LeadingAge Magazine · July-August 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 04

This I Have Learned …

July 18, 2017 | by Audrey Weiner and Nancy King

Essays from nonprofit leaders.

In these personal thought pieces, contributors reflect on the values and beliefs acquired, and lessons learned, in our nonprofit sector.

Collaboration, Not Control, Leads to Success

by Audrey Weiner

Once upon a time, I thought I knew all the answers. I was younger, but certainly not wiser.

Audrey Weiner
Audrey Weiner

From my college days to my early days in the field of aging, human resources discussions focused on topics like span of control, “Theory X” versus “Theory Y” of employee behavior, progressive discipline and the impact of unionization on care. The Japanese approach, known then as Theory 2, was touted as “the” solution to all challenges in managing staff.

It was an exciting time for me in 1991 as I began my very first job as a nursing home administrator—“in charge” was how it was positioned––that is, until one month into my time as administrator of what is now The New Jewish Home, Sarah Neuman. That’s when the union presented me with enough cards to force an election. Shocking! Well, at the time it was.

I recalled the “unionization” question on my nursing home administrator’s exam and I knew my first task should be to call Jewish Home’s attorney. But the fact that this process began as adversarial was troubling. Instead of beginning the response with military precision in order to change minds, shouldn’t my first move have been to learn why the union put the cards on the table in the first place? What were the issues between management and labor that needed attention? The fact was, there had been many issues over the prior few years that had brought us to this point.

I quickly learned an important lesson, namely, that it’s imperative to involve the people working on the front lines in key decision-making. One must truly listen. But it wasn’t until a decade later that Jewish Home’s management began to partner with the union and with the direct-care staff to change the culture and create a better environment, a better quality of care, for our elders and an improved work life for our staff.

It was finally a win-win-win.

I was also taught that the administration is supposed to have all the answers, especially when it comes to the board. That, too, we now know is not true. To be effective, it’s imperative that management and the board collaborate. That’s why we went on to create working groups of board members and Jewish Home managers who could think about the issues together. The bottom line is, neither the board nor management should be expected to, or can, solve problems alone.

This sense of collaboration permeates our organization and impacts something as seemingly simple as the purchase of adult incontinence garments. When making such a purchase, the purchasing director doesn’t just look for the best deal; he reaches out to our elders, those who use the products, and to our care partners, for their recommendations. After all, they are the consumers.

I am retiring as CEO at the end of 2017 and even the search firm has adopted this approach, seeking input from our elders on what is important in a new leader.

All of this is profoundly different from the way many of us were taught.

I’ve learned that you can never be lonely “at the top” if your management model makes elders the focus of all decisions. The power to manage effectively lies not with any single individual, but in the strength of care partners and managers, the valued partnerships with unions, the active participation of the board and the elders themselves—and yes, the many good colleagues at LeadingAge.

Audrey Weiner is president and CEO of The New Jewish Home, New York, NY.


Characters Welcome

by Nancy King

The USA Network has a motto, “Characters Welcome.” It refers to its intent to showcase unusual and fascinating characters in its television shows. I love it and I aspire to it. In fact, if I had a sign hanging over my door, that would be it: Characters Welcome.

Nancy King
Nancy King

For me it means welcoming the things about people that make them unique. It means learning about them, who they are and what they can contribute. Maybe their appearance is less than conservative. Maybe they have trouble with public speaking. Or maybe their passion bubbles overboard loudly and freely. My mentor, Glen Gronlund, said to me, “Nancy, people with great strengths have great weaknesses.” I love it when those great strengths can shine through.

In leadership we are taught about Emotional Intelligence (EQ). EQ emphasizes self-awareness and self-control as well as trust and relationship building. But I wonder and even worry if we aren’t trying to homogenize people too much or too soon. Has it become more important to be liked than to do a good job? Are we trying to make them fit the mold we have constructed?

Here is the root of my concern. According to a study by Leadership IQ, about half of new hires fail within 18 months. And according to the study, this “failure” isn’t related to skills, technical ability or performance. Managers’ reasons for job loss had more to do with the employee’s personality, coachability, and emotional intelligence. In fact, only 11% of the failures were due to job competence. Yikes! Can we afford to lose half of our new hires because they aren’t “a fit”?

It’s tough to be new. Six years ago, after 28 years in one organization, I became a new employee in a new company. It was both exciting and challenging. I was greeted and introduced with great warmth and fanfare. I was asked my opinion on everything. I felt needed. Yet, the comfort of working in familiar surroundings with people I had known for years was gone. I was confident in my abilities, but not with my understanding of how things worked there. I did my best to understand the culture, the politics, the sacred cows and the networks within the organization, while at the same time hitting the ground running with big assignments. No one provided me with a rule book on the do’s and don’ts. I worried that I would inadvertently “step in it.”

I wonder if this happens to our new employees. We know we need to have compassionate, mission-centered people. And we should not compromise on that. And true, we need to replace the disengaged and destructive. But, I can’t help but think that the responsibility for the employee’s success or failure should be shared. Maybe it’s our own managers who lack the skills and personality to be good coaches or mentors. Or perhaps we are underestimating the time it takes to assimilate someone into our culture. It could be that our managers are so focused on the daily tasks, they don’t have the time or wherewithal to properly on-board an employee and stress the organization’s values. And maybe the unwritten rules and norms of our organizations are not obvious to new employees.

Whatever the case, I know this: We can’t afford to have half of our new employees not work out. With the labor crisis projected to get worse, in addition to better hiring, maybe we need to spend more time with our new employees, not just teaching them the particulars of their job, but helping them become a part of our organization. And as leaders, maybe we need to promote a culture of acceptance and inclusion so that new employees feel welcomed and valued.

Nancy King is president of Senior Options LLC, Virginia Beach, VA.