Episcopal Retirement Homes Inc. stays on track Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

R. Douglas Spitler knows what people say about his type of organization. And to some extent, he may even agree.

“There are some who believe that nonprofit organizations are not particularly the best at managing business,” says the president and CEO of Episcopal Retirement Homes Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates several retirement communities and provides senior outreach services. “But we’ve tried to seek out and adopt best practices from the business community … and to balance that with the mission of a not-for-profit organization.”

Borrowing business expertise from executives on his volunteer board of directors, Spitler is aligning his staff along a strategic vision. As a result, he’s been able to achieve business success — like 2008 total revenue of $23.3 million — through the involvement of his 350 employees and the 1,200 seniors they serve.

“We’ve tried to really set a very clear vision and set of strategic expectations for the organization and to communicate that from top to bottom,” Spitler says.

Smart Business spoke to Spitler about aligning your constituents along your vision.

Communicate constantly. It’s really critical that the senior leadership of an organization be accessible and communicate routinely with all constituents involved in a business organization.

For us, that means we have all-staff meetings twice a year. It’s two full days where my complete senior leadership team — there’s six of us — meet with all the staff in the organization at five different sites. It gives us an opportunity to share updates on where the organization’s at, to share the vision, to reinforce that, to give people some insights in terms of how we’re executing against that vision and strategy, to solicit their support and to give them an opportunity to ask us questions to build those relationships.

So starting with our board’s involvement and senior leadership’s involvement in identifying that strategic direction, adopting it, to communicating that to all the staff, to the residents, to engaging staff members in the creation of the systems and the policies and the new work culture that’s necessary to achieve that, has been a way that we try to build commitment and understanding about where the organization’s headed and what our vision truly is.

Make your message relevant. At some level, certain staff members may feel less a part of some element of the vision that doesn’t as directly affect them. And so what we try to do is to focus on the entire vision and strategy but certainly to highlight those elements of the strategy that are closer to home for the staff members with whom we’re speaking. I don’t think you water down the message, but it’s a matter of emphasizing those elements that are more meaningful, have a more direct impact in the lives of the staff members you’re speaking with.

So let’s say we’re planning a renovation someplace. The staff members want to know more about the timing. They want to know about how it’s going to impact their work schedule. They may want to know how it’s going to impact communications with residents and families. Those are the kinds of issues that we would highlight in that part of the discussion.

With residents, the message starts with why this is important. If we’re involved in some major change, we have to build the case for residents to accept the rationale for the change to begin with and get their buy-in. We’ll talk about the issues that they’re going to be most concerned about. ...

You don’t completely know what everybody’s issues are. That’s why we have a dialogue. It’s not just one-way communication. So one of the ways that we engage our residents [is] we have resident committees who work with management.

You build commitment and support for an issue through involvement. Involvement in our system means we have a variety of resident committees who work with anything from designing our dining program to planning recreational/social activities to providing input on design for construction improvements.

They will probably help us in identifying the top issues that we need to be prepared to address [with others.] Getting direct input from a selected group of customers to help understand how they’re going to react to a change or an initiative helps us be prepared to address those issues upfront. And then we open the door to other issues from a broader audience.

Get involvement. What happens is the mission and the vision of the organization get created at the top of the organization. The strategies are top-down and the action plans are more bottom-up. When it comes to the executional part of the strategy, staff have to be intimately involved in executing the strategy. When it comes to setting the broad directions where we believe we have both the competencies and the resources to succeed, those are really senior-level decisions. It obviously works down the organization with greater levels of involvement as you move to the executional part of the strategy.

We involve staff in lots of different ways, whether it’s a policy review, whether it’s a programmatic change, whether it’s a new construction project. …When we’re faced with dealing with difficult issues, such as what many organizations are facing today with the downturn in the economy, we have very high levels of staff understanding and commitment and trust because of our commitment to involving them in a variety of aspects of the organization.

We use a variety of teams. When we began [focusing on person-centered care,] we put together a steering team. The steering team had responsibility to conduct research, identify best practices and begin to, in general terms, outline our model of person-centered care. From that, then they began to create a variety of implementation teams, which included all levels of the organization. They really helped create the policies, define the systems, define the new ways of working under this model of service delivery.

We had resident assistants and housekeepers in our organization who were facilitating some of those teams. We’ve tried to cultivate and build leadership at all levels of the organization.

How to reach: Episcopal Retirement Homes Inc., (513) 271-9610 or www.episcopalretirement.com