Mike Ulm headshot
Mike Ulm

Mike Ulm recently joined Chicago-based Pathway to Living as vice president of culture and brand loyalty after having consulted with the organization since 2017, helping create its internal brand promise through focus groups and then integrating it in key areas of the organization. He recently spoke with McKnight’s Senior Living about his more than 30 years in senior living.

What attracted you to senior living in the first place, and what keeps you in the industry?

I met my wife in college and then followed her to the Washington, D.C., area, trying to find a job that was associated with my human resource degree. I got a job with a home health agency. I learned a lot about the general idea of the industry and logistics, but I wasn’t hooked. The job only lasted 18 months, and then the agency was sold.

But as fate would have it, the mother of the director of nurses at the agency lived in a nursing home, and that nursing home had just made a commitment to hire a full-time HR person. She opened up the door for me, they interviewed me and I got the job.

My first day there was the first day I had ever stepped into a nursing home. I was scared to death. I was scared of death. I planned to quit.

The full-time chaplain could probably see I was struggling, and he took me aside. He knew from the interview process that I love sports. It was June, so we started talking baseball, and he was so nice. A resident overheard our conversation, and as I went to walk away, she physically grabbed me. She said, “Sit down here, young man.” And then for the next five minutes, she very effectively told me why the Baltimore Orioles were going just beat the daylights out of my New York Yankees.

She had me about 90 seconds in. I just couldn’t believe it. I was enthralled with what she knew at 88 years old. And then at the end, she said, “You know what? You Yankee fans, you’re not so bad. I grew up with one of your better players.” It turned out that she grew up with Babe Ruth.

I went back to my boss and was going on and on about this experience, and she said two things that I’ll never forget. No. 1 was, “She may not have been able to tell that story to someone for decades. It could have been 20 years since she had the opportunity. You created this opportunity for her to tell that story, and she felt good.” And then she said, “We’ve got 199 more residents with stories like that, and that’s what we do.” And I was hooked.

I’ve never left senior housing. That was 35 years ago. I just love what we do for a living. I’ve never even been tempted to go to any other industry.

I still think of her, and when I teach and train, I tell people, “One of the ways to keep yourself going is, don’t forget your ‘hook’ story. Don’t forget that moment where it changed for you.” And if I’m speaking with people who are new to the industry who aren’t hooked yet, I say, “It’s OK, but let’s create an opportunity for you to really fall in love and get hooked in this industry.”

Can you describe the process to develop the internal brand promise that you worked on with Pathway as a consultant?

I had a four-step process. What you’re trying to capture in the essence of any organization with a brand promise is, what is the natural good that’s already there? What are the words that people use enthusiastically, naturally?

And so the discovery process is a series of focus groups with a variety of team members at every level of the company, getting them to think about stories and situations where they feel the best about what they’re doing. And then my role was to facilitate those sessions and just listen, and listen to the natural tendencies and words and focuses that the teams had.

What you get from those focus groups is a lot of words, and you begin to see patterns of intent, patterns of thought. I wrote down the words that keep coming up.

The second step is called define, and it’s pretty much that simple. It’s a statement stated as a promise — what everyone feels is the essence of what we’re really trying to do. 

The third step is to integrate that. So the second year, we took that concept and began to integrate it throughout the organization. Because the brand is really a promise that is uniquely delivered, meaning that you take that promise, and it shows itself uniquely throughout the organization. We integrated it in several key areas.

And then the final step is what I call “activate.” Because the original ideas for the brand promise come from a large group of people, it’s not a rollout. We’re not putting something out there that’s someone else’s idea. It truly was created internally by lots of people. So we call it activation. It’s more than anything a celebration of the stories, the concepts that already were alive. We just all brought it together.

As vice president of culture and brand loyalty, you’ll be helping with the evolution of Pathway’s Viva philosophy. Can you tell me more about Viva?

Viva represents that opportunity to bring celebration and purpose back into the lives of seniors. Every senior navigates seniorhood in his or her own way. What our culture brings is the opportunity to reunite them with the purpose they’ve had in their lives and celebrate and honor their histories and create opportunities for each of them to come back to that person who contributed so much to our society. Viva is our way to explore what our residents still can do and want to do.

What kinds of human resources tools and loyalty programs are you envisioning creating as part of your new role?

The three big areas that I’ll focus on are getting the right people, developing and creating a culture where the right people can thrive, and then helping tell our story. We’ve created an internal brand promise, “Care to Know, and Make it Matter,” that will be the platform that other programs will continue to grow from. It is how we go about business every day, focused on really caring to know the person who is our customer — not just residents but also each other — and then connecting the information we learn to our processes and solutions. My hope is that we continue to expand the influence of the internal brand promise to how we hire.

We want to establish programs that look at getting to know each team member and then partnering and supporting their efforts to thrive at work. The continuation of the piece is then, how do we then take advantage of that culture and that opportunity to help people tell our story, whether it’s getting team members to refer the right team members from a recruitment strategy or having residents who are enjoying our culture tell our story to other people they may know who could take advantage of it as well?

Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this interview appeared in the February 2020 print issue of McKnight’s Senior Living as “A Few Minutes With…”