept of it. But when you actually have to do the concept it brought its own challenges in a different way of thinking. And how do you communicate that to families and how do you communicate that to the folks that we’re shifting off of the services that weren’t coming in the building, but yet maintaining that relationship and helping to really paint the picture that our job is to protect our residents and team and we’re creating a bubble and this is how we’re doing it.
So between that and then our tele-health, which we opened up to all of our residents, not just our residents though, we also allowed tele-health to all of our team members. Most of them choose not to have insurance. And our thought was let’s keep them out of the hospital. Let’s keep them out of the doctor’s offices. So if they have symptoms or are just sick, it doesn’t matter, free of charge, we’re going to provide them access to a doctor that we know in trust to keep them out of harm’s way from going places that perhaps was more of a probability of kind of having COVID exposed to them. So, you know, when the team saw these measures, and not just our wellness director, but our frontline team members, because all of this stuff was communicated to them, it really built trust and it built safety and it not, it supported our “people come first” mantra.
And they saw that and they saw we were willing to take big risks and big thinking very early on to do so. And I think that’s just another reason why our team members are showing up and they feel safe and they continue to show up and they continue to help each other and, you know, remind each other of, you know, washing your hands, wearing your masks, social distancing and all these things that we’ve had to learn along the way. But, we’ve kind of operated as one. And that’s been another, another message that we’re sending is, you know, Avanti one, we’re all one in this.

Josh: Wow. So an amazing story and appreciate your leadership. And I can, I appreciate your transparency too, because as leaders in the industry or really in any business I think a lot of times and I know you’re in this case and we’re in this case, you’re expected to kind of be this fearless leader that takes charge and takes the helm and makes decisions. But we all feel the same emotions of uncertainty and as you said, sleepless nights, but you have to make a decision and kudos to you for making a proactive rather than a reactive decision to as you say, bubble up the community before it was actually required and a mandate. And obviously that instilled so much confidence in you and your team. What are some, I would say leadership lessons, some tough things you’ve had to do specifically through this as a leader that maybe are not the popular things to do or, or maybe the tough things and you’re wondering, why am I taking a, an undue risk here to make this kind of decision or, or to take on this fight?

Lori: I had to fire myself as the homeschool teacher. So that took about five minutes for me to recognize that. That was very tough decision, but a very welcomed one. So I am not the homeschool teacher in my household of my two junior high kids. They are, they are self-taught. That was number one that was learned very quickly out of the gate and do what you do best and you trade for the rest. And that was not my forte. But in all seriousness, you know, we’ve had a couple I’ve had definitely, I’ve had my own moments of undesirable leadership moments as I call them. You know, everyone’s faced with stress, everyone processes stress differently and everyone is faced with it. You know, everyone has the uncertainty. Everyone is adapting, especially in our communities. You know, I often tell my friends that have had to learn how to work from home and like my home office has had to learn to work from home.
But in addition to that, we still have operating communities that have basically had to learn how to operate all over again. New policies and procedures. They don’t have access to things they’re used to. Residents can’t do the things that they’re so used to. Their kind of freedom, so to speak, even within our own four walls. So it causes a lot of stress to everybody. And recognizing that and, and really helping the team get through that. And we try to do it with some humor and we try to do it with just providing that clear path. But probably one of the biggest things through this whole process reflecting back would be we had a situation with the resident that needed it. He needed to go out and he did. And what we shared with the family was if, if he goes out, we’re going to need a negative test before he comes back.
And, and this is a very recent story. So the testing is available and the family member was like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, the Friday came and we got a phone call from the family member who said, Hey, ready for the resident to come back. And we said, no. And the family member was shocked. Who tells a family member no these days, that doesn’t happen in our business. And it certainly doesn’t happen to him very often. And so we said we need a test. And he said, fine, I’m going to call my attorney, I’m going to contact the media. And we said, okay. So sure enough, Saturday afternoon I got a love letter from an attorney in my email box basically saying that we were, we didn’t have the right to prevent the resident from coming back.
They didn’t have symptoms. And you know, he has the right to come back. And Sunday afternoon, we issued a letter back that said, sorry, but our job is to protect not just your family member, but all of our residents and all of our staff and our staff’s family because they go home to family and we cannot take your family member back. And so Monday afternoon, seven Constables showed up to our building and had a court order because he had filed a motion in the court for a right of reentry and it was approved to the judge. We didn’t know this, so we didn’t have a seat at the table to talk about it. But it was an emergency order. And we said no. And I think everyone was a little bit shocked because they had in hand a piece of paper that said, you know, this needed to happen and the seven constables and the attorney said, to be clear, you’re not going to take the resident back?
And we said, no, we don’t have a negative test. That’s our policy. Again, our job is to prevent, and to protect the rest of our community. This isn’t about money, has zero to do with money. We don’t want your money while you’re out. We will, you know, give you that money back. What’s more important to us is the safety and we’ve been COVID free and still remain coven free in all six of our buildings throughout this entire crisis. So the next day, the attorney filed another motion in a district court and that afternoon we were again served with another kind of order that he needed to, enter into our building and we said no, and actually got a hold of the judge before the day ended and kind of pleaded our case really quickly.
And she said, okay, I’ll pause this. We called for an emergency hearing and got the emergency for the next day. And so it was a virtual hearing through like a zoom. It’s kind of interesting because no one wanted to get face to face in the courthouse. And she heard our case and basically said at the end, is there any way that you guys can try to work together? So she kind of sent us off to see what other options we had. We said, you know, minimally the hospital, go home with the son, get him tested. You know, really all we have is we need the negative test because we want to stand by our word. And she was supposed to rule that night and she didn’t. And then Thursday morning came and went and she hadn’t ruled. And Thursday afternoon we got news that she actually ruled in our favor and we did not have to take the resident back until he produced a negative COVID test.
Because our interest was in the best interest in the safety and security of our whole building, not just him. And after that, the attorney withdrew the motion and the other courthouse and the contempt of court, by the way, because he filed a contempt of court because we told the judge, no, we weren’t taking him on a first day. So it was a great win. I think it’s a great win for our industry. Typically, the law sometimes doesn’t always side very often in our favor and most things are settled. But despite, you know, threats of legal action, despite threats of the media showing up to the building, we stood by what we felt was the right thing and we sent that message to them and we shared that with our team members. And ultimately at the end of the day, we ended up winning.
And I think it was a huge win, not just for us Avanti but just for our industry. Cause it shows if you do the right thing, you’re protecting the resident. There is hope in the legal system that sometimes they will side with you.

Josh: Well, congratulations Lori on winning on principle, I would refer to it as so often in our industry, you know, we just don’t want to take on the fights for whatever reason and, it’s hard to do that and it’s time consuming and, and the threats you know, oftentimes are threatening and you know, there’s the fear. And so we appreciate you doing that. Obviously it sounds like, from talking with you even off mic, that it was a success story ultimately for your community and for that resident who’s back, healthy and happy living in your community.
So yeah, that’s really interesting. So let’s backtrack for just a minute. I want to digress because you know, what was that conversation like when all this was going on with you as the leader talking with that administrator and the team there, how was that transaction?

Lori: Yeah, so, you know, I’m kind of wired for disruption, so threats, you know, don’t necessarily get me so to speak. And so my initial reaction was kind of it’s on like Donkey Kong, like, let’s move forward. Right? And so because to me it was it was the principal, that’s what it was. And, and I, you know, in wanting to protect my people. And so we got our director of wellness and our executive director on a call with the attorney and we kind of shared with the attorney what was going on.
And the attorney definitely said, yes, this is something we can do. You know, if you guys want to do this, let’s do it. And my initial reaction is always like, yes. And I had to kind of pause because at the end of the day, it’s not my building. I don’t work in the building. I don’t see the family member, you know, I don’t have the connection with the resident. And I said to my team, you know, if you want to move forward, I will support you. But if you don’t, because you don’t want to deal with this, that’s okay too. There’s no wrong or right. What do you want to do? Because whatever you want to do, I want you to know that Avanti is going to support you. And hands down, they said, absolutely we want to do this because it sends a message to even our own team members. You know, this is the policy we’re sharing with all of our team that we’re requiring people to have. And if we deviate, what message does that send to them? But if we stand by this and if we’re forced from a judge to take them, we weren’t, we didn’t make that decision. Someone else made it for us. Thankfully, you know, the judge cited in our favor and our policy was enforced and it was a winning situation all the way around.

Josh: I’m telling you, a great example of culture and crisis and how you can’t wait until the crisis comes and expect the culture to be there. So you all have been paving the way and ever since I’ve known you, which has been years you beat that drum, Lori. And so kudos and it’s amazing to me to that through all of this. I haven’t really spoken to too many community leaders that have especially multiple buildings that are COVID free. And so we pray that that continues for your community and for your team members. And gosh, we so appreciate the time you’ve taken away from your busy schedule to share a little bit of insight with our listeners.

Lori: Well, this is back to business. About three weeks ago, we’re in our third week, we kind of shifted. We can’t continue to focus on crisis anymore. You know, we’re bubbled up. We feel good about what we’re doing. Do we still have to adapt to change if it’s required? Absolutely. One of our core values is drive and embrace change. So our folks are designed for that. But you know, I told the team, if we keep focusing on the crisis at hand, you know, one day and there will be a day that this will be over and our doors will open. So we’ve got to focus on what’s on the other side of those doors. And we need to be tilling the soil. We need to be, you know, fertilizing and nurturing it. So when the doors open, we’re standing in front of beautiful flowers because we’ve worked hard to till it versus doing nothing to focus on the future.
And when you open the doors, it’s just a bunch of burnt grass. And so to do that, we’ve had to really shift everyone’s mindset back to kind of how it used to be. You know, we still have reports that need to be sent. We still are a business. So we have our P & L calls. We still need to discuss spend downs and we need to discuss our marketing plans and all of our KPIs that every department has. Now they’ve been modified to a COVID KPI, but we’ve got to get back to kind of focusing on a business because one, that’s what we are. And two, it’s just healthy for the mind. And three, we got to focus on the future. And you know, let’s, let’s have some really great looking flowers when we open those doors and we’re ready to rock and roll.

Lucas: That’s great words, Lori. And very, very encouraging. And I will just say personally, this has been very, it gave me energy for today because you know, all of our conferences are postponed right now and you’re one of my favorite people when we get to the conference. You’re always so energetic. You can expect an awesome hug from Lori and a great pat on the back and a, Hey, how you doing? And you know, a lot of us in the industry are, we’re missing those interactions right now that we look forward to at these great conferences that we go to to see all of our friends. So it’s great to see you this morning and it’s great to get this update and I know that this is really encouraging and some great lessons learned and best practices for our audience.

Lori: Yeah, thank you. It’s nice to see you guys as well. And thanks for adapting, right? You two have had to adapt to the change to keep things going because I know our, all your listeners will miss your podcast if you don’t keep them going. So I’m glad you guys are keeping them going even though you can’t necessarily record at the conferences. So thanks for thinking differently.

Josh: Thank you Lori. It’s our pleasure. We love what we do.

Lori: Absolutely. Yeah. Well you guys use your voice because right now you know our industry, it needs help. You know we need some good messaging there that senior housing is a great thing. It’s not something that you should go and remove your parents from because of, you know, the virus and it’s not something that is awful. Operators are doing the best that we can with the very few resources that are given to us.
And I have to say our industry, I’m so proud of it because the people have reached out. We too are one, you know, I’ve helped operators find stuff, operators have helped me source stuff. We’re sharing information and it’s not just on the supply front. It’s, Hey, what are you doing for your team member here? What are you doing, you know, to recruit people. What are you, you know, what’s your strategy here? How are you protecting people? And everyone has been so open kimono, which is a little different for our industry because a lot of times we tend not to be, we don’t like to share our dirty, but operators are stepping up and saying, what do you have? You know, how can we work together and sharing of information. And it’s, it’s been great to see that. I just really hope that we can get out into the public sector and the news sources that, you know, sharing these great stories about how awesome our industry is.

Josh: Totally agree. Well, thanks again for being always a great example of leadership and culture and all. Obviously that shines during difficult times. So thanks for joining us today.

Lori: Yep. You bet.

Lucas: Alright to our listeners. Thanks for listening. We’ll make sure that we connect in the show notes to Lori and her team, and if you have any questions, follow us at btgvoice.com. We’d love to hear from you. We’re thinking of you praying for you and we hope you have a great day. Thanks for listening to Bridge the Gap.

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BTG Bonus: Culture in Crisis with Lori Alford