Avanti COO: Covid-19 Taught Me To Be a More Authentic Leader

When crisis comes, it can be tempting for leaders to play the role of an all-knowing, unflappable battlefield general. But a little humility and transparency can go a long way, too.

Just ask Lori Alford, COO of Avanti Senior Living. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit The Woodlands, Texas-based senior living provider, her first instinct was to be a “perfect leader” in her communications with staff and families. But she soon realized that wasn’t the best way forward.

“One of the biggest things that I learned was that the team doesn’t need a perfect leader during a time of crisis,” Alford told Senior Housing News. “They just really need an authentic one.”

In the months since the pandemic began, Avanti has let its team members be emotional without judgment, share their feelings and express their fears — and that has made a big difference in keeping up morale during a tough time.

Something else that has made a difference in morale is Avanti’s decision to raise its employees’ pay by $2 in April and May. That was not an easy decision, as, Covid-19 has driven up expenses related to personal protective equipment (PPE) and driven down move-ins for the provider. On the other hand, Avanti is seeing its lowest levels of overtime and call-offs.

“We definitely are very glad we did it,” Alford said. “But you couple that with expenses, and you definitely are feeling the pain.”

Highlights of Alford’s podcast interview are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud or Google Play.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity:

On whether Covid-19 could disrupt the practice of senior living associates working in multiple communities:

I definitely think it will raise eyebrows. Before Covid, it was not a secret that our industry was having a challenging time with staffing. And when you start to [say], ‘Hey, you can only work one job,’ unfortunately, you’re going to limit your talent pool quite a bit. We told our team members who had multiple jobs: ‘You have to pick.’ We were very fortunate that everyone pretty much picked us, which I think goes very well to our culture.

Once everyone gets back to the new norm, and there’s finally a vaccine, I do feel that they’ll go back to working two if not three jobs, because they have to make ends meet, they have to survive. And, at the end of the day, who are we to get in their way of taking care of their families? So, it’s a balancing act. I don’t know how long we can stay on this road requiring they only work one job. And honestly, I don’t know how long they can do that without having to hide if they are working two jobs, and that’s what we don’t want.

On rapid testing and whether that holds the most promise for reopening senior living communities:

I think that’s the safest way.

For us right now, the concern isn’t necessarily inside of our bubble. Our concern has now shifted to [how] the world is opening up. And we’re putting ourselves in a much greater risk now because, especially here in Texas, our team members can go to the movies, they can go out to eat, they can go get their hair cut, they can do their normal activities of day-to-day life. Although we still encourage them to kind of physically distance from people, including their own family and friends, they’re still out and about. Our fear is if they become kind of lackadaisical in the approach and think, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to get me sick’ That they become not so guarded. That they put themselves in a bad situation, and then they carry it back into our building.

So, the rapid testing would help because we could test people every single day and know instantly if they had Covid-19. And, families are very anxious. They want to see their loved ones. I don’t blame them. I would too. The problem is, it goes back to the same thing: We don’t know where they have been, or what type of hand-washing techniques they use. And now they’re coming into our building to see their loved one. But they’re exposing themselves to everyone in our building, both the residents and our team. So, it puts us at a greater risk.

Our fear is actually much greater now than it was when this whole thing started. Because we are getting to a point where we’re going to have to open up. And we’re going to have to rely on our visitors and our team to be diligent in remaining steadfast.

We have the most vulnerable population to this virus in our buildings, and we all know that. Until we get a vaccine or figure the virus out, it really puts us in a high-alert category of asymptomatic spread. And when we are able to be in lockdown, at least we know who’s coming out, and we’re able to control that to the smallest number possible. But once we open up, that number gets greater. Just with families alone, that number gets greater. And so that’s definitely the biggest concern right now.

On staffing and keeping up morale, and why senior living leaders should be authentic:

When a crisis comes, it really highlights your weaknesses, and it really highlights your strengths. For operators that had a culture that was not good or even average, a crisis just creates more problems for your company.

This crisis was a test for our culture. And when this started, I’m not going to lie, I was scared. I was very nervous about what was going to happen with staffing. Were our staff going to show up? Are they going to be scared and stay home? Are they going to quit?

But what happened was extraordinary, because our team didn’t just show up, we have had the lowest overtime in the history of the company. We’ve had the lowest amount of call-offs in the history of our company. So, our teams not only showed up, they showed up with a vengeance. And they showed up and they were happy to be there and to take care of the residents. They were happy to be there to protect them, to love on them, because they realized that their families couldn’t, and they wanted to take their family’s place.

Our culture started the day we started the company. And it’s something that we focus on every day and we focus on aggressively because we know that happy team members make happy residents. When Covid hit … we did things like hero pay across the board. It didn’t matter if we had Covid-19 [in our communities] or not. They were having to leave their house, which put them in harm’s way for contracting the virus. So we wanted to incentivize them.

We communicated constantly. One of the biggest things that I learned was that the team doesn’t need a perfect leader during a time of crisis, and probably never do. They just really need an authentic one.

The first couple communications I sent out to the company, I spent a lot of time with that, and it was perfect. Perfect grammar, beautifully written, the words were exactly what they needed to be. But that took a lot of time to write. And I noticed as time went on, I got less and less focused on these perfect communications, and just started to really write from my heart.

I wrote what I wanted to share with my team, which was: ‘Be safe, I care about you, we’re going to protect you, we need your help with this.’ It was really enlisting them into our cause into our purpose of staying Covid-free. And the more authentic and genuine I became in my communication, the more responses and likes I got back. So, that’s been a really big kind of leadership lesson. A team doesn’t want a perfect leader, they just want a genuine leader who they can trust and know has their back.

In addition to the hero pay and ramping up our communication, we did things from the home office [like] writing handwritten cards to all of our department heads and sending them to their home address. We even sent alcohol to all of our EDs, their favorite bottle of wine or maybe their favorite whiskey.

We hold calls with our nurses and our national medical director to talk about the virus and educate them. We have these calls at night because that’s always a quieter time for wellness team. So, very early on in the pandemic, I go into a call, and say: ‘Does everyone feel better?’ One of my wellness directors said, ‘Yes, but I’m still scared.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I’m scared too. And it’s okay. But we’re going to get through this together.’

Again, it just kind of goes back to being an authentic leader. We have allowed our teams to be transparent and vulnerable. We have allowed them to have breakdowns, judgement-free. We allowed them to share their emotions, because Lord knows this has been an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved.

On whether the senior living industry has received enough support:

I 150% think our industry deserves much more recognition. It’s almost as though our industry is invisible.

Hospitals got all the PPE. Skilled [nursing], they’re starting to get some PPE, and they’ve gotten government funding. And then there’s the specter of assisted living and memory care. Nobody sees us, but yet we house this vulnerable population. And It baffles me that Congress can’t see it.

Again, crisis shows weaknesses. I think that this has demonstrated that our industry needs to have a much louder voice, and we need to have some drastic changes. Our industry is not complicated at all, but yet people are confused about who we are. And that’s apparently the reason why we haven’t been offered a lot of help. In my mind, we just haven’t used our voice enough. And I hope this teaches us that every operator has a responsibility to educate your marketplace. Because if you’re educating your marketplace and your senators and your congressmen in the marketplace of who we are, when the next hardship comes, they should already know and say, ‘Hey, what about that senior living industry? How are we helping them?’

We do an incredible job of caring for and protecting older Americans. We just need to use our voice a little bit more to make sure people know what we’re doing so that we’re not put in a situation like this ever again. And next time, when we need help, [I hope] we’re the first to be called on, not the very last. We don’t need to be invisible. We need to be front and center.

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