Andrew S. Kohlberg sees more than just a few catchy slogans
when he looks at the principles that drive Kisco Senior Living.
“We said from the very beginning, if we’re going to spend the
time to create something, we have to spend the time to have it
incorporated in everything we do,” Kohlberg says. “The hard part
is not establishing the vision and mission. The hard part is getting
it through the fabric of the organization to every level and making
it a living and breathing part of the organization, rather than something that sits on the wall.”
Kohlberg needed to develop a purposeful culture to ensure that,
no matter which location a person visited in his chain of retirement communities, each site would possess the same values and
standards of customer service.
In order for this to work, he needed to create an organization
in which employees would play an active part in developing
and maintaining the culture, says Kohlberg, the company’s
founder, president and CEO.
“People watch what decisions you make and are they consistent with the principles, values and beliefs,” he says. “They
watch who you hire, they watch who you promote, they watch
who you fire and what symbolic messages those send. ... What
you say doesn’t matter as much as what you do.”
Mission and vision statements are placed on employee business cards and recited regularly at staff meetings at the 1,500-employee company. They are talked about and analyzed during
visits Kohlberg makes to company properties, and they are
posted on the company’s Web site and included in the company’s marketing materials.
“They are in everything that we do,” Kohlberg says.
But Kohlberg is a firm believer that simply talking about
vision is not enough to make it work. And the CEOs who take
their eyes off the ball and let the culture run amok do so at
“The culture still evolves,” Kohlberg says. “It just evolves in
some way that they may not like.”
Here’s how he drives home the culture that keeps the $120
million company moving forward.
Free your mind
If you expect your employees to live and breathe your company’s
culture, you have to give them a venue to express how they feel
about it. That collaboration has to begin with the CEO. Encourage
participation, and when you engage others in discussion, do so
with an open mind.
“If a CEO goes into a meeting with the mindset that they are
going to come out with only what they want, everyone in the
meeting gets the sense pretty quickly that all that is going to
happen is whatever the CEO wants,” Kohlberg says. “That
deflates everybody, and they kind of clam up; don’t really participate in a genuine way. There has to be a feeling on behalf of
the CEO that it’s going to be a collaborative effort.
“‘The emperor has no clothes’ is a common problem among
CEOs. They surround themselves with people who just tell them what they want to hear. They never really find out that
they are part of the problem. It just takes time.”
Getting people to offer their opinion means embracing feedback, both positive and negative.
“You cannot have negative consequences to people that say
things to you that you don’t want to hear,” Kohlberg says.
“That’s the most impactful thing to having a culture where people are free to speak their mind.”
Embracing feedback also means asking questions and making yourself available to your employees, whether it’s through
e-mail, a phone call or direct one-on-one conversation. It
means getting out of your office and following up on concerns
and complaints that may come about.
In simple terms, it means being seen by your people.
“You lose touch with reality if you’re not out in the field,”
Kohlberg says. “You really don’t know what’s going on. I’ve
heard people say the higher up you go in an organization, the
further you get from the truth. You need to spend time at all
levels of the organization trying to get a sense of what’s really
going on because people don’t always tell you everything.”
While there will likely always be a certain level of intimidation with some people about talking to the CEO, Kohlberg says
the challenge can be alleviated through regular communication.
“Sooner or later, they get the message that it’s real and
authentic, and they are a little more open,” Kohlberg says.
“They’re always going to be a little intimidated, and they’re
never going to tell you the total truth. But I’ll get a lot more
than sitting in my office.”
When sifting through ideas and concepts presented by
employees, the key is to make sure they fit together in the
overall plan before you decide to implement them.
“They have to be specific and applicable to the company,”
Kohlberg says. “Give people really specific guidelines of what the
organization stands for and where it wants to go. If they are so
vague that every company fits within it, it’s meaningless.”
Walk the talk
The phrase, “Actions speak louder than words,” may be a
cliché, but it is very true in trying to get employees to buy in to
“You’ve got to have management walk the talk,” Kohlberg
says. “If they are doing things that oppose what’s written on
the pages of the paper, everyone thinks it’s a sham and nobody
really buys in to it.”
One example of how Kisco’s management espouses the values of the company is a program in which employees and managers travel across the border to help build homes in the poorer areas of Mexico.
“It sends a strong message of giving back to the community,
which is very consistent with our principles, values and
beliefs,” Kohlberg says. “People see that it’s real, it’s frequent,
and it’s authentic, and the senior people walk the talk.”
This philanthropic effort would not serve to enhance the
company culture if the good deeds were not in alignment with
what happens each day in the workplace.
“If all a company cares about is the bottom line and making
numbers and they get rid of people instantly who don’t make
their numbers, and they go out and do a charity event, there is
an inconsistency there,” Kohlberg says.
“It doesn’t have as big of an impact. If the values of the organization are to give back to the community and be a good corporate citizen, and that’s right in the vision and principles of
the organization, and then you do charity, that’s a powerful
thing because it lines up. ... It’s impactful and meaningful when
it’s aligned with the whole organization and that’s what people
You need to realize that every decision that is made and every
word that is spoken are being received and processed by
“If you’re firing all the people that fit the culture and keeping
the people that don’t, that obviously says a lot,” Kohlberg says.
“If you’re not getting rid of poor performers, that says a lot. If
you’re promoting your top performers, that says a lot. If you’re
promoting people who meet their numbers, but don’t fit the
culture, that says a lot. They watch the decisions that get made
and see if people are authentic to the values. Are they walking
Constant monitoring is needed to ensure that vision and culture are in alignment.
“Be able to articulate it and put it on paper so that people can
understand it,” Kohlberg says. “Then you have people willing
to move in that direction. Hire people and train people and
retrain people and recommunicate what that direction is.
Continually get everybody lined up. There are so many moving
parts, and there are so many different people with different
agendas. Getting everybody, year after year, to move in the
same direction is constant work.
“It’s kind of like trying to fix an airplane while you’re flying.
It’s not easy.”
Employees can only move in the direction you want if they
know where they are supposed to be going. They need to be
given goals and benchmarks to strive for. In addition to analyzing its own practices, Kohlberg has his team research
benchmarks used at other companies, both inside and outside
“We look at what the turnover is at Ritz Carlton Hotels or
some other great companies that do a good job,” Kohlberg
says. “It gives you a whole framework on how to set goals and
targets. Then people can’t come back and say, ‘That’s a totally
unrealistic goal.’ You say, ‘Well, these three companies are
doing that. Why can’t we?’ Benchmarking and knowing what
your competitors are doing and also knowing what other great
companies are doing, even if they are not in your industry, is
Kisco instituted a program in which a goal is set every six
months and based on that goal’s achievement, everyone in the
organization, from Kohlberg down to the lowest-level employee, gets a bonus.
“If we hit a certain resident satisfaction number, everybody
gets X number of dollars,” Kohlberg says. “It doesn’t matter
what level you’re at, you get the same amount.”
The program energizes employees and breaks down the barriers that may exist between levels in the company.
“Everybody in the organization knows that if we hit that goal,
everybody gets the same amount of money,” Kohlberg says.
Employees who aren’t meeting benchmarks and aren’t striving to achieve the goals of the company need to be dealt with.
“Good performers don’t want to be around people who are
dragging everybody else down,” Kohlberg says. “You have to be
really adamant about getting rid of people who either aren’t
doing the job or who may be doing the job, but don’t fit the culture. It’s easy to back off that and get lax because nobody likes
asking people to leave, and it’s a difficult thing to do. You have
to continue to be adamant about that.”
Those who want to succeed, but for whatever reason are
struggling to meet expectations, should be given a chance to
“We always bend over backwards to make sure we’ve given
A, honest feedback and B, time for them to develop the skills
to be a fit and be productive,” Kohlberg says. “You give people
the benefit of the doubt and time and resources to try to develop the skills and the attitude. If they can’t, you need to move
The benefit of having a purposeful culture in which leadership is
consistent whether you’re talking about mission, vision or values
is that employees know what to expect when they come into work.
“You have people that are more productive,” Kohlberg says.
“They are more motivated. They stay longer, and you have better results over a longer period of time. There is a direct correlation between a healthy culture and a healthy company. You
can have an unhealthy culture and a financially profitable one
for a short period of time, but you can’t have that for 10 or 20
HOW TO REACH: Kisco Senior Living, (760) 804-5900 or www.kiscoseniorliving.com