Top Leaders: Executives share credit, spread responsibility

  • Article by: EVAN RAMSTAD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2014 - 6:21 AM

The executives who received the highest leadership scores in employee surveys had two things in common: All were surprised, and none wanted to take credit.

Diane Bjorkman, Gentle Transitions

When Diane Bjorkman learned she ranked first in leadership among executives of small companies in our Top Workplaces survey, her first response was, “What about Bill?”

Bjorkman and her husband, Bill Lehman, for 11 years have co-owned and co-led Gentle Transitions, a firm that manages home moves for senior citizens. They are living a dream many married couples have had: to run a business they love that suits their complementary skills. Diane, who worked as a program director in senior homes, handles marketing, while Bill, a former options trader, keeps track of operations and finances.

“We’ve been in sync about any of the hard decisions, whether it is supporting staff in salary increases or how we handle a complaint from a client,” Bjorkman said.

Their business is built from a simple premise. Many older people find that moving is more difficult than it was when they were young. They don’t have the strength or stamina to dismantle and set up their stuff. Even more challenging: Most seniors are downsizing, moving to a smaller home that forces emotionally difficult choices about longtime possessions.

“I always say their lives are literally and figuratively being dismantled in front of them,” Lehman said. “They’re seeing things being packed into boxes, and it’s very hard for them to see it coming back out.”

The company’s 78 employees, nearly all part-timers who schedule their own workdays, have one goal: to make a client feel at home on the very first night in a new residence.

When a job comes in, the couple assign one of their 16 move managers to visit, assess what the client owns and loves, and find out where it needs to go in the new home. On the day of the move, the move manager leads a team of Gentle Transitions staffers, the number of which can vary depending on how much stuff there is, who pack everything, then unpack it at the new home. They put pictures back on walls, hook up TVs and computers, and position furniture as the client had decided earlier. A moving company hired separately by the client handles the actual transportation.

Until last year, when a spurt of new activity caught them by surprise, Gentle Transitions had never advertised for workers. Bjorkman said the company attracts “an amazingly high caliber of individual.” “A lot of them have had careers and are coming to this position for the reward of helping,” she said.

They’ve built a system that allows all employees to see the schedule of moves, sometimes as many as nine or 10 happening in a day, and sign up to help.

For staff members, the trade-off for making one’s own schedule is they have to be there when they say they will be.

“Our work is like the mail. Rain, sleet or snow that person is moving,” Bjorkman said. “We have to show up. The people we tend to attract have that work ethic.”

After a move, clients fill out a handwritten survey, which Bjorkman scans and e-mails to each member of a team. The couple publish a quarterly newsletter and gather the staff for a picnic once a year and in smaller, impromptu gatherings. The entire staff knows that they enter a client’s life at a difficult moment that’s usually filled with anxiety and often a sense of loss.

“People are trusting us with …” Bjorkman started to say before pausing, then Lehman finished her thought: “Their lifetime.”

Jim Nelson, ACR Homes

Jim Nelson and his wife, Dorothy, started their specialized-care residences company with just one home and three employees in the early 1980s. Today, with more than 50 homes from Eden Prairie to Stillwater, Jim still leans on Dorothy for help with the big decisions.

When he learned that employees’ ratings had placed him atop our ranking of large-company executives, he insisted on sharing credit with his wife.

“I have the emotional drive and intensity. Dorothy has a much calmer spirit and presence,” Nelson said. “I think I have learned some of that from her, to be calmer and more present.”

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