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Paul Willging Says...

April 1, 2005
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Staffing Is Your Most Critical Function

Staffing is your most critical function Although people are a critical component of seniors housing and care, recruiting and retaining staff are some of the most problematic aspects of the business. In a study released a few years back by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 54% of the nation's nursing facilities were so understaffed as to threaten quality of care.

The problem is not limited to nursing homes. A report published recently by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) foresees the need for an additional 600,000 caregivers in its business by 2011. But ALFA expressed concern that there "just aren't enough applicants to fill these vacancies." That concern is compounded by turnover rates approaching 100% in some sectors, with CNAs being perhaps the prime example.

Given all of this, the need to hire the right people, keep them productive, and retain them as satisfied employees becomes one of the most telling responsibilities of the successful seniors housing and care manager. (See last month's article on leadership.)

As if one needed any further proof of the crucial need to recruit, retain, and motivate staff in one's community, consider the critical relationship between management (and its ability to attract and maintain qualified personnel) and company profit and shareholder value. A company can, of course, "buy" growth (e.g., through acquisitions, development, etc.), but only sustained profit from normal operations can drive a sustained increase in value. And the most critical driver of sustainable growth is an expanding base of loyal customers who are willing to pay premium prices.

Such customers are created only by providing them with a superior product. Sales and marketing can offer "brand promise." The quality of the product is what creates "brand experience," and only the engaged employee can provide that. The only way to engage talented employees successfully is to select great managers and provide them with the culture in which they, in turn, can select the best people, set accurate expectations for them, develop them, and motivate them. How well the managers do this determines how well they succeed.

The single most important managerial decision that we make is the hiring decision. All other responsibilities are likely to end in failure if the wrong person is selected for the job. Other activities are important, but they rest on the assumption that the right person was hired. And there seems to be a growing consensus that talent is the most critical of the attributes managers should search for when recruiting new staff. Knowledge and skills can be taught to employees. Talent cannot.

Talent can have different definitions. Buckingham and Coffman define it as "a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied." 1 Allen refers to it as a "passion" for one's tasks.2 However you define it, there is agreement that it can't be created; it has to be hired. As Pearce says, "An employee's long-term behavior patterns are rarely changeable; do not assume you can manage an unsatisfactory applicant into a good employee." 3

Different jobs require different talents. Therefore, in the selection process it is critical to know which talents are prerequisites for success in a given position. Talent is not rare. It is actually rather common. But different functions require different talents. The most important talents for a successful personal care assistant might be service, discipline, and empathy. Vision, strategic thinking, and command would probably make for a bad fit for a CNA but might be critical for the CEO.

Once you have decided what talents to look for, make at least the first interview exclusively devoted to determining if those talents exist in the applicant. Counter to common wisdom, a highly structured interview is not the way to go. That can come later. Talent is more likely to be recognized with open-ended questions in which the interviewer's primary role is to listen, while looking for specifics and clues as to the applicant's recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior.

So you've hired for talent. What's next? Well, the other components of management's staffing responsibilities are to focus, develop, and motivate employees once hired. We've talked about selecting employees by emphasizing talent. We focus them best by stressing outcomes. We develop them best by highlighting strengths. We motivate them best by supporting self-fulfillment.

Let's talk a bit about focus, particularly about internal (procedure-based) versus external (outcomes-oriented) focus. Admittedly, certain job processes in seniors housing and care (for any number of reasons) need to be adhered to for reasons of either safety or regulations. A procedure for transferring residents from a bed to wheelchair, for example, must be adhered to for both reasons. But for most functions, independent judgment is not only acceptable, it is desirable-as long as the employee knows what outcomes are expected. Whatever the required process, it should not get in the way of the desired outcome. Southwest Airlines certainly requires its staff to follow FAA regulations, but not in a fashion that might militate against customer satisfaction. And the major pitfall of forced consistency is, in fact, customer unhappiness. Just look to nursing homes as a primary example.