My friend John Cochrane is the president and CEO of, a senior living and affordable living organization in California that serves nearly 4,000 residents across 34 communities and employs 1,200 team members (and now is part of Cornerstone Affiliates). A few years ago, in a presentation to his managers, he did the unthinkable.

John walked on stage with a printout of the company’s newly launched core values in one hand and a garbage can in the other. He set the garbage can down in front of him. Then, he read each of the core values and associated description: “Caring people. Customer service excellence. Open communications.” Each value consisted of words you would expect — not just from an aging services organization, but any organization.

John finished reading. He paused. And then he dropped the core values into the garbage. He stood stone-faced as an awkward silence filled the room. I mean, you could hear a pin drop. After a few seconds (which seemed like an eternity), John asked, “Oh, were those important?”

His question was met with even more silence and blank faces.

Finally, a manager spoke up: “John, those core values are posted everywhere. They are on the walls in every location. They are on our website. We tell employees when we hire them how important they are to our success.”

John nodded thoughtfully. “When we all walked in here today, how many of you could remember the values?” he asked. “Better yet, can anyone give me an example of how we’ve successfully taken these supposedly important values off our walls and ingrained them in the hearts and minds of our employees? How many of you can honestly say you regularly think about, talk about and use the core values to guide how you lead and manage your workforce?”

After a few moments, John reached into the garbage.

“Like me, you know these values are incredibly important to our work culture and customers’ experience. However, it seems we may not have a strong enough grasp on why they are so important and how to perform them.”

The secret to success

I share this story because it may sound familiar to you. Maybe you’ve launched a new mission and company values, but then nothing changed among managers or their work teams. The words were only words.

As you probably know, not only can that be a waste of time and money, but it also can cause employees to lose trust in leadership. John’s story has made an impact as, during the last several years, company leaders brought their values to life and, as a result, changed employee behaviors, strengthened their culture and improved business outcomes. Simply put, they had the right tools, the right mindset … and dedication!

First, the results:

  • 13% increase in Net Promoter Score from 2011 to 2016. (NPS is an index ranging from -100 to 100 that measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company’s products or services to others.)
  • 45% decrease in nursing terminations within the first six months of employment (introductory period) from 2014 to 2016.
  • 29% decrease in total nursing terminations from 2014 to 2016.
  • 94% of managers submitting strategic recognition for team members.
  • 76% of non-managers actively participating in employee recognition efforts.
  • $4 million profit increase.

How did manage to drive meaningful change? To start, the company knew it wanted to be able to measure progress. So it leveraged employee and resident survey tools to assess where and when its core values were being demonstrated.

Next, it launched an online employee recognition system. This peer-to-peer, strategic recognition tool allows the company to reinforce, remind and celebrate when employees are living their values. And, best of all, the company now can see and manage how employee behaviors affect resident satisfaction and employee engagement and can tie the data to business outcomes.

Three avenues to drive change

Changing culture and improving employee engagement is not just about implementing a new type of technology. It simply is a tool that can be used. The discovered that, no matter what employee engagement or recognition tools and approaches it used, the company was not going to make any progress without these three critical elements:

  1. The commitment must be reinforced by leadership. Leaders cannot waver from their focus on culture change or become distracted by other issues.
  2. A simple message must be communicated to the workforce consistently. To truly change behavior, a company should follow the recipe of 1% training, 99% reminding.
  3. A balance of discipline and flexibility must be maintained. What looks great on paper may not fit across-the-board. Managers who take ownership for implementation increase a company’s rate of success. The worked with its managers to implement in a way that suited each unique team.

Recognition is the reward

The found that recognizing employees and sharing their successes was one of the most cost-effective and powerful ways to help create an environment in which employees are motivated and committed. To date, its efforts have contributed to an increase in profitability of more than $4 million!

John’s speech demonstrates how leaders and managers hold the keys to employee engagement, culture change and measuring success. It reaffirms that a healthy and aligned culture is a key driver of business outcomes. Take the time to revisit your organization’s values to determine how you can transform words that are posted on a wall to results you can live by.

Gregg Lederman, CEO of Brand Integrity, is a professional speaker on leadership, employee engagement and culture change. He is an adjunct professor at the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, and is the author of the New York Times best-selling book “Engaged!: Outbehave Your Competition to Create Customers for Life. Read more from him at

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