Visionary Leadership: 7 Lessons from the Best Places to Work

Blog post

Author: Rachel Druckenmiller, Director of Wellbeing
The topic of workplace cultures tends to be positioned as the responsibility of Human Resources professionals. Most organizations view recruitment, engagement, morale and retention and other culture-related initiatives as HR's job. That's why I love what Ondra Berry has to say about culture:

Culture is no longer just an HR thing. It’s a business thing and an everybody thing.

Everyone is responsible for shaping an organization’s culture, but many people have a perception that CEOs are out of touch and that CFOs are bean counters who are disconnected from the people side of the business. That’s why SIG’s recent C-suite panel about what it takes to be an employer of choice was so refreshing. We learned from executives at two of Baltimore’s Top Workplaces - Doug Dollenberg, Jr., President of Brightview Senior Living; and Mark Dumler, Partner at Rummel Klepper & Kahl (RK&K).

Brightview is a senior living a premier developer, owner, and operator of vibrant senior living communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. RK&K provides multi-discipline planning, engineering, environmental, and construction phase services to federal, state, municipal/local, educational, and healthcare clients. Both organizations are leaders in their industry and put people first. Doug and Mark shared incredible insights about what they have learned about how to be a best place to work.

1)    Look Beyond Your Industry

Both Mark and Doug were unlikely candidates for their current roles, given their lack of experience in their respective industries. Before joining RK&K, Mark Dumler’s career was as a lawyer, not an engineer. Fortunately, RK&K is structured to have one Partner come from outside of the industry to make sure the company vision isn’t too insular and to bring a fresh perspective. His colleagues’ initial concern was, “Does he know what we do?” but soon shifted to, “Is he passionate about what we do?” People were willing to accept Mark because they saw that his passion is to help RK&K’s people help their clients. He had a smooth transition once people realized his goal was to keep RK&K’s culture intact and put people first.

Doug had a similar experience at Brightview. Prior to joining the senior living community as their President, Doug’s career was in wireless, management consulting with McKinsey, and engineering. Because of his work with McKinsey, he was exposed to and worked with new industries every few months. He was brought in because Brightview was looking for a leader with cultural alignment, even if he came from outside their industry. Doug shared how he reads outside of his current industry to think about innovation. He has been on tours of related industries, like building design, hotels and hospitality to continue to learn more and innovate.

Reflect: How does your organization glean insights from people outside of your industry to help you continue to grow and innovate?


2)    Slow and Steady Wins the Race

One of the characteristics both companies had in common was what Doug referred to as “smart, measured growth”. Both organizations are in growth mode and could grow at what seems like an unbridled pace, but they are mindful of how quickly they should grow.

Brightview puts a cap on how many new communities they will open each year - a minimum threshold needed to give investors advancement opportunities and maximum limit to maintain who they are. They prioritize operational consistency across their 36 communities and value their culture above all else. They know they won't be able to maintain their culture if they grow too quickly, so they set a limit to show that they’re serious about preserving culture.

Mark shared that RK&K is fiscally conservative and grows in a slow and steady way as well. They've doubled in size in eight years and have about 1,300 employees. They even experienced growth during the economic downtown of 2008-2009 and took advantage of a lot of great people who were laid off and looking for work. The fact that they were willing to invest in people when many organizations were just trying to stay afloat is an indicator of how forward-thinking they are as a company and how important people are. They are aware of the trends and “shiny toys” but do not get distracted by them because they know their success is due, in large part, to how measured, disciplined and intentional they are about laying infrastructure.

Reflect: Is your organization chasing after shiny toys or practicing smart, measured growth and discipline to preserve your culture?

3)    Onboard on Purpose

There’s a huge war for talent, so hiring the right people and onboarding them effectively is critical. According to The Wynhurst Group, “22% of staff turnover occurs in the first 45 days of employment.” What’s more, “new employees who went through a structured onboarding program were 58% more likely to be with the organization after three years.” Turnover costs money from lost productivity and increased recruiting activities, so recruiting people and onboarding them should be intentional, not an afterthought.

Doug summed up Brightview’s approach to bringing on new associates this way:

Hire for attitude and passion, train for knowledge.

He talked about Brightview’s innovative interview process, which begins with a group interview. Two people from the community team meet with three to seven job applicants applying for a range of roles as a group. The initial conversation is focused entirely on attitude and passion; it has nothing to do with their role, function and technical capabilities. You can glean a lot about attitude, passion and interpersonal tendencies by watching people interact in a group setting. If the applicant gets through, they are passed on to the appropriate hiring manager to assess technical abilities. After receiving feedback that employees wanted a better onboarding process and training, Brightview stepped up to improve their approach. Now, when new associates are hired, they receive a customized onboarding training guide with a clear roadmap to help them succeed.

Senior leaders experience an intensive onboarding process, too, and have an extensive presence in the onboarding of new Directors, who spend nearly three days in training. Doug spent his first four to six months on a “road show”, traveling to all 36 communities to observe, listen, learn and absorb as much of the culture as he could. His goal was to understand the business through the eyes of the various roles in each community. Doug felt like his initial interview continued during that time, as the Executive Directors quizzed himabout why he joined the company, who he is and what he values. This type of onboarding is a smart business move to retain executives. According to Egon Zehnder International, “Many companies leave executive onboarding to chance, and, as a result, experience failure rates in excess of 50% when it comes to retaining new executive talent.”

RK&K takes a thoughtful approach to their onboarding process as well. One team member reaches out to all new hires before they show up, so their paperwork is already filled out before their first day. Mark said RK&K’s goal is to make an employee’s first day one that they will remember. “Think of this person as if it’s their birthday,” he said. On their first day, new employees get a swag box from the firm and are made to feel like they matter.

Beyond the first day experience, RK&K’s orientation onboarding program brings newly hired engineers to their headquarters in Baltimore for three days to meet the partners and learn about the culture. New hires also go out to dinner with the partners and feel like they are part of a team. Because one of RK&K’s goals is to foster a deep sense of belonging, they use that orientation time to create connection among their new team members. Mark said employees continue to talk about who was in their orientation class for years to come.

Reflect: What are the strengths of your current onboarding strategy? Have you asked your employees what’s working well and what you could do better or differently in the future?

4)    Be Curious & Listen

The best leaders and the most innovative companies create space for curiosity. They ask questions, never stop learning, and listen well. Both Mark and Doug know that listening builds trust and credibility and increases their effectiveness as leaders. As Mark said,

Successful people are curious people.

They read books, listen to podcasts, and follow a continuous innovation model that is rooted in curiosity. Both Brightview and RK&K are committed to listening to employees and giving them a voice, which is one of the secrets to their success and low turnover. They know that one of the fastest ways to lose employees is to think you have all the answers and not give employees something to say.

At RK&K, this process begins on Day One, as new employees are encouraged to leave their egos at the door and approach their role with humility:

Don’t worry about being impressive; just listen.

Mark said RK&K encourages new hires to get to know the business and the people by spending most of the first two months listening and absorbing, rather than trying to impress their new colleagues.

At both organizations, two-way feedback is ongoing. At Brightview, senior leaders are constantly out in the communities listening to both associates and residents, asking how the new hires - even other executives - are fitting in with the culture. When they receive feedback from their annual engagement survey, they put action plans in place at every single community and the home office based on the feedback. They know that employees will be engaged and energized when they feel heard.

Reflect: What opportunities do you give employees to offer feedback about what’s working, what’s not and what could be done differently? How do you lead with curiosity? What do your senior leaders do to practice listening and get to know people across all levels of your organization?

5)    Invest in Culture to Recruit & Retain Talent

Doug spoke to the importance of focusing on employees first, then customers, then financials. Brightview knows that if they have a great team that is happy, engaged, committed and accountable, then that will result in a great place to live for their residents. If they focus on associate and resident satisfaction, financial results will happen. Doug also made an important point about employee engagement and its connection to workplace culture. Management often talks about "engagement" and how important it is to culture, but employees use different language. Employees care about whether they're satisfied, having fun, contributing to a higher purpose and feeling productive. They want to feel energized. When they feel that way, they will be engaged, stick around, and perform; that's the byproduct of happy employees.

One of my favorite comments of the morning came from Mark Dumler. He was reflecting on the amount of time RK&K spends on compliance and risk management and said the greatest defense is culture but that most organizations don’t spend enough money on culture.

It’s money spent on culture that makes the compliance less likely to ever happen.

I couldn’t agree more. When you have a strong culture where people feel like they belong and feel valued, seen and heard, you’ll experience less turnover, a boost in morale, higher engagement and increased performance. You'll also have to do less risk management because happier people are not as "risky" or volatile as unhappy employees.

In addition to beefing up their recruiting efforts, RK&K mobilizes the whole workforce to be ambassadors for talent. Existing employees know who would and wouldn’t fit in there, so they are encouraged and empowered to take an active lead to recruit people they love. RK&K is also intentional about their social media presence on LinkedIn and Facebook because they know candidates are looking there to learn about the company culture. Prospective employees notice all the birthday and anniversary posts on those platforms, and when they see longevity and stability, it makes them want to learn more.

For years, RK&K didn’t participate in the Best Places to Work award process. One of their core tenets is a focus on humility, and they feared that focusing on winning awards would detract from that and make them appear prideful. The exact opposite happened. It was remarkable the pride employees had when other people could see how much they love the company and enjoy working there.

6)    Learn from All Generations

Because of the current war on talent, many recruiting, retention and engagement conversations focus on appealing to the “special snowflakes” AKA Millennials. As a Millennial myself, I've often been frustrated by how people stereotype my generation as lazy, disloyal and uncommitted. No generation likes to be stereotyped; all of us want to be appreciated as human being for our unique contributions and skills. Both Mark and Doug acknowledged there is much to be learned from each generation and that all generations are drawn to companies that stand for something and have a clear sense of purpose.

Brightview has adjusted their structure to use more technology for job applications, offer individual development plans supported by the leadership team, and enable associates to easily transfer between communities if they want to move but remain with the company. They know that, regardless of generation, what their associates align with most is their mission. The work they are doing is enriching the lives of the seniors who live with them, so they will be happier, live longer, and have better, more vibrant lives in the context of community.

Appealing to multiple generations isn't always about following fads and being trendy, something Mark Dumler and his team understand. Instead of changing their culture to appeal to specific generations, they focus on how they can instill values like humility and curiosity in the emerging workforce and encourage each generation to learn from one another. RK&K has excellent tenure and frequently has anniversary parties celebrating 20 years of service. Seeing that kind of celebration appeals to younger employees who begin to consider the value of longevity and stability, rather than job hopping. They also pair senior leaders with younger employees to serve as mentors with the goal of training up the next generation of leaders.

Reflect: What does your organization do to celebrate and include all employees, regardless of generation?

7)    Foster Connection & Belonging

I’ve written extensively about the topic of connection in belonging here and here. It’s a topic I am deeply passionate about and want to bring more of to the workplace.

That's why I loved Mark's response to how RK&K defines engagement:

We call it belonging. People have a sense of belonging and feel like they’re a part of something."

All of us want to feel like we belong to something, to know that we are wanted and that we are contributing. We need opportunities to come together and be with each other, to get to know each other beyond our titles. Both RK&K and Brightview make community-building a priority and prioritize a whole person approach to wellbeing.

RK&K hosts two annual meetings for senior directors so they can network and talk to people internally. People want to get out of the conference room and into social settings where they can just be human and connect with one another. They also have a variety of social events, special interest groups - like their award-winning Women's Leadership Forum - and countless other opportunities to connect, have fun and learn together.

Mark shared how RK&K uses both technology and old school methods of communication to create connection across their 25+ offices. They recently started putting out a weekly video newsletter called The Herd (including a blooper reel in the credits!). They also send out a newsletter called The Chronicle that features pictures of employees who take RK&K's mascot – a buffalo stuffed animal – on vacations with them and take pictures of it. They publish family stories and photos to create a more familial feel across the company. RK&K has found a mix of old school, print communication and video to be particularly effective in reaching their dispersed workforce.

Brightview is also committed to fostering community. They organize an annual 3-day leadership conference of nearly 400 people, bringing together both the home office team of 150 people and community directors. They started hosting communication lunches where several executives have lunch with a handful of associates and ask them how things are going. One of the takeaways from those lunches was a request for more support by the communities. They were given the support staff they needed, but leadership wouldn’t have known about that need if they weren’t regularly connecting with the associates. In addition to those more formal connection opportunities, Brightview offers a wide range of social activities and team challenges for associates to bond.

Reflect: What does your organization do to foster a culture of connection, community and belonging? Involve your people in the process and ask them for ideas, if you're feeling stuck!

The Bottom Line

Shaping company culture is everyone's responsibility, and protecting and preserving it is heavily influenced by leadership. Top workplaces are led by visionary leaders who put people first and value, practice and prioritize intentionality, curiosity, humility, transparency, inclusion, connection and belonging. These leaders recognize that going slow and steady wins the race and that great cultures don't happen by default; they happen by design.

Reflect: What are you doing to intentionally shape your company's culture and lead by example?

Looking for a New Role?

If you're interested in learning more about open positions at either of these organizations and at our company, SIG, which has also been recognized as a Best Place to Work, check out the links below:

About SIG

SIG is an innovative, people-focused, benefits consulting firm that guides and supports organizations like RK&K, Brightview Senior Living, and others become employers of choice. We represent the Baltimore office of the Alera Group, a national benefits consulting firm with reach across all 50 states. To learn more about how we support organizational culture and award-winning benefits, visit our website here or send me a message. I'd love to chat!