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Case Study

It Takes a Village

Meshing culture, wisdom and learning, kidney services company DaVita HealthCare Partners has built an organization with community as its goal, and business as the economic driver that powers it.

unity of paper human team workExecutives at the Fortune 500 kidney care services company refer to the organization as a village where community is the goal, and the business is the economic driver that makes it work thanks to 65,000 employees nationwide. “We didn’t create a culture to drive better business results,” said Dave Hoerman, DaVita’s chief wisdom officer. “We decided what we wanted the community to be, and we use work to sustain it.”

It wasn’t always this way. In 1999 the company, formerly known as Total Renal Care, was on the verge of bankruptcy when Kent Thiry took over as CEO. Thiry came in with a vision. “He didn’t just want to fix the business. He wanted to make DaVita a healthier place for people to live and work,” Hoerman said.

That meant completely rebuilding the corporate culture to help employees live better, more productive lives — at work and at home. Thiry — referred to internally as the Mayor of DaVita — created the wisdom team to drive this new culture, with Hoerman as its leader. Wisdom teammates build and maintain the community vibe through programs, training, company events, contests and regular check-ins with teammates to make sure they are living the DaVita vision.

What’s Your Credo?

To reinforce this cultural transformation, DaVita reinvented its leadership development to focus on the core tenets of the village concept. Rather than sending executives to seminars on business strategies and how to drive and measure performance goals, most of DaVita’s learning programs focus on self-improvement and life skills to help participants improve their relationships, set personal goals, and find their inner ambitions.

For example, Hoerman said DaVita University’s Academy program, with its core leadership workshop, is a “face-first plunge into the distinctly un-corporate culture that is our hallmark.” The academy course begins with the history of the village, how it works, why it’s important, and why its tradition and programs are vital to its success. Then, executive speakers help participants figure out their place in the village and how they can embody some of these traditions, often by telling their own stories. “These unscripted stories help teammates see the executives as people,” said Jo Rude, senior director of the wisdom team.

Participants are then encouraged to develop a personal credo around what they stand for as a leader and a person, and to pick the one thing they are going to do to move forward in their lives today. “We don’t care if it has to do with work or their personal life; we just want them to leave with that plan,” Hoerman said. He said one leader left the course with a plan to reconnect with his brother who he hadn’t spoken to in years, and another decided to quit because the program helped him realize that his true calling was doing mission work overseas. “We want everyone to find their passion, and the first step is speaking it out loud.”

For the most part, academy course participants become more committed to the company. Hoerman said retention rates are 10 percent higher among executives who complete the training. “They are becoming more self-actualized, and they see that leadership cares about them.”

Dancing is Optional

Kevin Downey is one of those participants. Downey was hired as lead crisis communicator in November 2015, and he completed the Academy course the following June. He said initially he was a little nervous about participating. The wisdom team is known for being vocal and boisterous, often breaking into song and donning hats and swords to celebrate an employee’s achievements. Downey said he’s more of a behind the scenes kind of guy, and he wasn’t sure he would be comfortable. But by the second day he was one of the guys dancing in the aisle. “It was really inspiring.”

Like many executives, he said he was surprised how much the program focused on self-assessment and introspection rather than on the business. Even when course leaders talked about DaVita values, it was all about slowing down and being aware of one’s purpose. “It felt more like a TED Talk than a corporate class,” he said.

Downey said he was most impacted by an executive speaker who shared how he was close to losing his job because he used to get so frustrated every time someone came to him with a new initiative or project when his plate was already full. But through self-reflection and teammate support he was able to acknowledge that life is all about change, and to be happy and productive he had to embrace new ideas rather than fight them. “Through his own humility and self-assessment he has now risen to the highest ranks in the company,” Downey said.

Despite the fact that his job is to deal with crises, Downey said he has a similar attitude about unexpected changes in his schedule. “Every time I get a call about a new problem I get frustrated because I don’t have the time to deal with it,” he explained. After hearing this executive tell his story in the academy course, Downey is making a conscious effort to not get hung up on interruptions. He even sent a note to that executive thanking him for sharing his story.

DaVita’s approach to leadership development has had a similar impact on a lot of leaders in the company, Rude said. It also can be a little overwhelming. “They come out of it really excited, but then they don’t know what to do.”

An Intentional Life

To ensure participants can apply these concepts, three years ago, Rude built a follow-up orientation course for new leaders to put the village and what its members learned in the academy into context. The program is taught almost entirely by company executives, including Thiry, who regularly spend 90 minutes or more leading the course. “When they see senior executives taking time to talk about the mission and values of the company it has an impact,” said Rude, who acts as the course’s master of ceremonies. “They see that the C-suite isn’t untouchable.”

Participants in this course learn about village tools that can help them create a community culture, such as the mission/value report card that leaders use to rate how well they are aligning their behavior with the DaVita mission, and check-ins where leaders are encouraged to take a few minutes when meeting with teammates to get present with each other. They also learn about the many village programs, including Tour DaVita, a bikeathon to raise money for kidney research, and the Village Network, where employees donate money and goods — matched by the company — to help co-workers in crisis.

At the end of the class, participants are encouraged to think about which tools and strategies they will use to create a more community-focused culture with their teams. “We are careful not to tell them how to do it; they have to make it their own,” Hoerman said. That may include injecting more fun into meetings, making time for check-ins, or scheduling time in their calendars to get caught up with teammates. “Unless you are intentional about it, it is easy to get caught up in work, and let the rest fall away.”

It may sound like a kooky approach to running a company and a leadership development program, but the numbers speak for themselves. Since Thiry implemented his community vision, DaVita has more than quadrupled its network of dialysis centers, from 500 in 2000 to 2,278 today, and its stock rose from $2 to $76 a share in the same time frame, including a stock split two years ago. It also has been on Fortune’s Most Admired Companies list every year since 2006. Internally, the company has a 77 percent employee satisfaction rating, which is 13 percentage points higher than the medical/health industry norm, according to CEB Workforce Surveys & Analytics.

DaVita has gotten so much attention for its culture that it built an external learning program for businesses that want to emulate its approach. Hoerman said he is not surprised by its success; if an organization helps people lead better, happier lives, they will be more productive and more invested in themselves, their colleagues and their customers. “When you build a strong community and educate people about why it is important, the business results just follow,” he explained.

Sarah Fiser Gale is a writer based in Chicago. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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