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Episode 102: Glenn Van Ekeren

Glenn Van Ekeren trains on the little leadership lessons…from an old guy! He leads the teams at Vetter Health Services which is certified No. 1 nationally in team satisfaction surveys as well as a certified “Great Place to Work” in America.

Recorded at the NRC Health Symposium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. This is the senior living podcast and it is being brought to you this week in Nashville, Tennessee. We are at the NRC Symposium and we have an awesome guest this week and his name is Glenn Van Ekeren and he’s the president at Vetter Health Services. Thank you so much for being on the show today. 


Glenn: It’s truly an honor. I’m humbled. 


Lucas: Well, we’re excited to dive into a couple of big topics because this is not your first day in the business. 


Glenn: No, it’s not. It’s not the first rodeo. 


Lucas: It’s not your first rodeo here. So we want to talk about your background. We want to talk about your company. We want to talk about your passion for speaking and training and developing culture. So how did you get your start into basically making a career around the dignity of older adults? 


Glenn: Wow, great question. Well, it all began… I have the distinct honor of having graduated in the half of the class that made the upper half possible. And so when I, when I graduated, I didn’t think there were going to be a lot of options and frankly I went to work working with juvenile delinquents which was really very easy for me. I had been a juvenile delinquent, so it wasn’t that hard. I understood them pretty well. I worked in adult corrections and out of a number of different events I ended up working in an organization that served adults with disabilities and I worked on the people’s side of things as director of personnel. Had an absolute passion for that. 


And out of, kind of, some introductions I was asked to do some professional speaking and that grew as well. I did that on the side and the owner of our current company, his administrative assistant called one day and said, hey, we understand you do speaking. Would you speak to our administrators? So in 1989, August of 1989, in fact, 30 years ago, I went to speak to those administrators and that relationship just continued to grow. We got to know each other really well. Their values really were key to me enjoying that company. And in 1987 or 97, I’m sorry, Jack asked if I’d like to join the company and at that time did not accept. But two years later, long story short, we moved from a little town, Sheldon, Iowa, 5,000 people to Omaha, Nebraska. And I’ve been with Vetter Health Services now for 20 years. 


Josh: That is such a cool story. I love, Lucas and I talk about this all the time, how we are able to have great thought leaders on our show like yourself that have found their way after many years of maybe doing some other things. So what are some of the things that you feel like in first part of your career prepared you, maybe specifically for Vetter in your time that you’ve been there?

Glenn: You know, that’s an excellent, excellent question because in the early days, I mean, frankly I was 28 years old when I got into working in the people side of things. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And in a lot of ways that was good because I was naive enough. I wasn’t fearful of asking questions and it was a relatively new organization that experienced very high turnover and was just trying to figure out how do we create a place where people love to work? And you’ve got to keep in mind, back in 1980, nobody taught culture, you don’t talk environment. But we made a decision as leadership that we were gonna make that organization a fabulous place to work.

In those days, turnover in that industry ran somewhere around 70 to 75% and we were right there. 20 years later when I left due to the efforts of a lot of people, we were running about eight to 12%. 

Lucas: That’s a huge decrease. 

Glenn: That’s a huge decrease. And it was just because we created a place where people love to come to work and they felt valued and they felt every day that what they were doing was making a difference. And so that, that really tripped my trigger and inspired me to, to spend a lot of time studying, testing, trying new things. What is it we can do to create places that people love to be?

Josh: Sure. So a lot of people have heard and know about Vetter, but there’s probably some of our listeners that have no context of Vetter, where you’ve been, where you are that journey. Can you give us a little context? 

Glenn: Absolutely. So Vetter Health Services, we’re located, our home office is located in Omaha, Nebraska. Privately owned. Jack and El Dora Vetter started it in 1975. Jack had a passion for the elderly and he and his wife decided to buy a facility. Started with one was, in those days, absolutely committed to quality and everything that he did and gained a reputation in Nebraska for his integrity and that passion for quality. So that the company continued to grow honestly by people coming to him and saying, listen, I’m ready to get out of the business, would like for you to take over my facility cause I know your commitment to quality. And that’s how we began growing. And then in 1989, so about 14 years later, he built his first facility. And today we have 31 facilities in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and then we manage one in Wyoming. Predominantly skilled nursing, but we also have some assisted living in independent living as well.

Josh: So is the senior living the assisted living side of your business, is that a relatively new side or have you guys been doing that for a long time? 

Glenn: We’ve been doing the assisted and independent for a long time. We just haven’t grown it where we actually today we’re beginning to grow that a bit. I think we always had this feeling that we were, we were really good at skilled, we knew what we were doing and so we just, which kind of maximize that so to speak, and made sure that we didn’t stub our toe and other areas. 

Lucas: The high acuity level there and that type of business certainly complicated. So how have you, give us some tangible aspects? In particular, what caught my ear was that 75% turnover decreased down to 8%. Certainly in the care industry wage crunches are difficult to retain, keep and retain and even attract people. But Josh and I have uncovered on many episodes that even past a monetary figure or goal is that culture that’s developed where people feel valued and want to come to work. Clearly you have you know, brought that into this organization. Give us some tangible things that you’ve done to help execute that.

Glenn: Oh Lucas,, as I’m listening to you, I could know where we were going with that. And the first thing that struck me, because I think I was there and part of my career as well as a lot of organizations talk about their commitment to people, their passion for people, unless there’s something else to do. Alright, people are our priority. Oh, by the way, we have this problem and now all of a sudden people aren’t the priority anymore. And there comes a point where you have to make a decision: Are you going to be committed to paper and policies and procedures or are you going to be committed to people? 

And honestly, we had to make, even in our current organization back in ‘99, we made a very intentional commitment that we are going to be committed to people. And that’s where, and get away from being driven by policies and procedures. It’s about doing what’s right for people. That sounds just incredibly philosophical, but when you ask for practical, that is a very practical thing you’ve got to do. You have to make an intentional decision that that’s where we’re moving. 

And today, but back then as a company, we were probably in the 70 percent turnover, even at Vetter Health Services. And I remember we had one facility, in fact in 99 had 119% turnover. So today our turnover is about 35% company-wide. Still certainly not where we want it to be, but much lower than the industry standard. But it began with making that intentional decision. 

I would say a second thing important to us is making the mission and the vision and the values of the company pop off the poster. It’s gotta be more than just something that hangs on the wall that everybody walks by and never looks at again. And so Jack, in the early days, he wanted his administrators to focus on something special. Okay. And the one thing back in the 70s, he thought was important is dignity in life. Elders deserve to have dignity in life. We’ve taken that, it’s still our mission, but we’ve expanded it. And the beginning of our culture starts right here and that is we will treat every person as the most important person in our life, not just the residents, not just my team, the UPS guy who walks in the door, the family member who comes, our passion and our commitment, number one is to treat every person as the most important person in our life. And we build that into all of our training. It’s built into all of our orientation. It’s built into everything that we do every day. It is the heart and soul of the company. 

I could go into the values and the vision, but it’s the point is it can’t be a poster on the wall. How do you make it come to life? And then there’s just very specific kinds of things that you can do to, to really focus on people. 

Josh: I love that. I love everything you’ve said so I’ve just got to know a little bit more though because there’s, there’s so many, I’m quite certain these practical applications and I’m sure you have some stories, analogies, I’ll put you on the spot here, of putting the human first and putting people before policies and for that audience that is out there listening, thinking that sounds great, but what does that mean? Like what is an example of what does that look like in a community, in a facility where the administrator or you know, the management team, what kind of systems and reward systems do you put into place to even encourage that? Right? 

Glenn: Yeah. Okay. So either you decide you are or you aren’t. So here’s how we made the decision. So we had 119-page team handbook filled with personnel policies. Do this, do that, et cetera. 119 pages. 

Josh: That’s a lot. 

Glenn: So, she wasn’t the Chief People Officer at the time that I can’t even remember what the title was. But I read through this handbook and I took it to her and I said, what I’d love for you to do is go through and every policy in here, number one, anything that’s childish that we write for kids. Okay? It comes out. And then anything in there that says must ought to have to, or we’ll pull those policies out and let’s see what we have left. So out of 119 pages, we had 24 pages left. That’s it. Now think about that. 

Josh: That’s quite a cut. 

Glenn: Alright? So I said, I think this is what our handbook should be. There’s no way we can’t do this. So I said, let’s ask the attorney. So she calls the attorney and attorney goes, you can’t do that. 

Lucas: We knew that answer. 

Glenn: You can’t, you can’t take those policies away, right? And so I said, I didn’t know the attorney at the time cause I just started. I said, well, let’s go visit with the attorney. So we sat down and he said, you can’t do that. He said, you, you’ve got to have policies and procedures. I said, well Bob, my question is, what’s worse? No policies and procedures or policies and procedures that no one’s following? So because they’re not following 119 pages of these things, nobody reads 199 pages, right? 

Well he says, yeah, good point. I said, I’ll make you a deal. This is exactly how it happened. I can envision us sitting in that attorney’s office. I said, I’ll make you a deal if in the next two years we have more lawsuits or we lose any lawsuits, I will implement 119-page team handbook. But if we don’t, we stay with 24. We have a 24-page team handbook. We’ve never gone back. So from, you know, from a practical side, that’s how you move from paper and policies and wow. 

Josh: That’s radical. 

Glenn: It was radical, that’s a good point. 

Josh: Yeah. 

Glenn: Yeah. I didn’t, you don’t win friends and influence people right away that way because think about it. Policies give comfort to administrators. They have something to go back on. Even if they don’t follow them, they can always say, Hey, it’s our policy. Right? But when you switch from policies to saying, we’re going to, we’re going to think about this and we’re going to do what’s right for people. We’re going to make a decision based on it’s right for him, for him, for the team and for the organization it’s, it is a whole different story.

And so you want a personal example. I just think by the way, you have to understand, my team knows this, but I have birds and these birds fly by all the time. Like they keep flying by and flying by and then I go, should I tell him about this bird or should I let it fly by? Or, anyway, I’m, I’m doing fine now. I’m on medication. 

Lucas: How many birds have flown by? 

Glenn: A lot of birds are flying by. I have an administrator, not today, but this was many years ago, who she said, Glen, I’m going to go back. I’m going to rewrite my personnel policies. So she calls me and says, hey, can we have coffee? Yep. I sat down and she’s got, she’s expanded her sick leave policy to like three and a half pages long. I said, wow, I mean, I think you’ve covered everything here. And she said, well, you know, you have to or they’re going to take advantage of you. I’mlike, okay, my message did not get through to her, right? 

Well, about two weeks later, one of my team members came to me and said, Glenn, I have a torn contact. I’m almost blind. And without that contact, I’m afraid I could hurt a resident. I have to, they have to be specially made and it’s going to be three days before I can get one. I’m just wondering, should I take sick leave or is this vacation time? And I wanted to say to her, I have an administrator you should visit with, cause she has a policy for everything but not torn contacts. And I know now when people are listening to me, so what did you do? Sick leave or vacation. Right. And I looked at her, I said, Ada, you’ve been here eight years. You’ve been committed. I really don’t care. It doesn’t matter, right? Does it really matter? 

Josh: If she takes time away? 

I mean, let’s do what’s right for people and that I, you know, certainly we haven’t perfected that process, but we’re passionate about. 

Josh: Oh, I love it. I love how it all started. Thank you for sharing that. So through the years, this has obviously been that you started with,  you changed, you made some major, as I’ll refer to as radical changes. So how do you keep that culture growing? How do you measure those kinds of things, practically speaking? 

Glenn: You keep grinding. I mean I, I would be the first to tell you that this is messy leadership and it’s easier the other way. This is messy because every day you have to make personal decisions about people. And so it’s not like this is just get it in place with the project or the, you know, a program of the month and then everything is hunky dory. It doesn’t work that way. But it is a grind every day to try to figure out how do we create that culture? We have 31 locations, by the way, that’s one of the difficulties, not just how do I get it in the home office, but how do we get it spread to 31 locations? 

Josh: Consistently. 

Glenn: Consistently, right? The way we measure is a number of different ways. One of the reasons we’re here. We’re so blessed this year we found out that our team members satisfaction surveys are number one in the country.

Josh: Wow. Congratulations! 

Glenn: Pretty cool. Yeah, it’s an exciting day for us. So that’s, that’s really neat. We decided to test it nationally. And so the whole Great Places to Work Organization. We did, we went through that process with all 3,500 of our team members and we needed, I believe it was the first year we needed 60% engagement. We had 83% engagement. And so yeah, that’s my pen. Love that. So we are certified Great Place to Work in America. And so honestly that’s kind of how we begin to gauge things. We don’t spend a lot of time on turnover. We spend more time on what’s our retention, are we retaining people in the organization? And then revolving door. Because unfortunately in our profession it is like a revolving door. People come in, three months later they’re gone. And so we’re putting a lot of attention on that initial orientation, which is not telling you how to do your job. It’s selling you on the company, who we are, what we believe in, why we do what we do. You’re assigned a mentor and that mentor has been trained to help you assimilate into the environment. And we just, I think that’s an area where we can do a better job than we’re doing today is continue that relationship building so they, they feel like a real part of the team. 

Lucas: Well that’s a great transition for us in the last couple of minutes that we have on the show. So you are going to be putting on a, you’re gonna be a speaker here and you’re doing a seminar and tell our audience what the title of your talk is. And maybe just for the last two minutes that we have here on the show, a little synopsis about what you’re going to be diving into.

Glenn: All right. Well, I, you know, I struggled with a title and I finally came up with Little Leadership Tips… From an Old Guy. The old guy’s evident. I’m an old guy. And so I had some friends that said, why do you do that? Why do you say old guy? And I said, cause I am, I’m proud of it. I got to this point, you know, that’s good. But there’s another reason because those of us who work in the industry know that the older you get, the fewer filters you have. And so I don’t have any filters anymore, so I’m just going to share from my heart the 40 years, 40-plus years of leadership experience that I’ve had. 

And I say this jokingly, but in a lot of ways I really mean it too, is I don’t really care if people like it or don’t like it. It’s just from my heart. This is who it is. You can hear it. But I think tomorrow, tomorrow is a representation, a kind of a synopsis of many of the things that we believe in and the philosophy that is important to us in creating culture. So  I hope it’s a fun hour for people to attend. 

Josh: I’m sure it will be. 

Glenn: We’ll do our best. 

Josh: Yeah. I know you were already pulling the chain of some of the NRC team that I thought we were in trouble. They, they said that you, we told you that you were too old to be on the show. 

Glenn: This is true. 

Josh: Yeah. And so we, we almost got yelled at over that and so yeah. So but thank you-

Glenn: -I tried to throw you under the bus. 

Lucas: And a lot of our- you’re not the oldest person that we’ve had in the show.

Glenn: Seriously? 

Lucas: We’ve had, the oldest person that we’ve actually interviewed is 98-years-old. 

Glenn: Oh my gosh. 

Josh: Yeah. 

Lucas: So you’re a teenager. Yeah.

Glenn: I hope at 98 I can get up on this stool. I don’t think I can get there anymore, but that’s impressive. 

Josh: Well, a few more years and you’ll have another, another pin for the oldest guest, but not, not this year.

Glenn: Call me back, will ya? 

Lucas: Well, Glenn, this is so exciting and what a great message back out to our listeners and I think that this is going to be a great, exciting conference. A lot of energy here, a lot of great thought leadership. And just like-minded individuals that really want to make a great place to work with great culture and what more great validation for you to actually be able to measure it and know for a fact that you’re one of the great places to work in the country. 

Josh: Congratulations. 

Glenn: Thank you. We appreciate it very much. 

Lucas: Absolutely, Glenn. 

Glenn: Thanks for the time. 

Lucas: Thanks to our listeners for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap. 

Thank you to our supporting partners NRC Health, OneDay, TIS, Morrison Living, Argentum, Solinity, and The Bridge Group Construction. 

Episode 102: Glenn Van Ekeren