Profile — Culturally minded: John A. Diffey, president and CEO, The Kendal Corporation
A blind advertisement led John Diffey to his first job in long-term care, but he contends that a professional life in nonprofit human service has been calling him since college and graduate school in the 1970s.
"While I was at Emory University, I was almost the only person who was oriented toward a likely nonprofit career. But all the professors made their courses work and gave me case content that let me pursue my interests there," Diffey says.
With his smooth North Carolina-influenced accent, it's easy to see how Diffey, 58, can transform an environment he enters. His career path took one of its most momentous turns when he accepted a post at Wesley Homes Inc. in Atlanta and stumbled into the presence of then-COO Larry Minnix. Minnix who has since become CEO of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
"That whole team was very creative, and we got to be involved in a lot of things at pretty early stages of our careers," says Diffey.
He says he honed his team-based management philosophy under the influence of Scott Houston, then-CEO of Wesley Homes.
After serving at Wesley Homes for six years, Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill, NC, was his next stop.
At the time, North Carolina was wrestling with possibly regulating continuing care communities. Diffey remains extremely proud of his contribution to the effective collaboration of stockholders who helped create model disclosure regulation and regulatory statutes which ultimately became law.
"I've enjoyed being a part of helping build and sustain an accreditation system for our field," he says. "That's been a lot of fun."
Since Diffey arrived at Kendal in 1992, the organization has grown steadily, from a couple of continuing care residential communities in two states to a presence in six.
The nonprofit organization has a philosophy rooted in the Quaker principles of respect for the individual, community, equality and financial reliability. This environment has reinforced Diffey's team-based management style, he believes. Diffey, a past-member of his Episcopal Church vestry, especially respects and admires that in the 35-year history of the Kendal board, no decision has been made by voting. Kendal officers reach unity about how to proceed.
"It's what I would call a 'measure twice, cut once' culture where there is a lot of front-end consideration, but not a lot of doubling back, undoing, or redoing," he notes.
He says that while the value system of the Quakers is distinct, their values can be shared by all people regardless of their religious affiliation. Diffey recently won the 2006 AAHSA Award of Honor because of his organization's outreach to Lambeth House, a New Orleans CCRC hard hit by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina last year.
At Diffey's prompting, Kendal set out to adopt the unrelated organization and subsequently sent three teams of staff members who volunteered to leave their families and their jobs to help reopen the community for residents there.
The award represents the spirit and generosity of his organization, he says.
"The Kendal culture responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," he says.
Although Diffey seems to come off as open as the history books he regularly devours, he notes that even some close friends may not suspect he was the kind of guy who would see Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin live in concert.
He acknowledges that his life currently is organized mostly around family activities. He and his wife enjoy traveling back to the Carolinas, as well as overseas. He also recalls with fondness helping his son earn his Eagle Scout badge with a canoe trip in Canada a few years ago. Nowadays, when he's not watching his high school daughter play field hockey, he's liable to be swinging a club himself at the golf course.
Kendal has had only two CEOs in its 35-year history and each now has been honored with AAHSA's top award.
"John puts together pieces that others don't see and is truly a visionary transformational leader," says AAHSA's Minnix. "He combines heart and head as well as anyone I know."
1976 — Becomes administrator at Wesley Homes
1982 — Recruited to become executive director of Carol Woods Retirement Community, Chapel Hill, NC
1989 — Becomes president of North Carolina Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging
1989 — Helps develop standards for continuing care accreditation
1992 — Moves into current position as president and CEO of The Kendal Corporation
1994 — Joins AAHSA board of directors
2006 — Receives AAHSA Award of Honor for support of hurricane victims