Developing High-Trust Muscles In Your Leadership

You never know what you and your organization will face and work to overcome. I doubt anyone could have foreseen the impact 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic would have on nearly every country and economic system. Yet, in those moments and high-stakes scenarios that can understandably strike fear in the hearts of leaders and paralyze productivity, a way forward must be forged.

At Brookdale, we were fortunate to have taken measures that helped minimize the fear that could have otherwise plagued our leaders and team members. I’m convinced there were three key steps we took—that every organization can take—to help minimize the feelings of dread and paralysis and instead replace those uncertainties with productivity and sound decision-making.

But before I share these three key steps, I feel it’s necessary to touch on the importance of understanding your organization’s “North Star”—its top priority. As businesses, we are all tasked with determining the driving priorities of our organization, so all efforts support those goals. When I became the CEO of Brookdale, we reduced our focus to the top three priorities and realigned our organization around them. The priorities I defined were 1) attract, engage, develop, and retain the best associates; 2) earn resident and family trust and satisfaction by providing valued, high-quality care and personalized service; and 3) win locally and leverage our scale effectively.

In the face of an unprecedented challenge, however, we needed to be clear about our overarching priority which was and always is the most important priority. So, we simplified our communication efforts to clarify that the most important focus was our “North Star”—the health and well-being of our residents and associates. That focus drove all strategies, decisions, and communications. To ensure we had leaders who could help us achieve this priority in the face of unprecedented events, we made sure the following three steps were taken to support our associates and residents.

1: Scenario Planning

Leaders must dedicate themselves to honing their skills as independent thinkers and capable surveyors of the opportunities that can impact a company’s growth. They must learn to integrate diverse perspectives and foster an environment that encourages teamwork. As you assess events that can impact your business, brainstorm possible outcomes (scenario planning), develop creative responses (including contingency plans), and evaluate the potential for impact.

Take time to consider potential solutions based on the business objective, resources required, the timeline for implementation, and criteria for measuring results, as well as the expected impact. Entertain all ideas—even some of the “bad” ones—so you can feel confident you have found the best solution.

This kind of exercise is crucial because when you find yourself in the thick of high-stakes situations, panic, fear, and uncertainty can overwhelm even the best leaders. When many possible scenarios—or variations on a theme—have been talked about, your leaders will have a greater ability to triage an urgent priority, act strategically by considering possible consequences, and quickly make sound decisions.

2: Consider Multiple Angles

Surround yourself with leaders who provide a diverse range of experiences and perspectives so you can make informed decisions based on sound judgment and opinions you may not have previously considered. Many of our community associates have sharp skills and creative instincts, the keen ability to approach problems from different angles, and the courage to engage in intense debates as we evaluate the benefits and challenges of a particular course of action. Collectively our associates also have a great depth of experience in our industry.

Maintaining a commitment to diverse viewpoints has made us keenly aware of unique challenges that affect members of the Brookdale community. This proved to be critical throughout the pandemic. With the benefit of such a wide variety of perspectives, I felt confident in my ability to analyze an issue from multiple angles and make a well-informed decision. Having leaders with specific, relevant, and diverse expertise to rely on is invaluable.

3: Build Trust

Often teams can accomplish what individuals working alone cannot. There’s strength in numbers, and that power grows exponentially when people unite around a mission. We also need to give our leaders opportunities to strengthen their confidence and build trust through different challenges presented to them. Challenging your leadership with opportunities like a high-visibility project where they can perform instills confidence and ensures a higher likelihood of success if and when the same high-trust muscles need to be tapped in the future.

I often think of the objectives we need to tackle as an organization as a rope and associates as the individual strands within it. When a strand is pulled tight, it may break. When tens of thousands of strands are woven together into a rope, the rope can bear a much heavier weight without breaking. We wanted and needed our associates to pull together to tackle the obstacles that the pandemic created—for the benefit of our residents and each other. We needed to help take care of each other.

Thinking of each team member as a strand in the rope made it more manageable. We distributed the workload and trusted that everyone would deliver on what mattered most, verifying tasks through quality checks at multiple levels of the organization. Because we had started the work of building trust with one another, team members regularly surpassed our expectations.

When COVID-19 reached the US, we faced off against an enemy we quite literally could not see. We knew that not everyone would agree with every decision we made; we knew we needed to operate in new and innovative ways; and we knew it would cost a lot of money to help protect lives. Yet we had a higher purpose that mattered more than anything else: we called it our North Star. With a focus fixed on the health and well-being of our residents and our associates, as well as the dedication and commitment of our leadership, we forged a strong path forward. I’m confident other organizations can navigate rough waters if they too keep a keen eye on their North Star and with the help of scenario planning, prioritizing multiple perspectives, and building trust.