Vi - From left: Judy Whitcomb, John Moxley, Jill Denman.
From left: Judy Whitcomb, John Moxley, Jill Denman.
Learning Elite 4
Small, Yet Mighty
Vi delivers big results on a small budget.
By Ave Rio

Among other corporate giants in the top five LearningElite, such as Nationwide Insurance, AT&T and KPMG, there’s Vi, a Chicago-based company that runs 10 luxury senior living communities across the country. With fewer than 3,000 employees and a fewer resources than larger companies, Vi is able to compete with huge learning organizations nonetheless.

Judy Whitcomb, senior vice president of human resources and learning and organizational development at Vi, says one way the company is able to do that is by uniquely leveraging their business partners as true learning leaders. “We recognize we can’t do everything here,” she said. “We look to find partners in education and talent development to partner with us to ensure we’re developing and delivering high-quality solutions that drive business results.”

Whitcomb said their corporate, business and functional partners are key in helping the company develop and execute on its learning programs. Leveraging “leaders as teachers” is a core part of Vi’s learning strategy to engage leaders in learning across the company. For example, Vi uses former program participants from leadership and management programs as virtual teachers, mentors and study group leaders.

Vi also invests in teaching learning leaders to design curriculum and provides leaders with professional facilitation and design classes to support their development, Whitcomb said. By using and leveraging Vi’s business partners and teachers as leaders in learning, the company has leveraged its strength as a small organization.

Whitcomb said the second major aspect that makes Vi’s learning organization unique is the explicit and high level of executive support. “The executive support goes well beyond kicking off a program,” she said. “The level of ownership for our learning culture really extends beyond our learning and development department. It’s every leader’s responsibility.”

At the end of the day, a learning organization can’t just exist for itself — it must drive business outcomes, according to Whitcomb. She said the learning team always knows that it’s strategically aligned with the business and the company’s goals because of its learning council. The learning council is comprised of all of the functional executives across the company, as well as members of the executive management team.

Snapshot

Vi

Collaborating with Vi’s corporate/field nursing leaders, Vi’s learning team developed a career ladder/training program for Vi’s certified nursing assistants contributing toward the company’s strategy of retaining talent and contributing to high levels of resident satisfaction and quality care. Vi has reduced CNA attrition from 18 percent to 12 percent.

Company size: 3,000
Location: United States

Every year, the council comprised of different leaders puts together a plan based on business needs. Whitcomb said the council looks at business problems and needs around care, service, quality, safety, financial results, sales, retention and employee survey results.

“Our field leaders provide their input, our business partners at the corporate office put together their input — and then we develop a learning strategy,” she said. “We look ahead, but we look annually, and we put together our business objectives and align that for training and development.”

Whitcomb said the goal is to focus on quality. “There might be a specific area of quality, and we’ll work with that specific business partner,” she said. “We get that alignment through this learning council.”

The learning council also helps the learning team prioritize. “There are times we have to reevaluate,” Whitcomb said. “We don’t have unlimited resources, so it helps us from a timing standpoint. What comes first? How do we evaluate it? How do we involve people?”

Whitcomb said Vi’s ability to deliver on its brand promise is contingent on its ability to have engaged employees and to deliver quality care and exceptional customer service, which includes having a consistent employee with each resident every day. Therefore, retention is key.

“If we don’t have high levels of retention, it’s going to have a huge impact on our financial performance and on resident satisfaction,” she said. “On top of that, being a luxury brand, that’s what our residents expect.”

About 18 months ago, Vi focused on building an infrastructure to support internal mobility, improving the competencies of its culinary and nursing leaders, the two areas with the highest turnover, by creating career ladders for those roles.

“It’s allowed us to expand our outreach to high schools and community colleges and amplify our talent pipeline,” Whitcomb said. “Now we’re able to go to market and say, ‘You can build a career at Vi.’ ”

In less than a year, Vi has seen 24 percent of its certified nursing assistants progress through the career ladder and it reduced CNA turnover from 24 to 17 percent. Whitcomb estimated that the savings alone on turnover is more than $1.1 million in labor costs. “The average time to fill a CNA position is more than 65 days, so that drop in attrition is huge for us,” Whitcomb said.

As for the culinary leaders, 24 percent of cooks progressed through the career ladder and attrition dropped from 26 to 22 percent.

Whitcomb said developing this talent pipeline has been a huge focus during the past year and she is looking forward to continuing to develop similar programs and experiences for all Vi employees.

Ave Rio is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.