On a chartered bus in Nashville, surrounded by colorfully-clad nurses and office administrators, I knew I was in for a different sort of experience when the woman next to me found out I was a newbie, leaned closer and assured me: “Everyone remembers their first.”
It’s not what you think.
In fact, it was the annual conference for the 41,000 employees of DaVita, a Fortune 500 company that specializes in renal care – and, as it turns out, in creating a transformational organizational culture.
The bus was part of an elaborate plan to ensure that every arrival to the conference felt welcomed and valued. Volunteers were scattered throughout the airport with signs leading us slowly to the bus, where we boarded amidst an expectant, cheerful din. An orientation video provided further clarity of what to expect, although nothing can really prepare you for arriving at a hotel and being greeted by hundreds of red-shirted DaVita employees, a house band playing Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and the company’s CEO, Kent Thiry, personally greeting – and hugging – each new arrival.
Veteran staffers refer to it as “the DaVita way”, and it was on display for the next three days. Yet DaVita’s story is not just remarkable for what it is, but what it was, and how it remade itself.
Headquartered in Denver, DaVita was, as recently as 1999, nearly bankrupt. That’s when Thiry took the top post and chose to embark on an organization-wide effort to craft a new set of core values and sense of mission, and a work culture of shared responsibility, democratic decision-making, and continuous learning and growth.
“About a third of the staff said, ‘OK, that’s the fad of the month,’ Thiry recalled for the Stanford Business Review. “A third of the room was literally insulted that I would be demeaning them by thinking that they’d fall for that sort of rhetorical flourish. And maybe a third were interested.”
But Thiry persisted, so certain was he that a healthy culture helps people “feel an emotional level of trust and mutual commitment” and frees them from the feelings of fear, confusion and mistrust that plague unhealthy work environments.
After years of working at it, DaVita now describes itself as a global village with a Trilogy of Care: “for our patients, our teammates and our world.” As DaVita Chief Wisdom Officer Steve Priest explains, “When we choose to become citizens of the DaVita community, we make a decision to engage our head, heart and hands for the greater good of those around us.”
That means employees are expected to watch out for each other and work toward the good of the community. It means DaVita’s business objectives are always designed to support the village first, and the bottom line second. And it means that what drives each employee has more to do with who they are than what they do. “We say we are a community first and a company second,” Thiry said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t care about profit, but it’s a means, not the end.”
The clarity of this vision is on ubiquitous display at a DaVita conference. Giant banners list the company’s mission and core values, alongside personal testimonials from staff, clients and patients that testify to the power of the DaVita way. Thiry also models the values by publicly sharing the results of his own 360-degree performance review – and publicly reflecting on the areas where he sees himself in need of the most improvement.
As one attendee told me, “What makes us special is that our goal is not just to create better workers. We value all aspects of a person – head, heart and hands – and we evaluate people that way as well. That’s why our culture is so strong – we share a mission to cultivate healthy, happy people – our patients, our clients, and ourselves – and that is the standard against which we measure our work each year.”
Thanks to this clarity of purpose, the dark days of 1999 have given way to annual revenue in excess of $6 billion, alongside a strong commitment to organizational democracy. “A company produces most what it honors most,” says Thiry. “And we want a community of citizens, not just employees. You can’t create citizens unless you ensure that everyone has a voice and an understanding of how to use it effectively. It really is that simple – and that difficult.”
My neighbor was right. Everyone really does remember their first.