CW Ep. 14: Innovations in Senior Care with Charles Turner
CW Ep. 14: No cheap love in culture! Contributor Charles Turner, founder and CEO of Kare, explains on this week’s episode.
I’ve always been a wee bit of a Star Wars nerd. Don’t worry. I don’t dress up in costumes and go to conventions or anything like that. No offense to those of you who do, but as a child born in 1974, Star Wars is baked into my consciousness. That is why every couple of years, when a new Star Wars release is slated to come out, I take more than a passive interest in plot leaks, fan theories, and the latest trailer. Based on what I see on social media, my guess is that many of you all do too. In fact, last December when the latest epic release came out, I got a kick out of watching so many of my industry colleagues post pictures of themselves dressed up with lightsabers, Princess, Leia hairdos and Darth Vader masks. I even saw one guy dressed up in a full Chewbacca outfit.
This particular behavior seemed to me well, a bit extreme, but to each his own, I guess. Entire leadership teams dressed up to go to the midnight premiere. You could tell it was probably coordinated at the C-suite level since in many cases, the level of costume coordination simply didn’t just come together at the last minute. You could tell these teams reveled in the intricacies of their planning, the fun they were having, and the spectacle of it all.
As fun as these events can be, I worry about the amount of energy we put into organizing our teams for Star Wars. I worry that these types of events and moments are the ultimate goals of what we look to to define our culture. I worry that we don’t even know what culture really is. On one hand, we try to be more innovative, but on the other hand, we built a self-reinforcing echo chamber while the rest of the world slowly eats away at our existence. So often, my friends, culture is where innovation goes to die. But let’s put a pin in Star Wars for now. We will come back to it in a little bit.
Welcome to Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesday. My name is Charles Turner. This is a podcast on innovation and senior care. No not technology. Technology is a tool. To understand the distinction, go back to my first episode or send me a note. I’d love to chat about it. On top of being an owner and an operator of senior care communities. I am currently the CEO of Kare and that has Kare with a K. We are a digital labor marketplace for the senior care industry. Think of us as the Uber for frontline nurses, caregivers and hospitality roles. If you’re interested in learning more, please go to, doyoukare.com. Again, that is Kare with a K.
In last month’s episode, I gave a bit of a preview of this month’s episode. I said, the conversation around culture is a bit stupid. Needless to say I got mail, but let me explain. I have both the luxury and the curse of being in graduate school in Austin, Texas, during both the peak and the collapse of the dot com bubble of the late 1990s and early two thousands. Watching from the protection of academia, I got to study both the exuberance and the hubris of that era and living in Austin, Texas, one of the centers of the dot com era, I got to see up close how many companies pride dare I say, arrogance got in its own culture and ultimately led to its downfall.
While I was living the life of a lowly graduate student, I was supported by my wife who happened to land a job at probably the sexiest Austin tech companies at that time. Oddly enough, this company predated the dot com boom. So to call them a late 90s dot com bust is not quite fair, but nonetheless, they were swept up in the massive excitement of that era. Aha, this company was cool. Even had t-shirts telling people how cool they were. They literally had tee shirts that said we only hire the best. Everyone wanted to work for them. They hired 19-year-old geniuses who graduated from Ivy league colleges early with computer science degrees, teenagers were driving around their office complex with Ferrari’s and McLaren’s, which were paid for with signing bonuses. On any given evening. You could hear manual transmissions grinding on Porsches in the parking lots from kids who had no idea how to drive them. On Thursdays, you could go to their office courtyard to listen to well-known bands play while you ate from chef carving stations and drink beer straight from the keg of the latest local hip craft brewery.
And you didn’t even have to be an employee to go. People describe this place as a cult. I wasn’t a cult of course, but the self reverence that this company and its employees had for itself had the appearance of a cult. Money flowed from investors and last minute, exotic trips were commonplace. How did Jay Leno and Aretha Franklin MC the company Christmas parties? This company was the darling of the Austin tech scene, right up to the point when on a Sunday afternoon and early May of 2001, the CEO called all 1,000 employees to a local convention center and fired two-thirds of them in one day. So what happened?
The company known for one of the most distinct cultures and Austin tech scene actually had no culture. That is to say their culture was about their culture. It was about maintaining their own arrogance, their own hubris. For them, it was about making sure they always grew, always hired the most intelligent whiz kids, always had the most fun work, always had the best bands, the best comedians or the best musicians. Nowhere in the conversation was there any sense of the customer. What does the customer want? How do we actually measure success?
They were known as one of the most innovative companies in the industry up until they weren’t because no one took the time to define what it meant to innovate. Were they a victim of the dot com bubble bursting? Yeah, to a degree, yes. But their underlying product was not some silly website. It was actually a well-respected platform that had been around for a long time. However, the culture began to erode when what that platform was meant to do in the first place. The culture started to look inward toward itself. It became its own echo chamber, completely unaware that the world was starting to crumble down around them.
Let’s go back to Star Wars. If a prospective job applicant says to you, tell me about your culture. And you respond with some sort of story of how the frequency of your Star Wars theme nights and not something like we are a group of people committed to improving the lives of seniors by doing X, then you may be missing the point of culture. You’re no different than my wife’s software company that referred to itself when talking about its culture. That is not to say that these types of events are not fun. And by all means, have some fun, honor your employees, blow off some steam, but this is not culture. If you are an executive and you have a role in your organization with a title that is something like vice president of culture, then you’re probably doing something wrong. Culture needs to emanate from the C-suite, especially if you want a culture of innovation.
Sure, having a vice president of employee morale or senior director of Star Wars opening night is fine. It helps in the short run. Folks need a fun thing to do. It helps build teams and it does help show employee appreciation, but this should not ever be a substitute for culture. Culture is the result of shared goals, metrics, missions, and values of everyone in the organization. What do you want your organization to achieve? How do you plan on achieving it? What kinds of people do you need to achieve those goals? How do you reward success when those goals are achieved? Do your employees celebrate when goals are achieved or do they celebrate when they go to opening night of a hit sci-fi movie?
Let me give you another example. Let’s talk about love. A lot of companies in the senior care world talk about their culture of love. But love is not a culture because love means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It is how you express that love that is your culture. Otherwise it is cheap love. It is simply an emotion, a cheap slogan. It is fleeting, a femoral, tacky. The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” talks about this concept of cheap grace. In spiritual terms, it means that people of faith often talk about the benefits of their beliefs without the cost and discipline that arise out of the responsibility of those beliefs. We see it all the time on social media posts, when someone says hashtag blessed or the leader who loudly promotes their faith, but shows no demonstrable action on how you should live out that faith.
My point here is not to go off into some theological tangent. That is not the purpose of this podcast, but I think the same issues arise when we talk about the culture of quote love in our communities without defining what that means, how you measure it, how you build your teams around it. If you don’t do any of this, you just cheapen love.
One of the companies in our space that I admire the most is Silverado Senior Living. Their motto is love is greater than fear. They promote their culture of love, but it is not cheap love. Have you ever been to a Silverado building? They have built an innovative culture around love. They built people and programming and processes and tools on how they show love to their residents and their families. If you have ever been to one of their communities, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There is a tangible intentionality to their communities. Love for their founder of Lauren Shook is not just a buzzword.
Okay? Pop quiz time. If you were in the senior care business, listening to this podcast, I’m willing to bet you can’t answer these questions.
Number one, what is your community’s average response time when a resident presses their nurse call pendant and what should it be?
Number two, what is the average time it takes between the time a resident orders breakfast and the food is delivered to them and what should that be?
Number three. How many residents do you send to the emergency room on average every month? Has that improved since you implemented a telemedicine program? Have you looked at a telemedicine program? Do you know that if you can actually reduce the average number of hospitalizations with the telemedicine program? How much, if at all, can you reduce resident turnover with a telemedicine program?
Can you answer these questions? My guess is that for most of you the answer is probably no, but we are still evolving, so don’t feel too bad.
But do you think if Amazon or say Toyota got into the senior care business, they would be able to answer these questions? I bet they would. I bet any frontline manager from one of these companies would be able to answer any of these questions and many other questions and about five seconds yet we somehow can’t. So if an Amazon or a Toyota decided to get in the senior care space, would this mean that they would love their residents more than we currently do? Well, you know, if they ended up having higher resident satisfaction than we currently do now, the proof as they say is in the pudding or in Amazon’s case, it is in the Prime. But Charles you say the massive manufacturing companies can’t ever have the same level of empathy and human connection that we do now. I say this argument is a false dichotomy.
Let’s go back to last month’s podcast. And we talked about Disney and Ritz Carlton like Amazon and Toyota, they measure everything. But if you ever been to a Disney theme park. It’s the happiest freaking place on earth. Their customer engagement is the highest in the Western world. Sidebar, unless you were a father in the middle of summer and your small children only want to ride the it’s a small world ride over and over and over and over and over and over again. That is hell but I digress.
So your homework this month is to answer these types of questions. Next month, we’re going to talk a bit more about why we should be running our senior care organizations like a manufacturing plant, but between now and then I’ll expect a few more emails.
Like many of you in the before times, I attended a lot of conferences. My favorite by far is the Senior Living Innovation Forum organized every year by the Influence Group led by my good friend, Michael Owens. If you have never been, I strongly encourage you to attend when the world opens back up or whenever Dr. Fauci says it’s okay to do so.
The reason this is my favorite conference is that it is as the name implies: It hosts the most concentrated group of industry leaders, progressive vendors, and innovative speakers of any events of the year. The conversations are enlightening. The events are second to none and many of the exhibitors push the envelope on what we believe can be done in the world of senior care.
A couple of years ago at this event, I had one of the most jaw dropping conversations I have ever had in my 10 years in this industry. Toward the end of this conference, sipping on a delightful Pino and overlooking a majestic vineyard in the heart of Napa Valley, casual conversation emerged between myself and a small handful of other industry leaders.
I for one was anxious to hear what the most senior and the most tenured and ostensibly most respected executive had to say. Well, this particular leader had been in the industry for a long time and it helped establish one of the largest companies in our space. This was actually his first time attending the Senior Living Innovation Forum, or frankly, anything similar. It also turns out it was the first time he had ever been exposed to many of the newer tools and technologies that several of us had already become familiar with over the previous few years. As this was a new paradigm for him, I was anxious to get his impression on what he was seeing for the first time. And this was his response and it shocked me: Charles, he said, I never knew half of this stuff was out there. It’s amazing to me, some of the inventions that have come to market, but you know, all of this stuff is interesting, but I don’t really think it is helpful for us in the long run. At the end of the day, what we really need to be focusing on is how to make our workforce more hospitable. That is how we’re going to improve our industry.
And my jaw hit the floor. Apparently the ultimate answer on how we improve our industry is to make people nicer. Now, understand, I continue to this day to have a mountain of respect for this man. And I think that in trying to define culture, we can’t get caught up in the culture of nice or love or Star Wars, at least not for its own sake. There are too many of us. We can’t all be saying the same thing and trying to build the same brand. I respect that my friend wants to train people to be more hospitable, I really do. If that’s his desired brand. Great. But how do you measure that? You have to. If you’re striving for a hospitality based culture, you have to first establish the measures and metrics of what it means to be hospitable. It can’t just be, oh, Jane is nice, but Mary is less nice. Rather it should be, how quickly as a customer email responded to. How quickly is this service request completed, completed? How long does it take until a community visitor is greeted by an empowered human being? There are tools and technologies and programs that track all of this stuff.
There are no tools, technologies, or programs, at least none that I know of that track nice or love. So what does this all mean? Let’s have fun at our star Wars themes theme nights. Let’s go listen to a band together. Let’s hire nice people. Let’s not confuse this with culture. If we want to have an innovative culture, identify the goals and metrics that will help you to find and measure that culture. Then rally your teams around those goals and metrics. That is how you build great culture.
Thanks for listening to this week’s BTG Contributor Wednesday, I’m Charles Turner. I’d love to hear your thoughts. So please connect with me at btgvoice.com and in keeping with this month’s theme: live long and prosper. Wait, I’m sorry. What? Oh, that Star Trek. May the force be with you. Now that doesn’t sound right? Whatever. Look, stay safe, have fun. Let’s keep loving our seniors. Thanks.