Enlivant CEO Jack Callison on leading a cultural overhaul in a mission-driven organization

Enlivant CEO Jack Callison arrived at the organization in a time of desperate need, and worked through a transformation in company culture in order to bring the company to a place where it can focus on growth. More than six years later, Callison is running a workforce of 8,000 employees that was just certified as a Great Place to Work. Ladders spoke with Callison to find out more about this transformation, how the company is now focusing on growth, and the important lessons he has learned along the way.

When you started at Enlivant you had to have a company culture “overhaul.” What’s your advice for defining a mission? What are the steps after that to transforming culture?

“From my perspective, at least at Enlivant, we made a very concerted decision to ensure that our culture is firmly grounded in three things. And those three things are our mission, vision, and values. I think for any organization, mission is why you exist, what purpose do you serve? And for us that purpose, why we exist, is we’re here to enrich lives.

The way we do that is through meaningful relationships and vibrant communities. There are lots of ways that you can enrich lives physically, socially, cognitively, nutritionally, socially, spiritually, holistically. The advice I would have is to start with your ‘why’, start with your purpose in terms of why you exist.

In terms of, you asked about transforming culture, one of the very first things that we did, going into all the history about the company’s challenges prior to 2013, but suffice to say a transformation was much needed.

So the very first step in setting the stage for the transformation of that culture that needed to take place was focused 100% on building and rebuilding trust. So with that in mind, one of the very first actions was I hosted CEO-led listening tours. We did that across a meaningful cross-section of our portfolio for many months.

So what does that mean? We held town hall meetings in our communities with all staff, all hands on deck. So our caregivers, our chefs, our maintenance techs, community-level leadership. It was just kind of an intimate two-way communication session. We exchanged ideas and beliefs and really got everybody grounded going back to that mission conversation.

What was great about that was we emerged from those listening tours with fairly clear answers to two big-picture questions that I asked every community over and over and over again. So the first question that we would typically discuss, which was the foundation for transforming the culture, as if you were King or Queen for a day, and you are today now, what specifically would you want Enlivant’s culture to stand for and represent five years from now, 20 years from now? And that was really what the foundation for the three-legged stool, as I referred to it, right? You have to have all three pieces in place to have a unique culture. So I alluded to our mission being that we enrich lives.

Similarly, our vision, that we hand-stacked coming out of those, was that our mission was simply to become the most trusted senior living provider. Not the largest, not the most profitable, not to go international, to be simply the most trusted.

And the third leg of that stool was our values. It’s our behaviors every single day. I think that’s how you go from your mission, which is where you are today, of enriching lives, to how you ultimately achieve your vision of becoming the most trusted, so living your values every single day. At Enlivant, we have five values that we really cling to that shape our identity, our behaviors, and the acronym is chief, C-H-I-E-F. Each letter stands for one of our core values. C is for compassion. H is for humility, which maybe you don’t hear too much about in company values these days and to me, that’s more a sense of servant leadership. I is integrity. Without that, nothing else matters. E is excellence. You can’t become the most trusted if you’re just good. You have to be excellent in everything that you do. And the last one, which often surprises people is ‘fun.’ It’s not that we don’t take the work that we do seriously. We take it very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously and we know that life is short and we’re spending as much time as we all do at work. You’re having a lot of fun in what you do every single day.

So out of those listening sessions, it was a crystal clear foundation for us in terms of what we would want this company to look like, feel like and represent not only today but five, 10, 20 years from now. That’s been really one of the most powerful things that came out of those sessions. The second thing was a little more, in some cases strategic, some cases tactical. We asked a simple question, which was what are the things Enlivant should start, stop or continue doing today?

And we’ve got some really good feedback. And so it was solving problems for them in the moment, whether it was a technology issue or ‘Hey, we need better transportation for our residents,’ or ‘we need better wifi in our communities,’ or ‘I don’t like my uniforms.’

There were things that were actionable that we could actually say, ‘you said, we heard, we did.’ And that too helped build trust very quickly. So those are the two things I would point to that really enabled us to transform the culture so positively, so quickly was having a very clear identity, a reality check on mission, vision, values -here’s who we are, what we believe- and then doing some very practical things that would make it easier for users, whether you’re an employee or a resident, to either work or live within Enlivant.”

What was the most important lesson that you learned during that process?

“What came out of that for me, which I kind of knew going into it, but it just reemphasized it, was that the executive directors in our communities are probably what would be most important leadership roles in the entire organization. They set the tone for the entire community on all fronts.

So it’s really humbling just to see the caliber of talent that we have. Not only in our executive directors across the country but just the dedication of our staff members. And to me, it’s a very mission-driven industry. So it’s a very humbling experience and probably one of the best facets about what we do is it’s an industry where you can do well by doing good, so to speak. It’s very heartwarming and very touching to know that we’re impacting people’s lives in such a meaningful way on a daily basis.”

How would you describe the culture at the company now?

“I would describe Enlivant as a fun, compassionate, entrepreneurial, flat, fast-moving, innovative, hyper growth-oriented company that values diversity. Our culture is grounded in our mission, vision, and values, but there’s also an objective way to measure and describe our culture. And one of the examples I’ll point to is I’m incredibly proud of the fact that Enlivant was recently named a great place to work by the Great Place To Work Institute in partnership with Fortune magazine. And as part of that certification process, the Great Place To Work Institute surveyed nearly 8,000 Enlivant employees across the country and asked about 70 questions.

The questions are based on the Great Place To Work Institute’s five-part trust index methodology. When you look at that survey, they hone in on the five things. The first three deal with do you actually trust the people that you work for. So the questions they ask to focus on measuring: fairness, respect, and credibility.

The fourth thing they measure is the pride that employees have in what you do daily. And the fifth metric that they really dive into is they try to measure how much you enjoy the people that you work with, which is camaraderie. That’s kind of about the five-part model of fairness, respect, credibility, pride, and camaraderie.

While we’re proud of the fact that our employees voted us a great place to work as part of the certification process, it’s not something that I take for granted. We’re continually trying to build and further enhance the great culture that we’ve already built because to me it’s just like good hygiene, like brushing your teeth multiple times a day. Just because you did it yesterday doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it today or tomorrow. Culture is something you have to wake up obsessed about and thinking about and driving and managing every single day, just like maintaining good hygiene.

The last objective measure of our culture that I can share with you is that when we do our annual employee engagement surveys, one of the things that I’m probably most proud of is that 97% of our employees shared with us in our last survey that they understand and embrace Enlivant’s mission, vision, and values, which again is the foundation for everything that we do.

So, ensuring that all 8,000 of our employees remain focused on the organization’s ‘North Star’ is so important. It’s our purpose, it’s our mission, vision, values, it’s why we exist, what we’re striving for. It’s something that we’re very proud of and so it’s more than just a job. I think people feel connected to the broader organization. It’s a very mission-driven organization and industry. People are really proud of the fact that they work here and that they can make such a meaningful difference on a daily basis. Hopefully, those are some subjective and objective ways of describing our culture.”

You touched on growth a bit. Has Enlivant got to a spot where the company can focus on growth? How do you tackle that challenge?

“Yeah, it’s a great question and you’re absolutely right, growth is a big part of Enlivant’s future. I think you have to kind of rewind the clock a little bit and from the very beginning of this journey together, we all signed up and started this back in 2013. We’ve worked very hard from the very beginning not to cut corners and building out a highly scalable operating platform that can support continued meaningful growth.

We want to grow, but we want to do it at an intelligent and thoughtful pace. So if you think about the human body, our skeleton holds us all up. It provides structure to the human body and organizations are no different. Much as the human body grows throughout our entire life, organizations grow. But you’ve got to have a backbone that supports the organization.

So we’ve been very purposeful in thinking about what that foundation should look like from the very beginning because so many companies have grown too big, too far, too fast, and they haven’t devoted the time, energy and resources to ensure that the skeleton was in place to support that growth.

So from the very beginning, even before we started growing, the anticipation of that continued robust growth, we tried to be pretty forward-thinking and began investing heavily and proactively in, what we’re referred to as the three Ps at Enlivant. And those three P’s guide everything that we do: Its purpose, people and process.

So purpose is going back to our mission, vision, values. If it doesn’t directly advance us enriching lives or becoming the most trusted or living our core values, then we probably shouldn’t be focused on that. So the North Star is always investing in our purpose, which is our culture, which is the very reason we exist.

The second is People. Although we own real estate, make no doubt about it, this is very much a people-oriented business. And so here we obsess over hiring the very brightest and compassionate human beings that we can source to lead all of this future growth. So not only what we operate today, but thinking ahead to how do we bring athletes on board who have the ability to not only excel in their current roles but hopefully can be promoted with us over a period of time and continue to grow with us.

And the third P is Process. This is going back to that skeleton reference. It’s the backbone of the organization. So it’s doing things operationally in a pretty consistent and predictable manner that ultimately creates a better user experience for both our employees and our residents. So, if you think about a hotel chain. If you stay at a Marriott Courtyard in San Diego or Seattle or Miami or Washington D.C, there may be subtle differences about the hotel, but you, as a consumer, know what to expect in terms of the product and the service and the experience, the interface. And that’s really what we’re striving here for as well, is to create very customized experiences for each individual. But we’re trying to make the experience for our employees and ultimately for residents as smooth as possible. So it’s investing heavily in those tools and systems and processes to ensure that what we are doing is indeed scalable.”

What are you most excited about at the company right now?

“I mentioned that I’m certainly proud of the fact that Enlivant was named a great place to work recently. We’re very humble about that, but it is something we’re very proud of. I’m also proud of the fact that we continue to be highly successful in attracting such incredibly diverse talent from so many different industries and walks of life.

The depth and caliber of talent across our organization is humbling at times. So in addition to the seniors housing industry, we’ve had tremendous success in hiring really talented people from health care, retail, and hospitality. I think that’s really important for us, given our growth, needs, and we all know about the aging baby boomers, and the growth headed our way. Our industry needs to hire nearly 1.5 million new people, so these are incremental employees over the next decade, just to keep pace with the exploding demographics of the aging senior adults in this country.

So again, we’ve got to be able to appeal as an employer to a much broader and much more diverse pool of talent outside of our own industry. We’ve had a lot of success with recruiting that type of talent in outside industries who want to be part of such a mission driven industry with a strong culture and a bright a future when it comes to growth.”

What’s been the most surprising aspect of the role of CEO since you took over in 2013?

“It’s an easy answer and I’ll tell you that probably the most heartwarming and gratifying part of serving as an Enlivant CEO is having an incredible vantage point into being able to witness daily the unwavering loyalty and genuine compassion and dedication of the staff members in our communities. The work they do for us is hard and it can be emotionally trying at times, but for so many of them, what they do daily is so much more than a job.

Many of them will tell you it’s a calling, it’s mission-driven work. So I try to remind them often to never underestimate the positive impact they have in the lives of so many families daily.

It’s very humbling to talk, especially to our longest-tenured employees. Some of them have been with us well over 30 years in their communities. They’ll tell you that their residents are part of their own extended family and they can’t imagine not being there to take care of their 50 to 60 grandparents on a daily basis. Some people often refer to it as the second paycheck, in terms of being able to interface with the greatest generation ever. T

here are so many life lessons that we can all learn. So to me, it’s just that unwavering passion of so many people who are so compassionate about serving others. It really invigorates me. It inspires me. It makes me proud to be a part of this organization.”

How would you describe your management style?

“Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’ll talk about how I think about culture as the CEO first. In addition to guiding our longterm strategy and vision for the organization, I view one of my most important roles Enlivant is also serving as our chief culture officer. Our culture is very well defined, and while I believe that every single employee who works for us has an obligation to genuinely embrace and live our culture, I do believe culture starts at the top and it starts with me. So living your life personally and professionally in a way that exemplifies our mission, vision, values is probably one of the most important things that I can do.

When it comes to leadership and what we look for in leaders, and this would apply to whether you’re an executive director in a community or whether you’re the chief operating officer of our company, it’s all leadership roles. Enlivant has five competencies in leadership that we seek out. We value it and we reward it across the organization evenly.

So the five core competencies mean different things at different levels. So they’re the same competencies, they just mean different things, as you progress through the organizational structure. And the five things that we look for in leadership are, number one, we expect our leaders to build strong, cohesive, talented teams.

The second thing is we expect our leaders to be able to build trust-based relationships. So it’s kind of a 360 concept. It’s maintaining great relationships with your employees, with your peers, with your supervisors. If you’re in our communities, it’s with your residents, it’s with their families. It’s with referral partners, it’s with state regulators, it’s our vendor partners, it’s with our capital providers. Do you build trust-based relationships?

The third competency that we expect in our leaders is that they take ownership. The buck stops with them and they gladly and eagerly seek out responsibility and ownership. The fourth is they solve problems effectively. So this is where critical thinking skills come into play and they’re able to tackle problems proactively and effectively and make good decisions to get to a good place. The fifth leadership value that we look for in all of our leaders is the ability to grow the business. Both in terms of today’s growth of, if we’re looking at a single community, how do you grow RevPAR, which is our occupancy and our rate and ultimately our bottom line. And then how do we continue growing the business?

 So going back to our mission of enriching lives, we want to enrich as many lives as we’re capable of doing. So that feeds beautifully into our recruiting strategy. So looking for people who can help us as we look ahead to the aging senior adult population coming our way, we gravitate towards those individuals who have a proven track record of growing the business.”

Does that style change with employees from the Millennial and Gen Z generations?

“I think every generation going way back in time always has its own nuances and personality quirks, right? And I find at their core, if I look at Enlivant’s workforce, it is indeed a multigenerational workforce. But I’ll tell you that when you look at these, whether it’s Gen Z or Millennials, there are far more commonalities than differences between the generations. I think people like to make a big deal about that, but I think ultimately I see it a little bit differently. I see far more commonalities.

When I look at this multigenerational workforce that we employ today, I choose to believe in that (and they told us this in surveys and Great Places To Work surveys) they’re all generally seeking the same things. So the things I think they’re all looking for, which makes them more similar than dissimilar, is number one, they want to be proud of the company they work for.

Number two is they want to know that the work they do daily actually matters. So it’s ‘doing well by doing good’. Three is they want to work for a company that cares about all stakeholders, not just investors. That’s clearly important. That they care equally about employees and residents and capital providers.

So you might think of that as a three-legged stool, but all three groups have to be able to win in these trust-based relationships: your employees, your residents, and your investors. Next, they want a supervisor that respects and values them as individuals. No matter how large of an organization it may be. People join companies and they typically leave their supervisors, their bosses. So having a direct supervisor that respects them as human beings, as individuals is hugely important.

The next thing that they all want is they want to know that there’s a career path for them. So when you have someone who has both the skill and the will to continue growing in their careers, that they hopefully can continue doing that with Enlivant.

So how do I go from perhaps saying an executive director to a regional director, to a divisional SVP, to CEO of the company. And that’s where having those competencies come into place, building strong teams, building trust-based relationships, taking ownership, solving problems, growing the business.

Those are the things that we look for to continue growing people’s careers. And lastly, I think they all want to work for an organization that will invest in their ongoing development. So again, if I have the skill and will, how do we continue investing in employees so that they see a career path and they view it as a long-term career, not just simply a short-term job or a stepping stone onto something else.

So I actually believe, and this bears itself out in all of our employee engagement surveys and our Great Place to Work surveys, that yes, there are some subtle generational differences, but far, far more commonalities and differences.”

Is there anything else you’d want people to know about Enlivant?

“I hope that people realize that we are doing things a little bit differently than the industry and that’s very intentional and purposeful. We believe that the industry is ripe for innovation. When you look forward to the aging demographics in the population coming our way, we’re really trying to ensure that we use the next five to eight years to build a highly scalable organization that continues to be grounded in our core values.

For anyone who might be thinking about their next career step, I’ve hopefully given you a lot of insight into our culture, which is a big part of what I think makes people successful here. We have all kinds of opportunities. We’re very much in growth mode and if someone’s looking to hop on a rocket ship from a growth perspective in a really fun, robust culture, we’d love to hear from them.”