The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“How Highly Engaged Employees Impact an Organization’s Growth“
March 9, 2020
Intro: Do you believe there’s a link between the health of your workplace culture and your organization’s success? Today, we talk with the CEO of an organization where nine out of 10 employees are fully engaged in how their Christian ministry provides significant economic impact. The full story is coming up next.
Female: This is the Flourishing Culture Podcast. Here’s your host, president of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, Al Lopus.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. We are here to help you eliminate workplace distrust, improve your employees’ experience, and grow your organization’s impact. And before we meet our special guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button, and receive our free action guide.
Also, if you could share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would really mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
My guest today is Pete Kelly, the chief executive officer of Apartment Life. Pete, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Pete Kelly: Al, thank you for having me.
Al: I’m really looking forward to our conversation. And let me say that if ever there was a Christian organization that demonstrated how to build, grow, and sustain a flourishing workplace culture, where people love coming to work and model ministry effectiveness, it has to be Apartment Life. And Apartment Life has surveyed your employees with our BCWI Engagement Survey now for 18 consecutive years. And Pete, I can’t wait to hear the stories behind your workplace strategies. But first of all, tell us what’s at the heart and the purpose of Apartment Life.
Pete: Well, we are a faith-based nonprofit that has been serving the multi-family industry, as of next week, 20 years. Next week is our 20th birthday. We were founded by Stan Dobbs, with kind of a central value proposition that most people living in apartment communities are lonely, they’re disconnected, and therefore, they’re very transient. They have great personal and spiritual needs. And what we found, it’s a very human principle, but that the more friendships people have in an apartment community, the happier they are and the longer they stay, even went rent goes up. So we’ve got a program. Basically, it places two people that live on site, and they are like the welcome wagon. They greet every new resident when they move in. They throw all the parties and events. They look for opportunities to care for people. They do renewal visits. Ninety days before that, residents’ lease renew. And as they do it, it creates a sticky community where people want to stay. But the best part is the people that we recruit to do that are all recruited from local churches. And so they’re wearing another hat where they want to love their neighbor, just as Christ commanded, and have a positive, personal, and spiritual impact in their lives.
Al: Wow. And I’ll bet you there’s an economic impact or maybe an economic value of Apartment Life’s mission. What’s that?
Pete: Well, on average, we’re adding $188,000 a year to owner’s net operating income, just to reduce turnover of residence, reduce turnover of staff, and accelerated leasing. So, yeah, that’s the neat thing is it’s not just a ministry to residents, but it has a very real economic impact for owners.
Al: I love it when you can put an economic value onto Christian ministry. That’s unusual, to say the least.
Pete, I’ve had a chance to meet Stan Dobbs, and I’d be interested in a treasure or a contribution of his legacy that you benefited from when you came to Apartment Life as a CEO after 24 years. Tell us a little bit about that.
Pete: Well, Stan’s amazing. I would say in addition to the very clever economic business model that he built the nonprofit on, I’d say his greatest legacy is actually the culture of Apartment Life. My first year in the job, I was speaking with Cary Humphries, which is one of your BCWI coaches, and we were just doing a debrief on our score, which had come in. It was good. But Cary really recommended that we go through the book The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni together as a leadership team. And one of the things that Patrick Lencioni talks about is the need to really identify the core values of your organization, and he makes a difference between core values and aspirational values and permission-to-play values. He’s got all these different values, but he says his core values are who you really are, who you’ve always been, and that which is true about you that makes you unique from others out there.
And so we went through this wonderful exercise to identify what are our core values. And we came up with four. They’re real, caring, playful, and then this word “businesstry,” which is a mash up between business and ministry. And as we reflected on those core values, we looked across the table to Stan. He was in the room going through the exercise with us. And we’re like, “You know, these four things really describe you, Stan, as our founder. And it would make sense that as a founder that the personality of the organization would be contextualized around the person who founded it.” So I would say that in and of itself would be the greatest legacy that Stan’s left the organization.
Al: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I appreciate that, Pete. In fact, I remember, probably it was 15 years ago that I did a workshop at what was then the Christian Management Association with Stan about culture, and he just had made a great contribution.
You know, I’ve been saving a big question related to what gets at the heart of employee engagement. But before that, I need to ask you, why has Apartment Life surveyed their employees 18 consecutive years? What’s behind that?
Pete: Well, again, the credit goes to Stan. But Stan was a real believer if our faith is true, if the Christian life is true, then shouldn’t we as Christians, when we’re leading an organization, shouldn’t that culture be set apart and different from other organizations that aren’t led by Christian leaders? And so he was really taken with your vision of being able to actually measure workplace engagement among Christian organizations. And from very early on, as soon as he met you, he said this is something that we want to do every year to make sure that we truly are a best Christian workplace.
Al: Yeah. And I love his passion around our vision, and that is that Christian workplaces set the standard as the best, most-effective places to work in the world. So, yeah, very much aligned to what you’ve said.
But every organizational leader loves to see where employees are engaged when they come to work. And to have 60 percent, for example, of your employees fully engaged would make it a great place as a start. Yet at Apartment Life, the survey research shows that 91 percent of your employees are engaged, as we define it, and that puts you in the top 5 percent of all organizations that we survey. That’s really remarkable. Congratulations.
Pete: Well, thank you. I would hope for it to go even higher, Lord willing. But I’m a big believer in what Peter Drucker said, that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and we’re just a big believer of it. Culture’s really everything, because strategy, really, there’s probably more than one way to strategically approach kind of business opportunities. But the culture makes all the difference in the world. When you have a highly engaged workforce culture that are bringing their best every day, it just shows up in a hundred little decisions. And as your employees are engaged, they want to pass that on to your clients. And when your clients are happy, growing your business isn’t a challenge.
Al: I love that value proposition that you just identified. So that’s great.
Pete, I can hear our listeners and leaders saying, how do you do it? Give us an example or maybe one of your favorite stories of where such high employee engagement comes from and what it looks like at Apartment Life. You know, you’ve got 91 percent of your employees. You’re in the top 5 percentile of organizations we survey, and you’ve already said you want to even be better. So tell us a little bit about that.
Pete: Well, I had an interesting experience last week. Ginny Fowler has been for many years our VP of people, or VP of talent for Apartment Life. And about a month and a half ago, she had to step out of her role in order to better care for her family. And so, I mean, it was a loss to the organization, left on great terms. We love her. We hope for her to come back. But last week we asked her, would you come in, and would you lead our new-employee orientation? So it just so happened that that day of our new-employee orientation, we were cleaning out a storage unit that’s across the street from our office. And Ginny all on her own, completely voluntarily came in an hour and a half early to help us clean out the storage unit. And it wasn’t something she was being paid to do. She just did it voluntarily, all on her own, kind of a dirty job. But she just showed up and said, yeah, I’d love to roll up my sleeves and help with that.
And, you know, one of the things that the BCWI survey measures is inspirational leadership. And when I think about somebody like a Ginny, that is an inspiring leader, because she’s not just leading with her words, although she’s amazing with her words, but even more importantly, she’s modeling to all of us what servant leadership looks like. And when you have an employee like Ginny just modeling firsthand what does it look like to be a servant leader, it’s infectious, and it spreads throughout the organization.
Al: I love that. And it’s really been a pleasure working with Jenny all of these years. But you’ve really touched on already one of the eight drivers of employee engagement. That’s inspirational leadership. Apartment Life is really exceptional in not only inspirational leadership, but also outstanding talent and healthy communication. And right at the top of your strengths is the way you involve your employees by listening and acting on their suggestions. Give us an example of where and how this happens at Apartment Life.
Pete: Well, this is a big deal for us. It’s just part of our culture and has been since the beginning. But I can think of one fresh example. This year, one of our strategic goals as an organization is to develop a volunteer, what we’re calling, a missional living curriculum, something that a church or a volunteer who said I want to have a very positive impact on my neighbors in this apartment community, but perhaps it’s an apartment community where we don’t have a business relationship with the owner or the management company. And so they just want to go in, and they want to do that for free. So we’re building out this curriculum to serve volunteers. And in the process of developing it, we reached out to 20 of our staff and said if we were to develop a curriculum that did all of this, what would you put in the table of contents? What would be the key areas that you’d want to put? And I tell you, they were so excited about this project, and they were so excited to share their thoughts and that somebody was asking them, how would you do this? So after we kind of got that feedback, it was very easy to see the overlap and consistent themes. So we built out a table of contents, and then we went back to the same 20 people and said, would you help take this specific piece of the curriculum and would you develop it further? Would you kind of develop some talking points and then a three-minute script, and would you be willing to be the person to film that three-minute video on that topic? And all of them were excited.
Now, when you think about a project where you involve 20 people, typically you think that thing’s going to be slow, it’s going to be tedious, it’s going to grind to a halt, but what I found, to my delight, is that it’s actually been the opposite. It has been so much easier, and there’s been so much deep buy in. People are showing up, they’re giving their best, and they’re really excited and honored that they get to participate in this.
Al: Well, that’s a great example of involving people and how because you’ve got such 91 percent of your employees engaged, they’re looking for those kinds of opportunities where they can contribute and volunteer to step in and help the organization out.
Like some organizations, the Apartment Life team has spread throughout the U.S. and into Canada. While you’re apartment managers are separated by hundreds of miles, you’ve learned a number of ways to create and feed off of mutual trust amongst your team. What are some of the intentional effective ways that you build and grow trust within your team? And this is particularly important for our listeners who have teams, again, distributed like yours are. Help us out. What are some of the things that you do to build that high level of trust?
Pete: Well, one of the things we do is we have regular rhythms where we meet as a whole organization, we meet as divisions, we meet as regions, and so just having a regular rhythm of meeting flows has made all the difference in the world. Again, a lot of that came out of the coaching that we received from BCWI, from Cary Humphries.
Another thing we’ve done is we’ve really utilized some of the technology that’s become increasingly popular in the workplace, such as video messaging. So there is this app, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, it’s called Marco Polo. And it’s a way that you can not just send a text or an email, but you can send a quick video message. And it’s super easy to do, but you’re able to communicate things that might be difficult to do an email through a video message, and the listener can get the nuances, they can get the body language, the facial expressions, the tone of voice, and so leveraging technology like that. So Marco Polo for video messaging, Zoom for video conference calls, that’s been helpful.
But honestly, I’d say far and away, one of the most-helpful things that we’ve done is an annual BCWI survey. That’s just become ingrained after 18 years as part of our culture. We go out of our way to tell our employees, “We really, really want you to answer honestly on this. We’re not looking for happy talk. We really want the feedback because we know we can always get better at creating culture, and we want your feedback on how we could do that.”
Al: Yeah. And people look forward to actually participating because you do such a good job of communicating and implementing the results. I know that’s a key part of the process.
As we’ve talked about the inspirational leadership, we’ve talked now about healthy communication. But also you’ve done a great job of outstanding talent and having the right people in leadership roles, particularly as you look at your regional leaders, and that’s a critical job at Apartment Life. How important is it to you to have the right people in guiding the culture in these key roles?
Pete: Well, the people are everything because culture is more caught than taught. And so I’ll go back to that book that Cary Humphries recommended, The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. But going through that process of identifying our core values and really knowing who are we; and when we’re at our best, what does that look like; and who are the people that we want to include in our organization; what are the attributes we’re looking for? Having a really clear picture of what your culture is and who you want helps so much.
So to go back to those four culture values, we’re looking for people who are real, who are authentic; people who are caring, who will go the extra mile to serve those under their leadership. We’re looking for a playful person. That doesn’t mean they have to be a stand-up comedian, but somebody who’s able to relax in their life, just doesn’t center around work, but is able to have fun. And then we’re looking for somebody who fits “businesstry,” which is that mash up, attention of wanting to have a positive, spiritual impact in people’s lives, but doing it through a business model. Having that really clarified in our mind has helped so much in the hiring process, and I think it’s led to people who really are carriers of the culture.
Al: Yeah. Interviewing for those core values really helps, I know.
I trust you’re enjoying our podcast. We’ll be right back after this brief word about a valuable tool that can pinpoint the true, measurable health of your culture.
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Al: All right. Now, let’s hear more from today’s guest.
Well, I love what you say. Culture is more caught than taught. And we have to really walk the talk when it comes to the culture as leaders in order for it to really stick in the organization.
But here’s a question. While we think having a healthy culture is certainly a worthy goal in itself, do you see a link between the health of your culture and the growth of your organization over time?
Pete: Absolutely. My belief is that if our staff and our leadership are engaged, they’re going to take better care of our coordinators, the people who are living in these apartments, who are doing front line’s work. And so if our coordinators are cared for, they’re going to care well for our clients. And if our clients are well cared for, they’re going to just naturally give us more business. So, again, for me, culture is everything.
Al: Yep. A flourishing culture leads to engaged employees, which leads to happy clients. And the more happy clients you have, the more your “businesstry” grows. I love the word “businesstry.” Exactly.
No organization, church, or business can thrive without great talent. And at Apartment Life, you recruit, you retain, you reward, and even promote highly capable employees. And this is what your employees are telling us. And historically, I know that your people team has played a key role in this area. Can you share with us how the role of the people team has had such an impact in the talent area, and how they’ve helped in building your flourishing culture overall?
Pete: Well, I mentioned Ginny Fowler earlier. She is our former V.P. of people. An amazing leader. Just great. But the person who stepped in behind her is a personal friend of mine. His name is Ryan Williams, and he comes with over 20 years of leadership-development experience Ryan, by the way, is just a big, big believer in BCWI. But basically, the role of our people team is really to provide the vision and the structure to ensure that we’ve got the rhythms and the processes for people development. But as Ryan and Ginny would say, that leadership development, talent culture, that’s really everybody’s responsibility. You can’t just say it’s one department’s responsibility. It’s really everybody’s. But they put the process in place. They cast vision for it. They create the system, and then we all participate in it.
So, some of the elements that they take care of as the annual BCWI survey. I know that some companies do this every other year. We are just a big believer in that’s not enough—we have to do it every year. And if anything, we would want to be able to do it every six months if possible—because you just don’t want the culture to get away from you. And two years is a long time. So they do the annual BCWI survey. They run the annual review process with 360 feedback, which is tied to our leadership model and our core values. They arrange monthly leadership development calls so that our staff are built into. They create power tracks for leaders that we want to groom for future responsibilities. And they help us think about succession planning. And something that we really want to continue to get better at is making sure every role in the organization, every leader in the organization, has a couple people behind them that in the event that they need to step out like Ginny did, they could step in, and we wouldn’t miss a beat.
Al: Yeah. Boy, that’s great.
Christ-like behavior among your leaders means everything, and I know that’s important to Apartment Life. How do you develop your leaders to live in a way that reflects the attributes of Christ?
Pete: Well, going back to the phrase, it’s more caught than taught. You know, you really want to select leaders who model that. So that would be the highest priority is just selecting leaders that you feel like really embody that.
But in terms of processes and some of the structures we put in place, so once a year we gather all of our staff together for an all-employee retreat, and there’s intentional spiritual development that we try to incorporate into that companywide gathering.
Then once a month, something that we’ve put in the schedule, is we tell all of our employees, we want you to take a half day of prayer, and it’s a paid day, but they are paid that day for that half day just to focus on their relationship with Jesus. So we try to intentionally create space in their workweek or in their work month where they could kind of set aside and have time to get to know God better and to become more like Him.
Then once a week we have, at least in our national office, we have a weekly prayer gathering. Usually it’s about 30 minutes, Tuesday mornings. And we pray for our coordinators all across the country and now up into Canada. We pray for our staff, we pray for one another, and so I think those rhythms of weekly prayer time make a big difference.
And then something we do kind of twice a day, and this is purely voluntary, but we’ve invited people to pray twice a day at 9:38 in the morning and 9:38 at night, according to a passage of Scripture, Matthew 9:38, where Jesus says the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest field. That’s Matthew 9:38. So we pray twice a day, according to Matthew 9:38, at 9:38 in the morning and 9:38 at night. And this is our greatest challenge is actually not selling to secular apartment owners; it’s really finding more great teams. And so just having a culture where that’s just kind of built into the fabric of how you do your work has made all the difference in the world.
Al: Boy, you really have focused on rhythms, not only communication rhythms, but these spiritual rhythms. I love that. So select leaders that exhibit Christ-like behavior; to have spiritual development, an annual retreat, half a day for prayer on a monthly basis, weekly prayer gathering, and then twice a day at 9:38 in the morning at 9:38 at night. I’d be praying in my sleep many nights, I’ll have to say, with that routine, which I’ll have to say I do find myself waking up in the morning in an attitude of prayer oftentimes.
But one question, just a clarifying question. You do spiritual development at your annual retreats. Do you have an example or two off the top of your head of how you might encourage that?
Pete: Yeah. So we’re planning ours. It’s going to take place at the end of April. And we’ve asked one of our regional presidents just to do a seminar on what does it look like to lead out of your intimacy with Jesus. So a lot of leadership development focuses on your skills and your habits. But we’ve got a seminar set aside to what does it look like to lead out of your intimacy with Jesus, which makes all the difference in the world.
Al: I also know you have a heart for evangelism, and that’s one of the key focuses of Apartment Life. And as you have your care teams in the various apartment buildings, that’s one of their responsibilities. But in your mind, how does having such a positive workplace culture link to positively reaching others with the gospel? Have you ever thought of that connection? Is there a connection, in your mind?
Pete: I hope so. I mean, I would want to have such an infectious culture. And this is actually one of the things that I pray for at 9:38 in the morning and 9:38 at night, that we would have such an infectious culture as employees, that our coordinators, who are volunteers, would be caught up in that and that they would enjoy the same culture that we enjoy and that as they enjoy that culture, that would it would be just a natural overflow to include their neighbors in that kind of culture where people feel loved for. They feel like there’s authenticity, that you’re real, you’re caring, you’re playful, all of that. And so I think as you do that, I think it naturally leads to opportunities for the gospel, because I think that’s what people are longing for.
Al: Absolutely. When I think back of some of the original years that we were surveying, I was just impressed with the focus that you have on fun at work. I mean, you have your values of real caring; playful is one of them. How do you really foster fun at work; and what does having fun, why does that really matter when it comes to engagement, in your mind, Pete?
Pete: Well, Stan, again, this emanates from Stan’s personality. If anyone who’s logged any time with Stan, he’s just such an infectious person. He’s quick to laugh. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. So I think that that’s one of the things that’s always permeated the Apartment Life culture.
And it shows up differently for different people. So, again, not everyone needs to be a Stan Dobbs. It’s going to show up different. But there’s a lightheartedness, and there’s a fun element that I think most people experience when they really get to know us.
So, one of the things is we have a senior leadership tech thread, and we’ve got, like, umpteen people on it, like it’s close to 20 people who are on this tech thread. And most days, there’s no texting going on on that thread because that would be obnoxious. But every once in a while, somebody will have something just crazy happens to them. You know, I think of this one time where one of our senior leaders saw somebody who looked exactly like somebody else on our senior leadership team, and they’re like, oh, my gosh, check this out. And then everyone was just sending these names afterwards and joking about it. That happens, oh, all the time in our culture.
Al: Pete, as we wind down our time together, I know that you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation if we didn’t wake up and go to work every day and face the challenges that we face. What’s one thing that you’ve been learning about yourself, when you start to think about, as you start your workday? Is there anything that you think about that maybe could go sideways, or when does work get messy?
Pete: Well, that’s a good question. There is always a challenge that’s lurking around the corner. Almost every week, something will come up—a team will implode somewhere in the nation or a staff member will have a tragedy. And one of the things that has really helped me, about a year ago, I came across an article that talked about the difference between reacting and responding. And it was so helpful just to have language around that. But they said when you react to something, it’s usually your immediate response. It tends to be kneejerk, not well thought through, often very emotional; whereas, responding to something is taking a moment to pause—or maybe more than a moment. Maybe an hour or a day—and really reflecting, how would I want to respond in this situation? And that difference between reacting and responding has been so helpful for me, because you’re right. Like in any organization, you’re going to come up with something that hits you in the face. And my tendency is to, my natural tendency, I think many of ours is, is to react in that moment versus slowing down, seeking God, and figuring out, how would I want to respond. That’s one thing that’s been very helpful.
Al: Yeah. That’s great. That’s the old count to 10 before you react to something. Yeah, respond; don’t react. That’s great advice. Thanks, Pete.
On a positive side, what’s one thing in your life where you feel like you can really pause and pay attention and be grateful?
Pete: Well, one of the things I’m grateful for. I know we’re in 2020, but looking back to 2019, I am just so grateful. It was like a magical year for Apartment Life. It just felt like, you know, sometimes when you’re leading, you feel like the wind is in your face and things are hard? And then in other seasons, you feel like the wind’s at your back and things are just coming naturally. And 2019 was one of those years where it just felt like the wind was at our back. I felt like in every area that we measure, it just felt like God brought us to new heights. We grew to a new height. We saw more people’s lives impacted positively, spiritually than ever before. Our workplace culture was near an all-time high, certainly higher than the previous three or four years. And then even financially, it was a great year of abundance and blessing. And so when I look back at 2019, I’m just so grateful for it. I know, again, God doesn’t guarantee that every year it’s going to be like that. But when you have a year like that, you just want to pause, and you just want to say, “Thank you, God.”
Al: Yeah. Amen.
Pete, I’ve really enjoyed everything that we’ve learned today. And I really appreciate this conversation starting with your four key values: being real, being caring, being playful, and being in “businesstry.” I love the whole conversation about the benefits of having employees and involving employees in your work and how the example you gave us about how people were excited to volunteer for a key role. You know, trust is important. We’ve talked about trust. And how you and Apartment Life have regular rhythms of meetings and how you’re experimenting with new technologies and how Marco Polo isn’t just a game you play in the pool, but it’s a device where you can send video messages back and forth. That’s funny. And also how culture is caught not taught and that you’ve applied that for a couple of places, and that it’s everybody’s responsibility.
So you’ve really shared with us a lot. Thanks so much. Is there anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about so far?
Pete: Well, again, I would just like to say culture isn’t just set by any one person, that it really takes a team of people. You have to have a certain critical mass to really see the culture. So I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some of our great leaders, most of whom have served much longer than me in our organization. Kelly Jones is our COO. You interviewed her a year ago. Pete Wayman is our CFO, serving in his 60s and bringing so much wisdom to Apartment Life. Kiley Sharp and Jackie Ratzlaff are two of our divisional presidents. They’ve just stepped into that leadership role over the last year and done a phenomenal job. And so when you have just that right critical mass—and I could go on and on with all of our regional presidents—but when you have that right critical mass, culture is so much easier to maintain.
Al: Thanks, yeah. And to put a bow on our interview, how about one final thought or encouragement that you’d like to leave with our listeners?
Pete: I just want to reiterate the value of measuring employee engagement every year and really digging in and talking about it. That’s the blessing that the Best Christian Workplace Institute has been to us is just to have an objective, outside group really doing a deep dive on our culture and offering the coaching, the wonderful coaching, that you guys provide to help us to continue to get better at our culture, it’s invaluable.
Al: Pete Kelly, chief executive officer of Apartment Life, thanks for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, and thanks for investing yourself in everyone who’s been listening and benefiting from all you’ve shared with us today. Thanks, Pete.
Pete: Thank you.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba. Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.