Genevive is a geriatric health care practice with most of its patients in senior living and long-term care facilities. So when the pandemic hit, its workers were dealing with the most vulnerable patients with the highest death rates.

The providers could assume that one in four of their patients would die in the months before the vaccine.

The situation had a profound effect on Genevive's workers, said Amanda Tufano, the company's chief executive and winner of the Top Workplaces leadership award for midsize businesses.

"I felt this immense amount of responsibility for our community," she said. "As [were] so many in the field, I was reminded of how much I don't know and how human I really am, and what a good organization and good people — who are mission-focused — can do together," she said.

Leadership throughout the pandemic — and as organizations plan for the future — has required a shift in priorities if not philosophy, say executives at firms that won Top Workplaces special awards.

Not only did leaders need to keep their businesses running through COVID-19, they needed to look out for their employees, some of whom got sick or had to deal with big changes to their family structures.

George Floyd's murder by police added more pressure.

"It was profoundly impactful on our community, our workers of color, our clients of color," Tufano said. "That really was a turning point for us...that required us to think about our [diversity and equity], our role in the community, and our role as a leader in these areas."

Both events made organizations evaluate how they could best change to help their workers and clients.

"Being a stagnant company is a thing of the past," Tufano said. "Being a company that can change and redesign and rethink about things, that's what people will be looking for in a job."

Related: See if your company made the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces list

Genevive has a 92% retention rate — high, especially for the health care industry. Tufano said leaders must listen to younger workers. They are leading the way in a reconsideration of work's place in their lives: Instead of building a life around their careers, many now believe in structuring their lives and then figuring out how work fits in, Tufano said.

So her firm and others will need to truly embrace flexible schedules, not merely allow a few new start times or days. For example, Tufano said, workers might want four 10-hour workdays, or to spread out 40 hours over six days.

"This is a business, but first and foremost, our employees are the business," she said.

And while workers are asking for more flexibility, they have shown they want to contribute fully during the time they are working, she said, so workplaces must also support employees with training and challenges.

Getting the work done

Paul Blom, CEO of Right at Home, a home care agency that won the Top Workplaces "Doers" special award, said his organization's leadership philosophy has worked well through the crisis and now, as workers ask for new ways to fulfill work obligations.

"For the most part, that's always been our philosophy: Life and family are first, we'll work around those," he said. "I can think of so many times where an employee has come to me with a 'I have this opportunity to do this really amazing thing.'" But he or she then said it's probably impossible because it requires too much time off.

For Right at Home, the answer is "Let's make it work."

During the pandemic, the bar was constantly moving — for worker safety, for mental health concerns, for family obligations. The key, Blom said, was communication — and more of it.

"That's another philosophy of mine: Find a way to say yes (within reason)," Blom wrote in an e-mail. "Think outside the box and troubleshoot to find a way to say yes. I've had to do a lot more of that over the past two years."

Flexibility will be a key element of leadership as we continue to move out of the pandemic, Blom says. He subscribes to the "servant leadership" philosophy.

"I'm very much of the school that realizes that it's not the leaders that 'get the work done' but inspire those who are charged with getting the work done," he said. "I and my leadership team exist to support and serve the caregivers in the field who are providing such excellent care for our clients."

The right direction

That same philosophy works in other fields. Michael Solberg, CEO of Bell Bank, which won the "Direction" special award, said an organization must lead with mission.

"When the world around us makes the least sense, and holds the greatest challenges, is when we most need to step back and remember who we are," he said. "Our purpose is and always has been to help others. When we let that value guide us, making the right decision becomes easier."

When COVID-19 hit, the bank took some lessons from the recession to make sure it gave "added care."

"We knew from our experience in the Great Recession the importance of focusing on the long-term health and well-being of our employees and customers, rather than becoming fixated on avoiding short-term setbacks and challenges," he said. "Financially, we revised our scenarios and budgets as a response to the pandemic, and far from needing to lay off or furlough employees, we ended up having record months. While other banks closed physical branches, we continued to open mortgage offices and new full-service bank locations at a record pace."

Bell moves ahead with a philosophy that "people and results matter." For example, some of its profits go to employees to "pay forward" with charitable donations. This spring, the bank doubled its contribution to the program.

"Whatever success we've enjoyed in the past, we realize we only get to celebrate for a few minutes before getting back to work to meet tomorrow's challenges," Solberg said.

In order to move forward while considering new expectations, Tufano said Genevive and other organizations will need to set human resources policies that allow the flexibility and self-care that workers want.

"The mission from the beginning [of Genevive] was 'treat you like family.' It extends to everyone — employees, clients, our partners," Tufano said. "I care for people who care for people."

The pandemic "really brought us together and tested us," she added. "How are you going to respond as an organization? And when you get it wrong, because you will, how will you respond? Apologize and own it. That was one of the first leadership things I learned, was how authentic apologies are powerful."


Leadership (large): Scott Blattner, Blattner Co.

Leadership (midsize): Amanda Tufano, Genevive

Leadership (small): Connie Clancy, Legacy Title Group

Direction: Bell Bank

Managers: Gardner Builders

Doers: Right at Home

Meaningfulness: MN Adult & Teen Challenge

Values: Accredited Investors Wealth Management

Clued-in senior management: Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp.

Communication: Pioneer Management Consulting

Appreciation: Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union

Work/life flexibility: Gentle Transitions

Training: Sourcewell

Benefits: Hero Home Services