Long-term outlook Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

Loren B. Shook loves telling stories. One of his favorites is the one about Rose.

When she was transferred from a hospital to Silverado Senior Living Inc. — where Shook serves as chairman, president and CEO — 100-year-old Rose Arrington had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia. She couldn’t walk, feed herself or speak coherent sentences. People figured she didn’t have long, so it was just a matter of making her final days comfortable.

But within six weeks at her new home, Rose wasn’t just walking, talking and feeding herself. When the residents held a competition at the park, Rose won the medal for throwing the ball the farthest.

Shook doesn’t just share the tale because it’s touching but because it encapsulates what the company he co-founded in 1996 is all about. In other words, he talks about Rose to illustrate his vision and culture.

“The storytelling culture helps keep the culture in place and keep it alive and renews it every time you tell a story,” says Shook, who gathers tales from Silverado’s 20 care communities and several other home and hospice offices across four states. “You can celebrate successes with those stories.”

Silverado’s vision is to give life to memory-impaired seniors, their families and others in the company. With a goal that big, he needs everybody to be totally committed to the vision — which means being totally committed to the culture that will help all of them achieve it.

“It starts with the vision of the company and the clarity of what that vision is [and] clearly communicating that,” Shook says.

That culture is obviously important when it results in success, like thousands of Alzheimer’s patients who regain motor skills and reduce medications. But it also benefits his 2,042 employees and the business he runs.

“You get to have the choice of making a positive difference in your co-workers’ lives as a supervisor or the employer,” says Shook, whose company has made multiple best places to work lists. “It also can be — and is — directly in alignment with making a better business for you to run and a more profitable business and a more secure one.”

Here’s how Shook sustains the culture that carried Silverado to 2009 revenue of $108.7 million and keeps improving life for thousands of patients and employees.

Articulate your culture

Potential employees who interview at Silverado will certainly hear about Rose or Edith or Floyd or any other thousands of success stories Shook shares. The test is whether that matters to them.

You want employees who naturally sync with your culture, but first you have to know what you’re looking for. In other words, be able to clearly articulate and illustrate your culture in order to bring in like minds.

It starts with explaining your purpose to ignite passion for where you’re going before you get into the details of how you’ll get there.

“One of the big [mistakes] is to not clearly communicate a compelling vision as to what the company is about,” Shook says. “You’ve got to have that foundation — what your company’s about and what you’re doing. Without that, you can’t build a culture.”

To make your vision compelling, explain not only what you do but why it matters.

“No matter what you’re doing, what you’re doing is important. Any business has a meaningful place to play or nobody would be buying it as a product or service,” Shook says. “You’re making not only just some old shoes; you’re making shoes that have the benefit of this or that. You can look at whatever you’re doing as just turning out a humdrum commodity or you can look deeper at what it is your product or service does for people — and there is meaning.”

Shook, always the storyteller, gives the example of several men laying bricks to build a church. The first one, when asked what he’s doing, says he’s just stacking this brick on top of that one. The second one says he’s creating a building and getting paid $30 an hour. The third one says he’s building a church where people will get married and find peace.

The way candidates respond to your purpose or even a question like, “Why do you want to work here?” can cue you into how broad of a vision they have for themselves, whether it’s just laying bricks or being part of something bigger.

Continue gauging their responses as you zoom into the details of the culture you rely on to achieve your purpose.

“It extends off of the vision of the company and the purpose and the reason the company exists,” he says. “Then you roll that down to the operating philosophies. … Let people know what it looks like.”

To do that, explain the principles that guide your company. For example, Silverado values the get-give philosophy, which means employees should get more out of the job than they put into it, and likewise, the company should get more from the employees than they give them. You can train them more later on how to practice those principles, but for now, just give them an outline of what to expect.

Part of your explanation is also sharing success stories — whether it’s Rose’s winning pitch, products you launched, clients you landed or sales records you broke. Show them proof that the company is actually achieving what it aspires to and that they can be part of that success.

“Let them know that the company does make a difference, the people who’ve come before them have done that,” Shook says. “So it’s not just a dream; it’s reality.”

Their responses will indicate how well they’ll fit the company.

“Going through those stories with a prospective staff member, you see: Does that matter to them? Do they care about that?” Shook says. “The right person will be blown away at what a wonderful change in Rose’s life that is, and the wrong person will say, ‘So what?’ You don’t even have to hear them; you can see in their eyes whether that’s significant.”

Whether they come out and say it or not, you can sense excitement and passion in their reaction. And, of course, you can just ask if they want to be a contributor to that result.

“It’s all about the view that the employer paints for the employees in producing that and what they feel about it,” he says.

Hold everyone accountable

Shook is quick to admit nobody — including himself — is perfect. But the responsibility of maintaining a culture means keeping yourself and others accountable to it.

“Part of building a culture that’s sustainable and works is you want to make sure that the people from the very top on down are walking their talk,” he says.

Accountability starts with clearly laying out your expectations. The key is to make it digestible by giving employees pieces they can practice anywhere.

“You boil it down into very small parts that are understandable,” Shook says. “Show them the significance of what it means for them: how it solves their real-world problems that they face every day doing whatever job it is that they do.

“You up the ante any time you can say, ‘This is a technique you can use at home to make your life bet ter.’ Extend it beyond just the workplace and provide a ‘what’s in it for me’ kind of thing.”

Of the skills that are crucial across positions and industries, perhaps the easiest place to start is communication. Explain skills that employees will need at the company, providing examples of specific situations they might encounter.

Shook offers sample customer satisfaction issues. A resident’s family members visit and get upset that their mother’s socks aren’t organized the right way. They’re not mad at you, and maybe they’re not even mad about the socks. The point is to teach employees to find out what the issue is and be conscious of their response to it.

“When somebody’s angry or accusing you of something, recognize your own place. Human nature is to protect yourself, to deny,” Shook tells them. “Do the opposite of that: Repeat back to them what you heard them say and make sure that you are hearing them clearly. If they are angry, acknowledge that they’re angry and [say,] ‘I want to know what it is you’re upset about so that I can address that.’”

Only after you’ve provided tools and expectations for upholding your culture can you monitor employees.

Shook’s observation starts with an overall look at the department or location, which includes satisfaction surveys and understanding personnel data. In culturally strong areas, staff satisfaction and retention will be high. But a lot of turnover, low survey response rates and workers’ comp injuries or other liabilities should send red flags.

To pinpoint where the problem is, start at the top.

“First, make sure that the leaders are living that culture and modeling it for their associates,” Shook says. “Because if they’re not, then it’s really difficult to expect the people below them to be doing it.”

Shook and one of his senior vice presidents hold staff meetings at each location — minus the supervisors. He asks employees for their needs and wants as well as the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Then he’ll dig into specifics about the leaders, asking for three things they do well and three things they could improve.

You raise the level of employees’ openness by not including leaders in the meeting and by assuring them you won’t disclose who said what.

While their answers will help you evaluate how leaders model the culture, it’s not all about what they say. Pay attention to how quickly they answer and which list of three comes more easily.

“When I ask about a leader where the culture’s not right, I have silence in the room,” he says. “People have a difficult time coming up with anything good. Sometimes they’ll come up with one thing but they can’t come up with three good things, so I see them struggling.”

If the leader seems to be doing everything right, then you can rely on him or her to help evaluate employees.

“You start with [asking,] ‘Are they living the culture?’” Shook says. “And then, ‘Give me examples of how they’re doing that.’”

If you get a lot of complaints around certain people from peers, superiors and customers, their reaction can say a lot. Do they place the blame on colleagues or talk openly about the issue?

Investigate why they’re out of sync with your culture. If they previously modeled it and suddenly slipped off track, maybe there’s another change in their life affecting them, like a death or divorce. Offer to adjust their schedules or set them up with a counselor.

Maybe they were never on track to begin with. Those are the employees who don’t want to fix the issue. Even if they say they do, the real answer is whether their behavior changes or not.

“My responsibility is to give them a work environment where they can succeed, give them leaders to work under where they can succeed and give them the resources needed,” Shook says. “But it’s up to them to take and use those resources and to improve. They have to be responsible to make themselves successful.”

Those who won’t don’t belong. But the process of helping willing employees improve can also help you keep yourself accountable. Each coaching moment is a chance for you to evaluate yourself on the issue so you can give them an opportunity to learn from your experience.

“I go through my own dilemmas I’ve had and the growth I’ve had as a leader throughout the years and let them know that the feelings they’re having are the same everyone else has,” says Shook, whose sharing gives employees paths to improve how they model the culture, therefore improving the company.

“What’d you learn from your failure that you’re going to do differently next time? What’s your responsibility in that failure, and how can you improve yourself?” he asks. “When failures happen, it’s not that you failed that matters; it’s what are you going to do about it that matters.”

How to reach: Silverado Senior Living, (949) 240-7200 or www.silveradosenior.com