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Seismic demographic change will have a distinct effect on the senior living sector, and generational shift may be the most prevalent form of that change. What can leaders do to build a high-performing team in this environment?

Argentum’s Workforce Development Symposium, sponsored by OnShift and held September 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C., was a day of interactive discussion designed to spur innovative thinking about this long-term challenge—one already bringing significant change to all levels of the workplace.

Workforce Symposium 2017

Featured speaker Bruce Tulgan, founder and chairman of RainmakerThinking, is an expert on leadership, management, and young people in the workplace, as his most recent book, an updated edition of “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials” attests. His group has been tracking and researching generational shift in more than 400 organizations for about a quarter-century.

“The grown-ups are leaving.”

First, a snapshot: Tulgan sees the shift in terms of not three broad generational categories, but rather seven narrower categories: pre-baby boom, first wave baby boomers, second wave baby boomers, Generation X, first wave millennials, second wave millennials, and post-millennials.

While different generations have always worked side by side, the big bumps in populations make our current and future situation something new—and concerning.

“My advice is, you should worry,” Tulgan says. “The grown-ups are leaving. They’re taking with them collective skills, knowledge, institutional memory, and the last vestiges of the work ethic.”

One of the primary disconnects is among baby boomers, who are accustomed to putting in their time and working their way up the ladder, Gen X’ers, who are entrepreneurial and used to going it alone, and millennials, stereotyped as being “entitled” and needing constant reinforcement and rewards.

But Tulgan flipped that perception: The fact is, older workers are becoming more like millennials in their attitudes toward their work life and advancements—thinking more like free agents, for instance.

And millennials don’t have greater wants and needs, they have greater expectations—of themselves as well as of others. They want to hit the ground running, start making changes, and start making a difference.

They’ll be your best and hardest workers, Tulgan says, but there are two catches: They won’t work for vague promises of long-term rewards, and they want someone to be keeping score. Millennials grew up tracking everything, from their steps to their game scores. They want numbers, and they want the credit.

Their hunger for feedback means you can motivate them though offering a series of rewards for a series of achievements—just do it in sprints.

Strategies in the race against time

Looking at some broad trends in human capital management as well as responding to questions from the group, Tulgan posited some real-world strategies to address retention, recruitment, and engagement in senior living.

Beat the “development investment paradox.”

Most in this industry know the problem: You invest in developing workers only to have them leave. (Second-wave millennials are the prime offenders, Tulgan says.) Tulgan suggests an iterative approach: Unbundle complex roles and tasks, and feed in training gradually, one task and responsibility at a time, as rewards. Naturally, basic skills to do the job will have to be taught—but “broad, transferable skills should be a reward that you help people earn.”

Cultivate flexible retention to retain the advantages of older employees.

“Build your own reserve army,” Tulgan says. Let experienced people leave—even to the competition—and come back. Save perks like flexible scheduling for older and experienced employees to evade the development investment paradox. Superstars get to earn more flexibility.

Concentrate not just on knowledge transfer but on wisdom transfer.

You can harvest knowledge before older employees leave with the help of technology. But “wisdom capture,” as Tulgan calls it, is more challenging. Turn wisdom into a tangible asset that the organization controls by offering opportunities for older employees to become mentors and consultants.

Be selective in hiring (even when you’re in a scarcity environment).

“Our research points to what most know but few like to acknowledge: one very good person is worth more to the business than 2 or 3 mediocre people,” Tulgan says. It’s not a numbers game, but a quality one: “All retention is not good; all turnover is not bad.” The key is avoiding an environment where “low performers hide out and high performers leave.”

Create a work culture by design, not by default.

Executive leadership often balks at this, envisioning dogs at work and ping-pong tables when they hear “workplace culture.” But instead of being a nice guy and making the workplace a playground, design a culture of excellence, Tulgan says. Value high performance, and bring in human resources as a strategic partner to ensure the culture is expressed in every aspect of the workplace. The culture will then drive recruitment and retention.

Try boot-camp onboarding.

Not doing lots of pushups, but using onboarding to connect people to mission, teach them the organization’s values, and create a bonding experience that makes them part of an elite crew. This is an investment less in training in certain skills than in creating community—an asset those who leave can’t take with them, and one those who stay benefit from greatly.

Scare them away.

It’s counter-intuitive, but even in a scarcity environment such as senior living, you can win more retention by making it difficult to get hired and stay. If your staffing strategy is to attract any warm body, or a “come join the family, we’ll invest in you” model, people won’t feel as valued or valuable, and they’re more likely to leave.

Get transparent about rewards.

“All rewards should be contingent and on the table all the time,” Tulgan says. Rewards can be tailored to what individual employees need. Some in the audience pointed to having an Uber or Lyft account for help with transportation or offering self-scheduling, for instance. However, these approaches require more management rigor, such as daily performance monitoring. But if you pay attention and keep score, you send the message that real performance will gain real rewards in real time.

Be the best place for the best people.

For many in senior living, recruiting and retaining people involves facing workers’ daily life challenges—child care, cars breaking down, family problems.

Tulgan advocates keeping the focus on the workplace: “You can’t control everything that happens to everyone outside the workplace. But you can become an anchor in an otherwise uncertain world.”

Several leaders during break-time discussions also brought up this issue, saying they have found workers appreciate being in a place where needs and duties are clear and where they’re valued—a “drama-free zone,” as one said.

You can’t solve all the problems, but “you can be the place where people have a chance to serve with professional colleagues,” Tulgan said. “You can offer a supportive environment where effort leads to rewards.” 


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