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Watermark Achieves Breakthroughs with Staff-First Approach

Senior living providers that are keen to innovate but feel like it’s impossible to get out of set patterns might look to Watermark Retirement Communities, one of the largest senior housing operators in the country, for inspiration. The Tucson, Arizona-based company has implemented a management approach that drives success by actively disrupting the status quo.

Watermark, an operator with 38 communities in 22 states, first adopted the Leadership by Design approach decades ago, after founder David Freshwater was introduced to the program by business coach Richard Baxter. In an industry where it’s common to hear that resident satisfaction and safety drives strategy and operations, the Watermark philosophy puts the company’s employees, or associates, at the center.

“That’s the core of it,” David Barnes, CEO and president of Watermark, tells Senior Housing News. “If you take good care of your associates, they will take good care of your residents, which will fill your buildings and take care of your investors.”

As the critical element of the provider’s leadership approach, the program is a huge commitment that defines the culture across Watermark communities.

“Typically the associates are there because they want to make a difference in the residents’ lives,” says Barnes. “What we have found is that if you can create a culture where people are engaged and enjoy coming to work, they will take great care of your residents. There will be a kind of buzz or a hum when you walk in the building. You can fill your buildings up, which will mean you will be financially successful and can take care of your investors as well.”

Break On Through

The approach is centered around three days of training sessions for Watermark leadership teams. They cost about $1,000 per person for the initial sessions. This is followed by 18 weeks of online support through a structure put in place nearly a decade ago. After learning the approach from Baxter, Barnes has been leading the training within Watermark for more than 20 years.

As the company has grown, he’s had to adapt from small groups at individual communities to large-scale sessions where only the top leadership teams at communities are involved, he notes.

Trainees are told that the goal of the three days is to come up with a declarative statement, also known as a “breakthrough,” that will help define professional goals and be the subject of follow-up training. The breakthrough declaration might be as specific as achieving a particular margin for a community by a given quarter.

“The price of admission is that you have to make a breakthrough declaration by the third day,” Barnes explains. “You actually practice standing up and saying to a group, ‘I am committed to doing x, y and z.’ We coach around that.”

The focus of the program is finding these breakthroughs, which have a significant impact in the overall performance of a community.

“They all get tracked, but not every breakthrough gets achieved,” says Barnes. “What we have found is that if you declare yourself, you produce more results than if you don’t declare yourself.”

Even if breakthroughs aren’t achieved right away, the results are still stronger over time, says Barnes. After the three-day training, associates then complete follow-up work through online forums and conference calls to discuss how their breakthroughs are going and where they can improve.

The alternative allows managers to become “comfortable” with the status quo—and that’s exactly what Watermark wants to avoid.

“The results are wonderful,” Barnes says. “It’s part of why we do it, but what we’re really after is creating a culture of committed speaking where people can work through breakdowns. We don’t want our communities to get steeped in status quo. That’s probably our biggest fear.”

Making It Personal

The constant looking-forward drive is what keeps Watermark communities competitive, says Barnes. Validating that sentiment is the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. Faculty were so impressed with Watermark’s implementation of Leadership by Design that they used the provider as a case study in leadership for business students.

The approach sets up a strategic competitive advantage for Watermark, according to Stephen Gilliland, associate dean of executive education.

“If you look at communities that do get steeped in status quo, the results can be okay because maybe the market is allowing them to be successful,” Barnes explains. “But as soon as there is some sort of external pressure, they’re just not prepared to engage and move quickly and move with intent. If we can keep a team constantly engaged in breakthroughs and looking at what’s next … we can create a really dynamic organization that does some pretty spectacular things.”

The declarations serve as professional goals that cross over into personal lives for many, as well, which is also part of the program’s aims.

“I hear a lot of feedback about how it has impacted their personal lives,” says Barnes. “… Some of the most rewarding breakthroughs that people share having gone through the program are very personal, like weight loss or they stopped smoking or they repaired a relationship with a parent or a grandparent or a spouse. Those stories are my favorite because I know that if they can apply it to a very difficult situation like that, what they can do at work is amazing.”

One maintenance director, who came into the training say that he couldn’t make much of a difference in his role, ended up declaring a project of cutting utility costs $3,000 to $4,000 a month.

“That was big not only from the perspective of achieving … the savings,” said company founder Freshwater, in an interview done in conjunction with Eller’s case study. “But also the difference it made in him, coming from the place of, ‘I’m just a maintenance director,’ to ‘I’m part of this team. I’m capable of making these kinds of impassioned and strong commitments.’ He just changed.”

Written by Amy Baxter