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CW Ep. 3: Leadership & Culture

James Lee discusses leadership and culture in serving seniors through the work of organizational psychology. In this episode, James takes us on a deep dive of organizational behaviors and the correlation culture has to a successful senior living community.

Welcome to Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesday. I’m James Lee. Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to spend about 30 minutes or so with you. I am so, so excited to be a part of this inaugural class of contributors to Bridge the Gap. Thanks so much to Josh and Lucas and Sara and the BTG team for inviting some of us to be part of the expansion of this universe and can’t wait to hear my colleagues and their podcasts and see this thing grow. But again, very, very happy to be a part of this. 


We’ll dig right in. So I have had about 12 years in senior living and the short elevator pitch here is that I started off as a caregiver and a concierge at an assisted living community in Austin, Texas. And that was meant to be a part time job while I was applying to law school and considering some other options and little did I know, and here I am 12 years later I’ve had the great, great fortune of being in roles, ranging from a lifestyles director to in four or five different roles in sales and had some really cool opportunities to work for some great organizations, big and small and medium, all over the country. And what that exposure did for me was just to have the repetition, to see patterns in our industry. And so where I am now in my career, I’m hoping to carve out, you know, my corner of, of that influence to help our industry be better in you know, in a way that resonates with me. So that’s kind of how the six part series of this Contributor Wednesday show will go. 


When I think about what topic really resonates with me today, and probably for awhile you know, the one, two punch strategy of senior living, as I have seen it typically goes down two lanes.


One is operational efficiency and the second is sales excellence. And of course, both of those things are necessary. They are critical to success of any sales organization, any senior living operations. And I think there’s plenty of thought leadership in both of those avenues. So I wanted to go a little bit different with my direction. So the idea that’s really just kind of sat with me and I think is my way of serving this industry is the topic of organizational psychology. And no, I’m certainly not an organizational psychologist. I haven’t directly done the work that these professionals do, but I certainly in the learning and development roles that I’ve been in, I’ve been in similar roles with close enough proximity, to a lot of these same core concepts and skill sets.


And truth be told that the years that I spent being a sales trainer for Emeritus, and then subsequently Brookdale really informed a lot of these interests into how we can really serve seniors through the work of organizational behavior. And so that’s what organizational psychology is. It’s the science of human behavior related to workplaces. And more specifically than that, what I’m interested in is how do we influence the outcomes that the performance of our organizations through the management of the people processes? And so it’s not just, you know, your traditional thoughts of human resources although certainly didn’t compresses all of that. This is very, very specific to talk about what is organizational culture? How does the way that people manage conflict have anything to do with the financial performance of that community? Well, I believe it’s actually quite a lot.


And so the soft skills what’s often considered the soft parts of business motivation, job satisfaction, employee orientation, leadership skills, team commitment. These are all categories that altogether encompass a pretty big differentiation between one community or one company and another. I’d be willing to bet that if you open up the financial statements of senior living organizations and just put them all up on a white board if you were to take the top performing organizations or the top performing communities within organizations, I’ll bet you, there’s a direct correlation between the top performers and the ones who are doing the meaningful work of curating and moving the culture within their team. 


So my Bridge that Gap contributor series will really focus on organizational psychology. And this first episode I thought would start with organizational culture. So what is culture?


Why is it important for us to understand it? What do we do with it? We’ll dig into that at least, you know, for the next 25 minutes or so, and I’d love your thoughts by the way. So as we’re going, if there’s anything that I speak about that resonates with you, comment in the show notes connect with me on LinkedIn message me. I really would love to have a dialogue with you rather than just speak through your speakers, if you’re listening on a car or on your workout. Well, hopefully you’re not listening to this during your workout. It’s going to be a pretty, pretty sad workout. So hope you’re listening after your workout. Okay. Let’s transition. 


Organizational culture. It’s the unique social and psychological environments of the business. So as a company, you can have organizational culture, but as a community, as a senior living community, you can have a subset culture you can truth be told you could probably have a completely unique culture from one community to the next.


And so I think that the skilled leader is going to really understand and be able to define what culture is, how to break it apart, how to identify what the true culture is within their organization, and then most importantly, how they utilize that knowledge to move their team forward to better results. And let’s face it. If we don’t get the results, I think we can all agree, no matter what corner of senior living we’re in, if we don’t perform well, we don’t get to serve our mission. And so whatever dialogue we’re having across our industry, whether it’s just a hyper focus on sales or employee turnover, or efficiencies, capital markets, anything that we could possibly talk about, we’re going to achieve success through people. And it really starts with culture. So, you know, the, the, the components of culture that I have seen, that that kind of makes sense in my head or what I want to talk about.


It’s not the only way to think about culture, but it gives me some kind of kind of method to, to make sense of it. So the four parts of organizational cultures, I see it are:

  1. Values
  2. Beliefs
  3. Attitudes
  4. Behaviors

So that’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. So let’s start with values. It’s the thing that we tend to talk about most organizations in senior living have core values. They might call them cornerstones, but these are kind of your, your mission critical marks of identity within your organization. So, you know, it might sound like integrity, honesty, excellence, empowerment, there’s a lot of different values that our senior living industry has within the organizations and truth be told a lot of them are very similar. You know, I’d be willing to bet that you take integrity and that’s probably a value within most of our organizations.


So if we are not differentiating ourselves by our values, what’s the point in kind of learning all of this in the first place, right? Well, that’s kind of the point of this podcast and the dialogue I’d like to have with people. So here it is. Here’s what values is for me. It’s the sum of your beliefs categorized. So it is the sum of your beliefs categorized. Think about it this way. So let’s pick one value and just kind of stick with that and keep coming back to it. So let’s just choose honesty. If honesty is a value which we hold to be of importance to us individually, and as an organization beyond just seeing it on a piece of paper beyond just talking about it at your standup meeting what value can we extract from having a value in the first place?


So if values are the sum of your individual beliefs, categorized beliefs, let’s define that real quick. Beliefs are the individual ideas that we accept as true. They are what we call our personal convictions. So here’s the interesting thing. People can hold the same value, but have very, very different beliefs that make up that value. Right? So, as an example, maybe one of my core beliefs that contribute to the value of honesty is that I believe that a white lie is a lie. A white lie is a lie, regardless of our intention it’s dishonesty. So I choose not to give white lies. How does that impact our industry specifically? Well, probably most of you, when I talked about the white lie, you’re probably thinking about memory care, right? How can we navigate that, that kind of gray area of, is it therapeutic lying to help, you know, a senior who’s struggling with frustrations of dementia to say yes, your mother will be here at four o’clock when their mother has been passed away for decades?


You know, this is, this is the stuff that at an individual level, if you have a caregiver who believes a white lie is a lie, no matter what, their value of honesty is still the same value that you hold. But understanding that different beliefs make up their version of that value is going to be pretty important to the leader. So, you know, we can’t get lost every day. And just trying to understand what are the hundreds of different beliefs that each of us hold that make up this value, but certainly having the intention or the capacity to find that out as a leader is pretty important. It is important to how you mold and change that person. So that you can kind of meet eye to eye and say, hey, you know, we’re after the same thing, but we’re coming at this from different angles.


And so having the language and the ability to kind of talk with people about why friction might exist is the first step to clearing that friction. So values are the sum of your beliefs categorized and beliefs are the individual things that make it up. So just to use a metaphor here, think of like a pantry in your kitchen and you have a shelf and the shelf or the shelves rather have lots of jars on it. So just picture a four-shelf system that has a bunch of clear jars just stacked on them. Each of those jars are values. They’re categories of beliefs. The things that are inside the jar are the ingredients. They’re the beliefs, the individual things that make up the values. Okay. So I’ll expand that metaphor as we go. We’ve talked about values, we’ve gone over beliefs.


Now the third part is attitudes. Attitudes are the expression of the values. Attitudes are the way that we express the value that we hold. So again, this is pretty important as a leader to understand that we can hold the same values, but we are going to express those differently. Beliefs are very kind of historic, you know, they’re based on kind of how you were nurtured, how you grew up beliefs don’t typically change over time. They’re pretty well grounded. Attitudes are very forward-facing. Attitudes are how I express my values every day. So going back to the example of honesty, if my belief, so if my core belief, one of my beliefs is a white lie is still a lie. I’m going to express honesty differently than someone who believes that a therapeutic lie is well-intended. And so it’s okay. Right?


So I don’t have any judgment about which one, right or wrong, but just commentating that two different beliefs can make up the same value. So those two caregivers let’s say, are going to express their values differently. And look, when we don’t understand how to bring people to the table and help people understand why there might be conflict between the two leaders just get lost in, saying, Hey, look, agree to disagree. Let’s just, let’s all be adults and move forward. Well, you can only use that card summit so often before people just label that leader not present in the culture.


So attitudes. So going back to the pantry analogy, values are the jars in your pantry. Beliefs are the individual ingredients that go into those jars. So if attitudes are the expression of values, it would be different ways of using the ingredients to create a meal. So you could stock a pantry with the exact same ingredients. And two chefs are going to come up with completely different ways to present a meal to you. Well, that’s attitudes. So when leaders say of a person, well, they just didn’t have the right attitude. Well, what are we saying? They might have held the same beliefs, the same values, but they expressed it differently. And can we live with the fact that people are going to express values differently within our teams and differently within our organizations. I’d be willing to bet that most people are gonna kind of reactively say yes, of course we have room for different kinds of thoughts throughout our organization. And that, that makes us better. That’s nice to say. That’s nice to hear, but well, let’s think about it this way. Here’s a question I would challenge us with: how many of you have ever come across a situation where the stated values of the organization contradicted what you saw in daily practice?


Yeah. I’d be willing to bet most of us have seen that, and it’s not a criticism of our individual companies. It’s just an observation, certainly that we have experienced this broadly and consistently enough that we all understand what I’m saying right now. That the stated values are different from what we see every single day. Well, why does that happen? I think that the reason that that happens is that we have kind of a set it and forget it way of creating cultural values. You know, we say at the onset of the formation of that company, here are the core values of our organization. And then that’s it, you know, we talk about it, we put it out in our orientation material. We speak to it at our standup meetings, but we don’t really do the hard work of understanding and molding and doing something with all that data.


So that’s another reason that I think this conversation is more vital now. If we’re going to move forward into a new era of senior living, the best senior living companies aren’t going to have advantage in location. They’re not going to have an advantage and a product type or pricing is going to be the people, it’s going to be the people within their organizations believing in their product so much that the families believe it too. And so if we want families and residents to be a part of our culture, well, we gotta be pretty good at creating that culture ourselves.


Let’s summarize where we are so far. That’s a lot of stuff to get through values, beliefs and attitudes are, well to go back to the metaphor, it’s the pantry, it’s the pantry that we all have.

We’ve got the jars values, we’ve got beliefs, the ingredients that go into that, and then we’ve got attitudes, the expression of those values. So how we put a meal together. Behaviors is the fourth category. And I think it’s unique among this set. Behaviors are the norms, that are the daily habits of your organization. So it’s the thing that you see, it’s the thing that you feel most, day to day interactions in a community, in a senior living community. We don’t outwardly talk about, Hey I noticed that you’re expressing your value differently than mine. You know, we don’t speak like that, but we can, of course see you know, how people are behaving throughout the day. And I think this is the important thing for leaders and why this topic of organizational psychology and development is important for us to enhance and improve behaviors are the arena of work for a leader.

We can’t really easily or readily change people’s beliefs. And if we can’t change people’s beliefs, we’re going to have a very hard time moving people’s values. We might have a shot at understanding their attitudes, how they express those values, but really the day to day work is in the behaviors. How do we change the daily norms? The daily habits and actions of individual team members within our organization. I think the way that our industry currently does that, the way that we try to measure culture within an organization falls really short. We mean well, we certainly mean well, but we fall short of doing something with all of that data. So here’s an example. Think about if your company has done something like an annual audit and an annual employee satisfaction survey and most companies do something like that. I’ve even known and seen organizations that do what they call culture audits. So they’ll have regionals or corporate officers go out to communities and interview people, ask people, Hey, how happy are you with the job here? What do you love most about this place? What do you not like about this place?


The problem was surveys and the problem with doing auditing that way is that by the act of trying to measure something, you’re going to change the result. By the act of trying to measure that thing, you’re going to change the result. So I’m thinking about a survey, and if you gave somebody a score between one and seven and said, please rate your level of satisfaction in your job. One, you hate it, seven, you love it. And let’s say you aggregate all of that data and you figure out in our organization, people rated us 4.2. Great. What do you do with that? What do you do with that number of 4.2?


So again, we mean well by trying to measure that data, but that data isn’t very actionable. And certainly if we don’t do all of the intermediary steps of working with culture and understanding it, then the data is pointless. There’s no reason for the data, if we’re not doing the other work associated with it. And then the other part, doing those culture audits, where you have leaders going out and asking people, how do you, how do you feel about this place?


There’s no way around the fact that those interpersonal dynamics between people is going to influence the way people answer that question. So how does a leader actually go about measuring culture within their organizations? I think one of the ways that you can do this is that you can secret shop your new employees. So think about that, think about how much time and effort and money we spend doing secret shops of our salespeople. The intention there is let’s understand the behaviors of our sales person. Well, if you want to understand the behaviors of your organization, there is no clearer litmus test for that then how a new employee sees their workplace. So the sweet spot here, I think is about a week into the job, but just picture this. 


Imagine you have a secret shopper coming into your community who’s playing the role of a job seeker. So Bob, our secret shopper is coming into the community and is applying for the role of caregiver. And let’s say that you found a way to get your new employee about a week into their job to go talk to that person. So, you know, your business office director might say, Hey, I got to finish up this phone call, but I want to be polite and address the person who’s in the lobby, filling out the application. Would you mind spending, you know, 10, 15 minutes with him? So there’s your premise. That’s the setup. Bob, the secret shopper might ask some questions that are going to feel very authentic, very organic. And this is how you’re going to measure culture. So let’s say Bob asks Sally, your new caregiver who’s been there for a week. Bob says, I’m very career oriented and I really want to get ahead.I know you’ve only been here a week, but what, what do you think is the best way that somebody is going to get ahead at this company? 


Think about how telling that answer is going to be from Sally. So at a time when she is going to be most receptive to picking up all of these clues, what if Sally says, I think the best way that people get ahead here is you just stick around, all the people who are in high positions here, they’ve just been here the longest. So that’s a very different answer than what if Sally said, it seems like the people who are in the higher positions here are the ones that really help their teammates. Like they always pick up open shifts. They do coaching, they help people in the orientation.


Those two are very, very different scenarios. And those answers are going to tell you a whole lot about your organization. In answer one, if you’re here the longest you know, what does that say about the value of that team? Now, I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I’m just saying that you get a clear indication that longevity kind of loyalty that those behaviors are rewarded in an organization, whereas the second answer of helping other people, well, that’s a very different value, being helpful and contributing to the team, teamwork, those are gonna be a different set of values. Some other questions that Bob could ask in this scenario is: what’s this place like compared to where you just came from? That’s a very cool open ended question that can take a Sally in multiple directions.


Sally might say, you know, what I really like about this place is that when I take my lunch breaks, the managers are also in the break room with us. That’s pretty cool. Again, a good indication of what culture is actually like on a day to day basis. So if Sally said, one of the things I don’t really like about this place is that everybody keeps saying, we’re not here to make friends and all that. We’re all here to do a job. We don’t have to be friends, but we have to respect one another. Now, if your new employee says, everybody keeps saying I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to work. Then you know that that’s very specific about the commentary of culture in your organization.


These are really, really meaningful ways that leaders can assess what is the true pulse of their team, and then go about, you know changing and affecting that.


Think about it this way. If we don’t understand values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, how on earth are we recruiting the right people with the right values? If you were to listen in on the typical caregiver interview, 90% of that interview probably focuses on where did you work? What’s your experience? When are you ready? Why do you like working with seniors? Now that last question we assume, gets at, do we have the same values, but again, if you think earlier about this commentary that people can hold the same values, but express them differently. We got to have different ways that we’re interviewing and recruiting for people. Think more about even your leadership. How are we as organizations, recruiting leaders into our organizations? Again, if we’re interviewing solely based on where did you work, what’s your sales philosophy? How do you handle conflict? They’re very kind of superficial unless we understand to get at the answer beneath the answer. So if you’re not doing some kind of a behavioral analysis, if you’re not doing some kind of a you know, a check of how somebody thinks and behaves, then your interview process is just hiring a resume and not a person.


So organizational culture, if we really want to move our organizations forward, we gotta first start with making this topic important in our industry. So, I hope that that’s what we’re going to be able to do. My commentary here in this six part series is really gonna focus around different ways that we can move culture forward. And I hope that through the course of my career, I’ll be able to influence that and move that forward as an industry because times are changing. If we don’t get better at attacking the problem of turnover in our industry of being the same, we’re going to just become a commodity like fruit. You know, like seeing the senior living is going to be no different than somebody just saying, I’m going to go with the lowest price. And I happen to believe that this “soft skill work” of organizational development of learning and development, conflict management, change management, that these skill sets and leaders are the thing that are gonna make organizations succeed in the years to follow.


So I hope you’ll join me on that journey through these conversations. Again, connect with me in these shownotes, comment on the LinkedIn post or email me, I’m happy to engage with you. Thanks so much for letting me be a part of this and, and share 30 minutes of your day. It means a lot to me. And I don’t take that for granted. So can’t wait to do a few more of these with y’all and hope you are having an amazing day living your mission. Thanks for listening to an episode of Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesdays.

Leave a Comment

  1. Christi Miller

    June 11, 2020

    I look forward to your next podcast. Thanks for your insight

  2. […] welcome to Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesday, I’m James Lee. In my first episode, I spoke about organizational culture and that I believe the four components of that are values, […]

CW Ep. 3: Leadership & Culture