Dominion Senior Living is adapting Chick-fil-A’s employment approach to senior living, banking on the belief that executive directors who “own” the experience at their communities will enjoy their work more and stay with the company.

The Knoxville, TN-based company will launch its Principal, Role Model program Sept. 1, changing the title of participating executive directors to principal and giving them the opportunity to share in a community’s profits if they meet goals tied to occupancy and other key indicators.

Some senior living companies offer bonuses to employees, “but this will truly be a profit-sharing opportunity,” Michael Holtzclaw, who joined Dominion in June as senior director of operations, told McKnight’s Senior Living. No financial commitment to the company or community will be required of principals, he added.

“We wanted to give our principals the autonomy to be more intimately involved in their day-to-day operations, and we wanted them to have this sense of pride that ‘this is my building,’ ” Holtzclaw said.

The program, he said, will start in one community, rolling out to some other communities once the company ensures that it has the necessary infrastructure in place. Not all communities will adopt the model, although Holtzclaw said that, eventually, the effort probably will be portfolio-wide.

Dominion, concentrating on the Southeast, owns and operates five assisted living and memory care communities, with a sixth opening next week, seven more in various stages of development and plans for more. (The accompanying artist’s rendering is of Dominion at Patrick Square, opening in Clemson, SC, in fall 2018.)

Culture shift

The program is about more than money, however, Holtzclaw said. The Principal, Role Model program extends from a recent culture shift at the company through which it became more employee-focused.

“When you look at the amount of turnover in the industry as a whole, in the executive director position, people only stay in those roles two to four or five years,” he said. “We truly believe that if we, as a management group, focus on our employees and they’re happy, they will deliver the best care in any community, any town that we operate in.”

And because senior living is “hospitality and healthcare colliding,” Holtzclaw said, one of the places Dominion turned for insights was another faith-based company known for its positive workplace culture, Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A.

“Friends of mine will drive out of their way to go to Chick-fil-A because they know that it’s going to be consistent,” he said. “That’s what we want to create here through our principals and through our teams.”

On its website, the fast-food company says that the average retention rate at the corporate level is 95%, and individual restaurant owners handle all personnel matters, including recruiting, hiring, training and managing workers as well as setting policies and procedures.

“We spent many hours around the table with Chick-fil-A executives, learning about their owner-operator model,” Holtzclaw said. “Then, we came back and put it into our building blocks. ‘How do we apply a food retail owner-operator model? How do we drop it into senior living?’ We said, ‘If we’re going to be team member-focused, then let’s truly be trendsetters.”

It was at a “pizza joint” with colleagues, however, that Holtzclaw wrote on a napkin the idea for the name of the program, he said, “principal” to signify a community’s highest authority, and “role model” because “we truly want our principals to be role models to their teams, to their residents.”

The model in action

In the Principal, Role Model program, Dominion will still own the buildings and other assets, but the principals will “own” the experience that staff members (called team members at Dominion), residents and vendors have at their communities.

Human resources is one way community leaders’ new empowerment will manifest itself, Holtzclaw said.

“Principals will have much more autonomy to make decisions,” he said. “Right now in the current structure, really throughout senior living, if an executive director wants to hire, let’s say, a chef, there are multiple interviews that have to happen at multiple layers. Under our [new] program, if I want to hire a chef and I want to pay this chef ‘X’ amount of salary, I know what my parameters are, and I do it or not do it.”

The handling of invoices is another example of a change that will occur under the program, Holtzclaw said.

“Senior living-wide, not just at Dominion, invoices come to the local community and they’re either stamped or scanned and sent to the corporate office for payment,” he said. “Obviously, that delays and adds different levels to the process. We’re trying to remove all those layers. Principals will pay all their invoices at the community level.”

But first, to be called a principal, Holtzclaw said, candidates will go through an extensive interview process and complete questionnaires and personality assessments.

Dominion, he said, looks for “four Cs” in potential employees: character, chemistry, competency and a person’s ability to be a catalyst for change.

The company hopes that the Principal, Role Model program can offer a method of advancement for executive directors and others who wish to become community leaders, Holtzclaw said.

“If you are currently a caregiver, a certified nursing assistant or a housekeeper, or you work in the dining room, and you want to be a principal, we have what’s called the Dominion career path,” he said. “It will lay out each building block you need to acquire the goals and skillsets.”

The ultimate goal of the program, Holtzclaw said, is to make the workplace somewhere people want to be.

“I’ve probably been in 200 communities across the country, and people show up to work and they perform out of fear,” he said. “We wanted to empower our principals to do it out of honor, out of enjoyment. …We really want to be a culture of our employees first.”