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Is It an Annual Meeting?

Or an episode of Oprah?
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If you are a hard-nosed, alpha-dog leader who would rather self-flagellate than self-actualize, stop reading now. You will not want to make the acquaintance of Dwayne J. Clark.

That's because Clark's leadership role model is Oprah. So impressed is this CEO with Lady O that he has transformed his company's annual meeting into a four-day celebration of the human spirit and seminar on personal improvement. Now, when top management gathers in January, gone are presentations about sales and the state of health care, "all the boring, nauseating things," as Clark says. In their place: Deepak Chopra discussing self-awareness. Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, urging attendees to take off after their dreams. Linda Biehl, who became close with two of the men who murdered her daughter, discussing the power of forgiveness.

Clark's Oprah-fication initiative has a business rationale. After bathing in these founts of enlightenment, he says, managers not only grow as people but also are more caring and empathic with rank-and-file employees. Clark is founder, chairman, and CEO of Redmond, Washington -- based Aegis Living, which runs assisted living and other facilities for seniors and projects $180 million in revenue this year. "Employees in this industry don't get treated with a whole lot of respect or dignity," says Clark. "Employers use them for everything they are worth and then spit them out. It's not a very progressive attitude toward building a relationship with people."

For Aegis, the relationships between management and frontline employees are critical. The 2,600 elderly residents of its 34 facilities require sensitive, patient, assiduous treatment -- a lot to ask from workers who often struggle to make ends meet. About 1,700 of Aegis's 2,000 employees make $11 an hour, which "is on the upper side of compensation" for the industry, according to Paul Williams, senior director of government relations at the Assisted Living Federation of America. Still, for many it's a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

From the day he launched Aegis with Bill Gallaher in 1997, Clark pledged to improve employees' lives. Among other things, he created a program that requires managers who deal with vendors to negotiate benefits for Aegis's staff. About 40 suppliers have stepped up, with offers such as free checking accounts or discounts on groceries. Clark also started a foundation to provide financial aid to employees in distress. For example, the foundation stepped in recently to support a worker victimized by domestic abuse.

Bestowing items of value is one thing. Demonstrating you value people is another. Clark wanted managers at his facilities to forge stronger bonds with care workers, dietitians, and other frontliners. And, of course, he wanted that same empathy directed toward residents and their sometimes stressed-to-the-max families.

But how to accomplish that? The answer emerged one evening in 2005 as Clark, at his wife's insistence, watched The Oprah Winfrey Show. "I was thinking, Why do all these people go gaga over this program?" Clark recalls. "And I realized: Oprah is a conduit. She brings out these emotional needs in people's lives, and she connects them to the expert or person who can help them. And I thought, That's what a CEO should be doing."

In January 2007, the meeting's theme was Overcoming Extreme Adversity, and inspirational speaker Wayne Dyer held the stage with a moving tale of growing up fatherless. In the audience, Clark was undergoing his own catharsis. "That was very emotional for me, because I had a very tough childhood," he says. "My father abandoned me. At the end of the conference, I got up for 30 or 40 minutes and talked about that. I have never felt such a closeness with my staff. I came offstage, and there were probably 70 people lined up to hug me. It was like we went to war together and bonded."

Nine other speakers appeared at that meeting, including Christopher Gardner, whose travails raising a son while homeless are depicted in the book and movie The Pursuit of Happyness. Assembling such a roster is almost a yearlong task, one that until recently fell to Karen Lucas, Aegis's former vice president of strategic marketing. "Most of these guys are used to playing to big crowds, and there were only about 100 of us," Lucas says. "I had to do some serious selling about who we were and what we stood for to get these guys to even consider us." Then she had to negotiate their fees down to $50,000, usually from about $80,000. The meetings are budgeted at $400,000 to $500,000, with roughly $100,000 of that defrayed by 10 Aegis vendors, whose executives attend portions of the programs.

Before heading home, facility directors submit plans to Clark for how they will share what they have learned with their staffs. For example, Terry Ervin, director of an Aegis residence in Carmichael, California, screens a video of a different speaker each week for his team and leads discussions about the content. Inspired by the presentations, his managers now allocate a portion of daily huddles for care workers and others to talk about their lives and goals. "We came back from the meeting with the idea that every single day we wanted all of our staff to talk about how much they appreciate one another," says Ervin, who calls himself a "conservative guy" lured to the soft side by Clark.

As a result of the new, improved huddles, Ervin says, employees feel more comfortable sharing personal problems with management. At a recent huddle, one woman broke down and talked about her daughter who lived in El Salvador and had just been found to have cancer. "The staff immediately surrounded her and showered her with affection," said Ervin. Employees then organized to help their colleague obtain a passport and raise money for a plane ticket.

Mylo Mariano has been a care worker at an Aegis facility in Pleasant Hill, California, for almost nine years, and he says that because of the new annual meetings, management has been more communicative and supportive of employees. "When they come back, they want to know what is the best thing that they can do for us -- not just giving awards but to make our work better," says Mariano.

Clark believes the meetings have helped make Aegis's culture more positive and caring. He credits that culture for keeping the company's turnover relatively low: 25 percent to 43 percent a year. That compares with an industry average of 70 percent to 120 percent for companies with facilities the size of Aegis's, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America. "I think they are one of the great success stories in the industry," says the ALFA's Williams. "The work that they have done with employee relations is right at the top of the charts."

But the meetings have had an unexpected effect on some of Clark's top talent. Buoyed by presenters' yes-you-can messages, a few have followed their bliss right out of the company. Last spring, Lucas left to start her own business. Then there was Larry Smith, until recently a regional executive director who was spending nearly all his time on the road. In Canfield's workshop, Smith learned about "vision boards" -- visual representations of what their creators want from life. Smith's vision board was a collage of photos of family, friends, and life back home in Colorado. He hung it above his desk and thought about what those things meant to him. In July, he left Aegis for a job close to home.

"At the meeting in January, Dwayne and I were sitting next to each other at lunch," recalls Smith. "I said to him, 'If people really do some thinking about their desires and goals, those might not include Aegis.' And Dwayne said, 'Well, good. Then I will have accomplished what I set out to do, getting people to pursue their dreams.'

"It's not easy to leave a company like this," says Smith. "But I'm going with Dwayne's blessing."

Last updated: Nov 1, 2008

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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