In looking for the best answers on how to address historic staffing challenges in senior living, according to a “human capital” expert, the secret is to go back to the future.

“Get back to the basics of things we’ve known for decades,” said Karl Ahlrichs, a senior consultant at risk management adviser Gregory & Appel. He spoke on challenging perceptions about managing staff Monday during a LeadingAge membership call. 

The “secret sauce” to retention in an industry that offers an “altruistic fulfillment of making a difference,” Ahlrichs said, is being a boss who listens to people. Building and maintaining relationships, he said, is the “golden skill.”

“If you get the management side of this right, then you become the place people want to move to,” Ahlrichs said. “By getting engagement right, you become a magnet for good people.”

One mistake many managers make, he said, is ignoring high performers and focusing on low performers. High performers produce approximately 60% of the output of a functioning department, Ahlrichs said. By not intentionally communicating with everyone — but especially with the high performers — it’s easy to lose employees to “the churn,” he added.

“What’s keeping them is you, a quality relationship with a boss they respect,” Ahlrichs said. “Listen to the ones you want to keep.”

Another key to recruitment, he added, is doing a better job in writing job descriptions. Rather than providing a “legal punch list of jibber jabber,” Ahlrichs said, include a paragraph in “warm, empathetic language that this is a human job and we’re really looking for good humans to do it.”

And forget about using the term “best practices,” he said. Instead, think “next practices.” 

“It’s kind of obsolete,” Ahlrichs said of “best practices.” 

“That’s how you look to the way things were before COVID and try and replicate it,” he said. “Look forward. Figure out where you need to go first, and instead of doing best practices, say you’re doing next practices — and do it first.”