Building and Maintaining an Entrepreneurial Culture

 By Mark Crawford 

Freedom, empowerment and creativity of thought are the cornerstones of a robust entrepreneurial culture. Entrepreneurial employees constantly think beyond standard expectations to find new ways to add value to the customer experience. Over time, this pattern of thinking can become ingrained as the corporate culture, anchored by the belief that employees should not be afraid to share new ideas that could benefit a customer’s well-being.

The key implementers of entrepreneurial thinking are the front-line employees who work closely with residents every day. An entrepreneurial culture encourages creativity, responsiveness and shared ownership by all members of the team—as a result, when employees see a way to serve clients better, they are encouraged to bring that potential solution to leadership.

“Having an entrepreneurial culture also helps us expand our reach to include serving not only elders, but their extended families and friends, the neighborhoods in which they live and the communities that provide their extended ecosystems,” says Denise Rabidoux, president and CEO of Evangelical Homes of Michigan in Farmington, MI.

An entrepreneurial team strives for excellence, continually innovating to make everything from programs and services to the environment and amenities the best they can be for customers—both as individuals and groups.

“We challenge each other every day,” says Julie Thorson, president and CEO of Friendship Haven in Fort Dodge, IA. “We talk about innovation in simple conversations, detailed conversations, at board meetings and even during daily huddles. Residents are encouraged to engage and offer their input as well. Friendship Haven is not a static organization. We are constantly looking for ways to provide innovative and responsive services to aging adults.”

Benefits of an entrepreneurial culture can be transformational, showing significant gains in customer satisfaction, employee productivity and reduced turnover. An empowered staff is a content staff—they feel better about themselves, what they do and the positive impact they have on clients. As a result, they have more ownership in their projects, teams and communities.

“This ultimately translates into everyone being excited to see positive experiences and outcomes for our residents and families,” adds Jennifer Crimmins, vice president of campus development for Friendship Haven.

Carving Out Time for Innovation

“It’s hard to be strategic when facing the tyranny of the urgent.”

That’s how Carol Barbour, president and CEO of Friends Life Care Partners, Plymouth Meeting, PA, refers to the difficulty of setting aside time to think strategically while also dealing with the day-to-day demands of running an organization.

Friends Life Care Partners is by definition innovative and entrepreneurial, as it is the largest continuing care at home (CCAH) organization in the country. Its mantra, in fact, is “Pioneer. Innovate. Inspire.” Even so, Barbour and her staff face the same pressures as any other aging-services leaders.

Getting Used to Change

Building an entrepreneurial culture requires having both a board and a senior management team in place that is committed to it. It also requires training or hiring employees who are open to the challenge of owning their roles in creating a culture that is dynamic.

The most difficult part of the building process is overcoming uncertainties about going too far, or making mistakes.

“Post-acute care companies are typically very risk-adverse,” states Paul Stavros, vice president of marketing and business development for Evangelical Homes of Michigan. “High amounts of regulation and a punitive oversight structure have caused … providers to opt for a culture that encourages compliance and avoids risk.”

It can be difficult to get employees to accept change as part of their daily routine. Employees may initially resist because they fear rejection of their ideas and/or punishment should an idea be proposed and then eventually fail. Therefore, it is paramount to establish trust and a sense of empowerment. “Employees must believe that they are truly valued and that senior management will support them, even if their ideas fail,” Stavros adds.

Friendship Haven

After an exciting visit from All Ability cycles of Jefferson, Iowa, Friendship Haven team members set their sights on raising enough money to offer this great experience to residents.

A good way to get started is to frequently discuss the benefits of an entrepreneurial culture at all staff levels, including the C-suite. All upper-level executives should be readily available to staff members to talk about new ideas. “It would not be uncommon at Evangelical Homes of Michigan for employees to pick up the phone and call the senior vice president or CEO directly if they had something to say,” says Stavros. “Similarly, when senior managers walk the halls, they look forward to interacting with staff members, providing a forum for discussion and sharing of ideas.”

Although consultants are not required for developing an entrepreneurial culture, they can be excellent resources for jump-starting the process, especially if short-staffed, or if the opposite kind of culture exists.

“Early on we used consultants, but now we consider ourselves to be the experts,” says Crimmins. “Advice coming from a source with an outside perspective can bring valuable insights that encourage us to think differently.”

A top goal at the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society in Sioux Falls, SD, is growth through the creation of new services—a perfect fit for entrepreneurial thinking. New employees, including innovation designers, are hired to develop these services. Many of these designers have experience as entrepreneurs or founders of startup businesses, or did similar work with large health-care providers. The team uses a human-centered design approach, which has been made famous by organizations like IDEO, to focus on the customer and add value to the customer experience.

“Having permission to experiment with potential new service concepts, at a small scale, and even conduct in-market tests, has proven invaluable in creating an entrepreneurial/startup culture,” comments Kelly Soyland, director of innovation and research for Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society. Soyland is part of Vivo, the Society’s in-house idea shop and innovation program.

“For example, being able to test just 1 community, and 10 or 20 customers, for 6 weeks, instead of a longitudinal study of 500 seniors that costs $3 million and takes 2 years to complete, is a process that is much closer to how entrepreneurs and providers can nimbly react and learn. Affordable learning with customers, and having some allowance for not having everything be perfect before we test, has been liberating, allowing us to move 5 or 6 times faster.”

The Value of Entrepreneurial Governance

When the board of Landis Homes, Lititz, PA, embarked on its strategic planning process in 2008, it began with the Appreciative Inquiry approach, and the board and leadership team contacted 150 key stakeholders of the stand-alone retirement community. This led to a strategic plan focusing on keeping Landis Homes strong and vital, but also expanding its mission in an entrepreneurial pursuit of new affordable living options serving those who do not have the resources for a retirement community, and pursuit of serving persons in their homes, wherever they choose to call home. The board also recognized the importance of creative partnerships with others in support of this mission.


Entrepreneurship requires a board that supports creativity and is willing to accept a certain level of risk. It must accept that, although some ideas will not work out, the value of encouraging creativity outweighs the potential cost of occasional failures.

Establishing trust between senior management and the board is essential.

“The board needs to be flexible and have outside-the-box conversations early on to establish broad but actionable strategic directions, and then be willing to listen, engage and act quickly when innovative opportunities arise,” says Crimmins.

Trust between front-line employees and their managers is also critical for achieving the greatest innovation. Employees don’t expect their organization to implement every idea, but they do want to know why their ideas were or were not adopted. Open, honest discussion is the key for maintaining commitment to creativity, after ideas are rejected. “Even when ideas don’t work out, we still learn something from them,” adds Thorson. “We regroup together. And we always celebrate the wins—even small ones are important.”

Good Samaritan Society

Kelly Soyland, standing, with a team of Good Samaritan Innovation Designers discussing a wellness service the team is testing with 20 seniors they have equipped with wearable activity and sleep-tracking technology.

Soyland emphasizes that dedicated resources and skill sets are required. “Not everyone is, or can be an entrepreneur, so we have to have the right DNA, experience and mindset,” he says. “For example, I would not make a great administrator, but I have come to learn that innovation is a great fit for me, and the passion I have to create.”

He has also learned that being an innovator is a full-time responsibility—it cannot be done effectively in a part-time role. This is especially true in a large organization, where being an entrepreneur can be challenging and complex—in part because large organizations are not geared toward taking risks or moving with speed. “They are also pretty good at killing ideas before they see the light of day, or before they can be tested with customers, because they represent risk,” he adds. “Therefore having methods to test ideas in a low-fidelity way that enables affordable learning are essential for building entrepreneurism.”

Moving Forward

To have a meaningful entrepreneurial culture, organizations must be prepared to act on ideas that show promise. This requires investment of time and resources. Creating a strategy that balances the short-term need for quick wins with longer-term, more costly disruptive innovation can be challenging. “Really big ideas take years to accomplish, so organizational expectations and patience are key if this is the strategy,” says Soyland.

Changing from a traditional, compliance-oriented culture to an entrepreneurial culture typically requires a shift in the type of employees that are hired. This can create stress, as employees who are resistant to the entrepreneurial approach leave and new employees are hired. Once the talent is in place, Soyland suggests creating an entrepreneurial center “as a show of the organization’s commitment to the goal, as well as a space that designers and internal and external collaborators can thrive in The size of your ambition and strategy will determine the size of the budget you need to get started, and for each year thereafter.”

Developing an entrepreneurial culture is an ongoing process of improvement. Managers must maintain open-door policies, be visible on the floor and actively engage in the daily activities of the staff. Break down silos and encourage cross-departmental collaboration. Provide sensitive, constructive feedback to employees regarding their ideas. Monthly leadership motivational sessions are a good way to further leadership skills and keeps employees on track.

“Although there are some days where the basics seems to be difficult to conquer, most of the time we are dreaming about the possibilities, asking questions and trying new things,” says Thorson. “Team members develop into transformational leaders, and then these new leaders serve the followers and grow more leaders. I truly believe that embracing this philosophy is essential for creating an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Entrepreneurial Expansion for Survival

Marquardt Village, a single-site life plan community in Watertown, WI, views entrepreneurialism as a necessity—a way to strengthen and grow itself for long-term survival.

The Marquardt Village board and management launched an 8-month strategic planning process in 2013.

“We realized that if we did not grow, if we did not take some risk we would not survive long-term,” says CEO Matt Mauthe. “We would lose our ability to access the capital markets, lose our ability to hire top-quality employees, and we realized we either need to start looking for someone to partner with or have someone acquire us, or we would need to take an aggressive posture and look for our own acquisition or merger opportunities.”

2018-03-23T16:09:34+00:00 Blog, News & Community Events, Resources|