Living Leadership

Living Leadership

Leading by observation

Julie Thorson, Friendship Haven
Julie Thorson, Friendship Haven

Modeling leadership and having a true understanding from the inside out is very important to me. I pride myself on understanding the ins and outs of our organization from a first-hand perspective.

After all, I've held many positions in our organization and am a true example of “promotion from within.” Fortunately, I have been able to grow as a leader, and others have seen potential in me as I now try to do with others. Lifelong learning, whether we live here or work here, is crucial.

So why is it after nearly 16 years, I still don't always “see” things? Sure, they are in my sight path, but truly “seeing” what we do every day is a leadership skill difficult to master.

There are times we as leaders glance at things but we don't see or truly understand the dynamic right in front of us. I'm trying to practice focused observation more carefully and more frequently. For someone with a very short attention span, this practice is much more difficult than I realized. The outcome, however, can be very powerful and I would encourage you as leaders to work this into your practice.

Let me explain. I've often coached leaders to shadow or behave like a fly on the wall with some of our frontline employees. Sure, yes, great idea. Does it actually happen? Not always. We are all so overwhelmed by the day-to-day, spending time actually side-by-side with our team members is difficult.

I kicked off this year by shadowing one of our occupational therapists. I don't want to bore with you the details of our time together, though it was very eye-opening. My takeaway was she was patiently busy the entire time we were together.

While she was with clients or residents, she was patient, encouraging and motivating. In between times, she wasted little time. This was important for me to see first-hand because like many of you, I have been concerned with our in-house therapy team working as efficiently as possible.

It's no secret efficiency directly relates to reimbursement. The experience, if only for a few hours, was a great reminder to me that we work with skilled experts. People who understand their craft well, professionals who are business minded yet people oriented.

We ask a lot. Get your work done … wait, get as much work as possible done and at the same time help our residents and clients feel encouraged, motivated and, by the way, make sure they reach their goals.

After you try to make a difference in their lives as quickly as possible, move on to the next person. And don't waste time in-between. That's the cold reality of our world.

We are forever being told to do more with less. Even with the best staffing patterns, we could use more team members. What resident wouldn't want one-to-one care? Yet that's a luxury few can afford, much less run an organization with that type of staffing pattern.

My observation exercise didn't end there. Another day I came in dressed in scrubs, ready to observe the morning rituals with a seasoned certified nursing assistant. This was also a wonderful exercise for more than one reason. First, and probably most important, I need to do this more often. We need to do this more often.

It's too easy to get bogged down with the responsibilities and burdens of being in charge to not remember and see the very intimate work that is done every day in the buildings we serve.

The second great reminder here is caregivers do an excellent job of anticipating needs. The rhythm of the morning was inspiring to watch. Our caregiver knew the residents she cared for so well she didn't even need to ask what should be done next.

She and the resident spoke by “seeing” each other. A look, a nod, a smile and a laugh become this remarkable exchange that I'm sure happens everywhere. But to see it in action here? Wow. We do good work.

The exchange wasn't rushed, the morning was quiet and the residents and employees were happy. I realize this was only a few minutes and things happen from day to day. Things don't always go as they should. To see things go as they should, however, is another reminder we need to consider when things so well how we can recreate that scenario as often as possible.

Observation is powerful. Find the time to do it! Be quiet and watch. Ask questions later, if possible. As leaders, we need this first-hand knowledge to make decisions for our organizations. It also will provide you with a greater appreciation for the work all team members do.

Julie Thorson is the president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a continuing care retirement community in Fort Dodge, IA, that earned the Governor's Award for Quality in 2014. A coach's daughter at heart, she is a former part-time nursing home social worker who quickly ascended the leadership ranks. A licensed nursing home administrator, she has been a participant in LeadingAge's Leadership Academy and was recently named LeadingAge Iowa's Mentor of the Year. 

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