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CW Ep. 7: Leadership & Culture with James Lee

James Lee discusses Learning and Development (L&D) in this episode of Contributor Wednesday. The six-part series is meant to be chapters of one long story – to do the meaningful work of advancing organizational culture in our organizations, we must learn the components of culture. James believes that L&D is the most meaningful competitive advantage in senior living. If you want to be the best senior living organization in our industry, you must learn faster, learn better, and learn more frequently than everyone else.

Hello, 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, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and that as leaders, we need to understand all four components, be able to differentiate them. And then more importantly, do the work that drives each of those four components into forming and moving your organization’s culture. And among those four, that behaviors was unique in that that was the individual component that you, as a leader can work in day to day. It’s hard for us to move values and attitudes and beliefs in a short period of time. If those change, it happens over a long period of time, behaviors is the day to day work that can drive long term change. So the natural progression of this conversation for me is learning and development.


It’s how we go about changing and molding behaviors so that behaviors change and improve the values, beliefs and attitudes within your organization. So learning and development shorthand, L&D, I believe is the most meaningful, competitive advantage in senior living. So before I dig into the components of L&D, I want to maybe pose to you three problems facing most organizations in senior living. The two, I think will be very automatic. And the third one, you may not see as a problem, but I want to try and help bring it into the light. 


So the first is high turnover. We have massive amounts of turnover in our industry, and we have come to accept that that’s commonplace that 75% turnover of caregivers in a year in a community in some cases is good. That as long as it’s not a hundred percent turnover, we’re doing okay. In what world, in what other industry would we say that that’s okay, particularly in a services industry? The high turnover, particularly of our frontline staff creates enormous cost to our organizations, but beyond the dollars and cents of it, it is also a psychological burden on the teams. And more importantly, it’s an emotional and psychological burden on our residents. Particularly the higher you go in care. So for example, memory care. 


When you have turnover in your caregivers, it creates a challenge for the residents. There’s a kind of emotional shorthand that happens with familiarity and that memories can be formed. I think emotional bonds and emotional memories can be built between two people. And when you turnover caregivers at an extraordinarily high rate, I think 100% is extraordinarily high that creates a burden within your organization. And it does also translate onto your financial statements. You can see the financial impact of turnover in your companies. Problem number two: without any true differentiators between rivals we’re forced to compete on price. So these price wars end up putting more extraordinary cost burden into our operations. And so without truly being able to differentiate between one community and another we’re forced to compete on price.


Now, internally, we may say, you know what? We have better care than company X, Y, and Z, but to the customer, I don’t know that we do a really great job in differentiating that in the sales process. And even if we could, is the care, is the meal, is the activity really that different in terms of experience for the customer? And how will they even know that those things are different if they’re only living at one community? So the sales process is supposed to give them an idea of what differentiates the communities, but in practice, once they move into your community, they don’t know that what they bought is in fact what they wanted. So there’s no reinforcement of that value, except if they move out and then you’ve got another problem altogether. So price wars is problem number two.


The third problem I believe is that there’s a very slow rate of newcomers into our industry. That is a problem, I think, in our industry, because think about other service based industries and how important it is that they get new leadership, they get new thought leadership, new talent into their field on an annual basis. So think about medical care. Every year, there’s a new group of graduates. There’s a new group of new nurses, new doctors, new AIDS that come into the field, and then they in turn help bring new thoughts into the field. They bring new ideas, they bring new attitudes and values. And it helps that that process of going through and changing the day to day work with new thoughts and new conversations helps to improve your brand. How often do we invite newcomers into our industry and not just at the care level, not just at the community level, but at our senior levels? We need new thought.


If we want to innovate in thinking we need to bring new thinkers into the field. So those three, I believe are problems facing our industry. And I think that the work of organizational psychology, that’s the bigger umbrella of topics that I’ll be discussing through my podcasts. I believe that learning and development is one of the ways that we can achieve solutions to these problems. 


So let me share with you. First of all, I spent about four years between two organizations Emeritus and then subsequently back to Brookdale in a learning and development role. So a lot of what I’m talking about is steeped in actual work experience. And I got to tell you that that team, that I was a part of, led by Meg Fletcher and Mike Richardson. And several of my colleagues, my trainers that were on those teams have now gone on to create their own learning and development organizations, head up sales training for large organizations and also be sales leaders within their organizations.


So I’m really, really proud to be part of that alumni group. Now learning and development is such an underutilized part of our industry. And I want to champion it just as a former L&D person. And I, and I guess that most L&D professionals would tell you that they never are former L&D, but they practice it now just in whatever role they’re in. So one of the source materials for my content today is from an article called Where Companies Go Wrong with learning and development. So the author is Steve Glovsky of the Harvard Business Review. So there’s a couple of statistics in that article that I thought were pretty important. So what the author did was survey 1,500 managers across 50 different organizations. So 1,500 managers were surveyed at multiple levels within 50 different organizations.


75% of the respondents said that they were dissatisfied with their companies L & D. Three fours, three out of four people said they were dissatisfied with our companies L & D. 70% of employees report that they do not have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs. Now, these are people reporting about themselves that, and I presume this survey was anonymous, but 70% of employees said that they do not have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs. That’s a problem. The third is really kind of the heart of what is wrong with most L & D efforts. Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D  programs to their jobs. So when you put all that money into learning and development about 88% might as well not have done it. Only 12% of employees apply new skills to their jobs that is insane. 


In our industry…so those statistics are not specific to senior living. This is just kind of across the board, across all organizations, but I would venture to guess that this was a sufficient enough kind of sample size, that those percentages apply to our industry as well. And think about your learning and development initiatives. So even if you don’t have an L & D team, you are certainly doing work of L & D. And so those things might be orientation, onboarding, performance reviews, coaching and development. Now, all of that is probably happening by your managers, by your regional directors. But the question I pose to you is: if we don’t have learning and development professionals within our teams, within our organizations, how are we doing the expert work of L & D in terms of differentiating us from our competitors? I don’t think we are.


And so this is part of the intent behind this particular podcast series is to maybe help spark those conversations, not just from a senior level, but really from the community level. I hope that EDs are listening to this. I hope that nurses and sales directors and caregivers are listening to this. Now it’s up to us to make sure that this message gets spread around.


Now, let’s take that broad kind of range of statistics from that article. And let’s try to apply that to senior living. What are the problems of learning and development facing senior living? So a few things there, the first is that we’re learning at the wrong time. People learn best when they have to learn, when they want to learn. Think about when you are wanting to learn how to make a new  recipe. You’re going to look it up right before you have to cook it, right?


So you’re gonna look it up a few times. You’re going to look up the recipe when you go grocery shopping, you’re going to look at the recipe, right, when you’re going to cook that new item. So learning when you have to learning when you want to is really, really important to, to making that learning impactful. So here’s some examples of how we’re learning at the wrong time. Think of how many people in senior living have either a one or two day orientation or onboarding. That phrase ‘thrown into the fire,’ I’ll bet you, that we could sample people from all senior living organizations and at all levels. And people will say to you, you know, I do feel like I was thrown into the fire. It’s a sink or swim kind of orientation. Not because we don’t think that’s important. Just probably because we have just so much going on that it becomes a kind of peripheral task on a day to day basis that, oh, we’ve got somebody new starting today, go to the checklist. Here’s the orientation. And a lot of it is “scalable. But all that means is that it’s online. It’s an online course that we’ve automated and people sit and just go through that content. How impactful is that learning? How impactful is it in their first or second day?


The second problem is that we are learning the wrong things. We are learning the wrong things at the wrong time. So for most training initiatives, they’re just arbitrary timelines with uniform training subjects. Meaning we were going to coach this anyway, no matter who the audience was. So we have topics X, Y, and Z. We got to do the training on this, and we’re going to do it first week of every month. That’s an arbitrary timeline with uniform training subjects. And if it doesn’t align to their needs in real time, there’s a very, very low chance that people are gonna retain it much less use it.


So the topics are just too generic. Now they may be important to us as an organization, as senior leadership, but we have to acknowledge the question is it important? And is it relevant? And is it timely to the learner? If the answers to all of those questions are not yes, we might as well not do it because it’s not going to help them because they’re not going to put it to use. Third problem facing senior living in terms of L & D is that we quickly forget what we’ve learned now, this isn’t just specific to senior living, but there’s a concept called the forgetting curve. And it’s based on the work of Herman Ebbinghaus. And I think it’s called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. What would you guess is the percentage of learning that we lose within, well, no, let me, let me pose it differently.


It’s more compelling this way. How long would it take you to forget 42% of the things that you learned? How long would it take you to forget 42% of what you just learned? So if I was your trainer right now, how long would it be until you forgot 42%? A day a week? The answer is actually 20 minutes. On average for a learner in 20 minutes, you will forget 42% of what you just learned. And by six days, that’s 75%. So within less than a week, you’re going to forget three fourths of what you just learned in that learning event that you went to. And it’s not even just L & D events like a training seminar, it’s an hour one on one session. So if you, as an executive director had an hour-long coaching session in 20 minutes, that person will forget 42% of what you just went over.


There are ways to improve that, but if we’re not doing the work of learning and development in each of these roles, then we are just saying that 42% is going to be gone within 20 minutes of them walking out the office. The fourth, and then I’ll move on is that many companies, either outsource learning and development, don’t have it at all, or they leave it to the regionals and executive directors to have expertise in learning and development. So they either outsource it to somebody who doesn’t have stake in the learning. They don’t have it, which is just a problem altogether. Or in most cases, they push it to regional directors or the line level directors of the communities to oversee orientation, to oversee coaching and development, to oversee talent development. And they don’t ever get to learn how to be great trainers.


Now here’s a metaphor to help illustrate kind of how absurd that that point is. So imagine that you own a restaurant and you have to decide who the new chef is going to be, and you just walk through the restaurant and you see, ah, there’s Phil. That customer has clearly eaten the most number of meals at this restaurant. So he knows every single menu item. He knows a lot about what this restaurant is all about. Clearly, he’s the choice. He’s going to be the new chef. It’s a false correlation between expertise in the subject matter and expertise in training. So you can be the subject matter expert in operations, sales, clinical, but it does not make you an expert in training that knowledge. And so that’s where L & D comes in. 


We’ve really discussed. I think the problems facing our industry. So let’s move on to solutions. By the way, these solutions that I pose to you are just my view, obviously, but if you have a learning and development team in your organization, first of all, kudos, pat yourself on the back, go talk to your L & D professionals.


If you don’t have L & D professionals in your organization, find someone who’s interested in that and do the hard work of having those conversations, having some really tough self-effacing conversations within your team to figure out what are we doing right in terms of teaching people. And how do we, how do we change this process for ourselves. Solutions. Let’s talk about solutions. There’s a concept called the Pareto Principle, the Pareto Principle also known as the 80-20 rule. That 80% of the effects happen from 20% of causes. So 80% of the results come from 20% of input. So here’s an example. So in the real world, if you wanted to learn a new language, you would learn about 20% of words and phrases that show up in 80% of situations. And then you just go practice that with a native speaker, as frequently as you need to.


So if you want to master a new language, learn about 20% of what you need that shows up in about 80% of conversations. Like, hey, good morning. How are you, how was your weekend? What’s for lunch? Use those phrases over and over with native speakers and you will just learn the other kind of words and phrases that go along with it. So in senior living focus on 20% of the skills needed for 80% of the tasks. That’s kind of an application of this. So with limitations in your learning and development resources, focus on 20% of the skills needed for 80% of the tasks. So I’m in sales, I’m going to use a sales example for this. So 20% of skills in senior living might be discovery, right? Asking good questions to your customers, the skill set of pre-planning and the skill set of needs matching.


So that’s certainly not an exhaustive list of all the things that salespeople need to be able to do. Maybe 20%, but it shows up in 80% of tasks, at least. If you’re not great at advancing the lead, if you’re not great at solving problems, if you’re not great at personal connections, these things are a result of doing poor discovery. So with limitations in L & D resources, you would want to focus on 20% of the skills that get used 80% of the time for salespeople. Discovery pre-planning, needs matching as an example. You can apply this to operations and every other discipline really thinking about for your caregivers, what skill sets appear in 80% of their tasks? Go focus on those things.


Number two, apply the learning to real world real world situations immediately. So there’s two components of that. Both of them are very important, apply the learning to real world situations immediately. So, as an example, I do not set a sales training agenda months in advance. We adjusted, I would say maybe biweekly based on real world needs. So certainly I do some planning and think about in the month of July and the month of August, I’m going to have these general topics that I’d like to go over. But that agenda is very, very, very flexible. So with my ear to the ground in the field, talking to sales directors, talking to executive directors, I need to be able to change my agenda based on what’s happening in the field. So, as an example, our organization, I observed that in the last couple of weeks, there was a couple of communities that were having challenges with how to use pricing and how to use incentives to move the lead forward.


So guess what we’re training on next week? Pricing. So this is what I mean about doing real world learning and applying it to their situation immediately. If you want to make sure that your people are taking away the learning and applying it, make sure it’s relevant to what they’re experiencing right now. A quick tip on this is that you should do training at the beginning of the week, if at all possible so that they have time to apply it through the rest of the week. If you have training calls, if you have corporate team calls on Thursday and Friday, you are essentially saying, let me give you all of this information. You’re going to forget 42% of it in 20 minutes, and you’ll have the weekend to forget about another 20% of that. So by Monday, when they come back to work in most situations, come back to work on Monday, they have about 30 to 40% of what you told them on Friday to be able to apply. So if possible, do your training at the beginning of the week.


Third, personalize that learning, and that’s how you make it relevant to people. So the training topic, if you have a whole group of people, make it relevant to as many people as possible, but then the second round of that, the second tier of that learning is to go and break that apart and make it personal for them. So, as an example, if we’re doing the pricing training on the next sales training call, after that, I’m going to go and work with sales directors individually to take that training and then personalize it. So when I ask for aha moments, I’m not asking for pats on the back, or, hey, what did I do really well? If somebody tells me, Oh, you know what, that thing that you said about using incentives to solve a problem, that really resonated with me.


Great. Now I know the thing that is personally relevant to that learner. So when I go do the one-on-one internalization of that learning, I’m going to focus on their aha moment. Not necessarily the things that I wanted them to take away. Now, that’s taking learning from the learner’s perspective. If I wanted to reinforce the top three things that were important to me as a teacher, I would simply just go talk about those three things in the one-on-one. But when I asked for an aha moment, I am asking the learner what was relevant to you? That’s the thing that’s sticking out in their mind. So I’m going to go reinforce that because learning is a longterm game. Every time you have an opportunity to be in front of your person, what you are doing is you are reinforcing the value of learning. So you don’t need to get a home run every single time that you do an L & D activity. You just need to reinforce the value of learning. So ask for that aha moment personalized the learning, how they internalize that learning event by asking for their aha moment. So that makes it relevant. That puts it into real time.


The last component of this for me is that you have to activate social or peer learning. You cannot be the only teacher in your organization, even if you are in learning and development. Ultimately, you need to make sure that the learners have a system or a network in place that they can feel free to call one another and say, Hey, you know, that training called that we were on I’ve got a question about this. How are you dealing with it? You need to be able to create those networks so that people feel free to go to one another.


So the majority of people, when they have something new to learn on the job, they’re not going to go to their supervisor. Who are they going to go to? They’re going to go to their peers. But the problem in senior living is that their peer is sometimes either across town or in a different part of the state. So you, as the manager, have to kind of put in place a framework for how they’re going to get to their peers. So maybe you’re going to establish a weekly, you know, virtual zoom meeting where you’re not even on it. Just let people get on the call together and discuss things. That is activating social learning. It’s reinforcing the good habits of learning. Another way that you might activate social and peer learning is add these onto their quarterly goals. So learning becomes part of their performance goals or their stretch goals, and then tie that in with somebody else on the team.


So when two people have learning or two or more people have a learning initiative as part of their goals, you’re naturally tying in that their performance together is going to be tied to how well you learned. If you have questions on that, email me, or send me a message. I’m happy to talk to you about that.


So here’s some concluding thoughts on this: if you’re going to make changes to the learning within your organization, it has to be anchored in your organizational culture. Let me say that again. If you’re going to have any meaningful change to the learning within your organization, it has to be anchored in the organization’s culture. It has to be rooted in the shared values of the people on your team, in your company, so that learning becomes a social norm. It’s the observed behavior that, hey, when a new person comes into your organization at the end of their first week, if I were to go to them and say, hey, tell me a little bit about what’s important to this organization. I sure hope that they say teaching, coaching, learning, development, whatever words that they use, that correspond to that value of learning. I hope that they say that. So it has to be a social norm and observed in just the day to day culture of your organization.


A few ways I already kind of went through in this episode, how you can do that. But some really wild ideas, if you really want to kind of push this what if your organization allowed learning time off? So, we already for several people or several departments, there’s a kind of a habit or a norm of continuing education. So nurses have to do it, EDs have to do it. I don’t know that we’d necessarily give them paid time off to do it. I think we may be reimbursed the cost of that continuing education as an industry, but I’m not sure that I know of many organizations that provide paid learning time off.


So think about how cool that would be if your organization said you know, for every quarter, you’re going to get eight hours of paid learning time. However you choose to do that, you can go take a class, you can go read a book, you can just go talk to somebody at another company, but it is going to be paid time for you to go learn and bring it back to the organization. So the way that you make that accountable is that they have to bring that learning event back to the organization, back to the team and help make that institutional. So that’s how you would tie that time in. If you don’t have resources to invest in your L & D team, what I would suggest is that you give high performing leaders like high performing regionals, the opportunity to become learning experts. If not learning experts, certainly well versed in adult learning. So they might attend an ATD event, the Association for Talent Development. I went to that every year as a learning and development person or any learning conferences or events, they need to learn the language of learning, learn the language of and so that they can help kind of, again, institutionalize this into the culture. Like any change that the move to a learning culture in your senior living organization, must be done with intention. It has to be done at the highest levels with urgency and intention. This is a specific thing that we are going to be about, and here’s how we’re going to get there. That vision has to be created at the highest levels. And it has to be communicated over and over and over again, that communication coming down from your CEO, from your VPs, to your regionals, to your communities, and then back up the chain, that communication loop is going to be very, very important to impact any change. But this one specifically about learning, becoming a part of your culture, it has to have that communication loop.


The other components of that is that you have to have a powerful coalition, a group of people with enough power to lead this change effort. So that’s, in change management, one-on-one that you have to have a group of people with the authority, with the power, with the delegated responsibility to be able to lead that change effort. So that might mean that your regional has the autonomy to approve learning and development expenses. So of course this has to become part of your budgetary processes. And, you know, every year you have to build in money for learning and development, but then once it’s communicated from the high levels down, give that empowerment to your regionals, to your executive directors, to act on the vision. How are they going to institutionalize learning as part of their culture?


So that’s the final part. That’s the final piece of this puzzle is that you have to be able to institutionalize new approaches. So once the learning happens, once people learn the language of learning, once you’re tying it into your performance, how do you institutionalize it as the new way of doing things? Those are all of the components of this change management in order for learning and development to become an important factor of your company.


So I hope that this episode, like all of my episodes that I’ll create spark a conversation on your team. Now this, this 30 or so minutes is not intended for you to be able to take this away and now you’re suddenly a learning and development expert or a culture expert. It is simply to spark conversations on your team and then go find those resources, go find the subject matter experts in organizational psychology, or learning and development, and find those people, bring them in and say, this is something that’s important to us.


We want to make this part of the change in our culture. How do we go about it? All of that starts with 100 perception. And that’s this honest one with your team, that honest conversation with your team is where all of this starts. And it is my sincere hope that these episodes are listened to with your team. That if you listen to this on your own, it’s great. You can start thinking about it, internalize it, but if you listen to it with your team, that is full transparency, that is an opportunity for somebody else to speak, me, and then you all have opportunities to have conversations around it. When the leader brings up the conversation, oftentimes it becomes skewed to kind of respond to how they’re saying it, what they’re saying about it. But when there’s a different speaker that nobody knows, and you’re talking about those topics or responding to the conversation, then you might be able to have more honest conversations. 


Learning and development: It is the critical differentiator for services, business models like senior living. What are we charging people for? It’s not the building, it’s not the meals. It’s the quality of service. And how do you improve quality of service? It’s through training, it’s through learning and development. If you want to be a really differentiated organization in our industry, you have to learn faster. You have to learn better, and you have to learn more frequently than everyone else. That’s how you win in this differentiation. Disciplined people doing disciplined thinking and taking disciplined action. That comes from Good to Great by Jim Collins. But discipline people doing disciplined thinking, taking disciplined action. Learning has to be a core competency of your team. And I hope that this helps you to start the conversation. Otherwise, learning and development will not happen. This is on you. This is on all of us to say that we’re going to differentiate more based on the quality of service, based on the quality of what our people are delivering. And here’s how we’re going to get there.


I hope this has been helpful. I hope to hear from you and dialogue with you about this topic. Thanks for listening to this week’s BTG Contributor Wednesdays. Please connect with me on And I hope that you have an amazing day of service. Until next time.

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CW Ep. 7: Leadership & Culture with James Lee